Sue Johanson (Profile) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Sue Johanson (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 17, 2004. Partner content is not updated.

A COUPLE OF CANADIANS bump into each other backstage at Letterman. Downstairs from the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, Sue Johanson and Paul Shaffer trade names of northern Ontario landmarks while passing at the elevator. "Rainy River, Red Lake," Shaffer shouts.

Johanson, Sue (Profile)

A COUPLE OF CANADIANS bump into each other backstage at Letterman. Downstairs from the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, Sue Johanson and Paul Shaffer trade names of northern Ontario landmarks while passing at the elevator. "Rainy River, Red Lake," Shaffer shouts. "Atikokan," Johanson shoots back. That's the highlight behind the scenes - no Dave Letterman wandering around, no banter with Biff - just a bandleader from Thunder Bay, and a sex educator from Kenora, getting geographical.

Onstage, though, Johanson kills. Letterman and his first guest, actress Kate Beckinsale, have no chemistry and almost nothing to talk about, which leads to a too-long discussion about appendectomies. While Beckinsale waits for questions and then answers politely, Johanson controls her interview. She pounces on Letterman the minute she sits down, asking about his sex life now that he's the father of a six-month-old boy. Letterman takes the bait and makes a self-deprecating remark, and they're off and running.

During this trip to New York, Johanson also visited Last Call with Carson Daly, CBS's Early Show and Live with Regis and Kelly. But Letterman is the main event - it's her third visit to his show, and their comedic chemistry is undeniable. He seems truly smitten, grasping her hand during commercial breaks and keeping her on for two segments, cutting time away from the more famous and, let's face it, pretty people. You believe the producers when they tell this grandmother of two, "You're one of the best guests." They won't let her leave without nailing down a date for her next visit, asking her to come back in four months. "No, sorry," she says, "in September I'm too busy lecturing at universities and colleges." Seriously Sue, it's Letterman; the University of Toronto can wait.

By now, Canadians take Johanson for granted. Yeah, she's that septuagenarian sex lady who speaks at our colleges, or whom we secretly watch on late-night TV. It's that wacky show where she slings around sex toys and, with a straight face, gives tips on oral sex or finding the G-spot. She doesn't shock us anymore, and we don't even think about how much she's helped this country open up and talk about sex. But she has - and she's got the Order of Canada to prove it.

It's a whole different story in the U.S. There, she's new, she's outrageous and she's providing a service they are absolutely desperate for. In January 2002, Oprah Winfrey's Oxygen network started playing reruns of Johanson's call-in program, Sunday Night Sex Show (which has been running in Canada on W for nine years). It was extremely popular - but the U.S. viewers were frustrated by the fact that they couldn't call in. So the network asked Johanson to tape a second show each week, Talk Sex with Sue Johanson, for American callers only - the first ever U.S. phone-in show to be done live from Canada. Just last month Talk Sex, one of the network's highest rated programs, pulled in 2.7 million viewers. Sue Johanson has become a household name, although down there they shorten it to Sue Jo.

In New York City, waiters, doormen, limo drivers, restaurant patrons, security workers and nearly everyone else she comes into contact with profess their fandom. For a while her face was plastered on the sides of city buses. She's been on Conan O'Brien, and has travelled to Los Angeles to appear on Ellen and Wayne Brady. They've all experienced the three stages of Sue: first you blush, then you chuckle and shake your head in disbelief, then you double over laughing. Of course, everyone wants her back. But the true measure of Johanson's celebrity status came last January. "The highest compliment you can pay anyone is to do a sketch about them on Saturday Night Live," says Gerry Laybourne, the CEO of Oxygen. "And they've done a sketch about her." The skit was a take-off on Sharon Osbourne's talk show. Johanson, played by Rachel Dratch with the requisite grey curly hair and low-budget, boxy wardrobe, is the guest. While the host slobbers all over her dogs and whines about Ozzy, Dratch blurts out sexual non-sequiturs - "I have my nipples pierced" and "I'm experiencing engorgement, it's very healthy and natural."

Truth be known, the real sexpert turned down an appearance on Osbourne's show. As much as she's a ham who loves the comedic banter, Johanson's not out to cultivate her own celebrity. Her mission is to make people comfortable and happy with their sex lives and aware of sexually transmitted infections. Wayne Brady understood this, and he let her talk at length on his show about the epidemic of genital herpes in the U.S. (According to the American Social Health Association, one out of every five adults has it.)

Based on the calls she's getting on her U.S. show, Johanson believes Americans are a decade behind Canada when it comes to sex education and understanding their bodies. "They watch much more porn," she says, "and all the TV is, of course, sexy. But that doesn't seem to make them comfortable with themselves as sexual human beings." Considering President George W. Bush's new policy to increase funding for sexual abstinence programs in schools, Johanson feels she's needed now more than ever.

That said, she worries about being too much in the limelight. "Dr. Ruth was overexposed," she states, matter-of-factly comparing herself to that other sex-talking granny, who once appeared in a shampoo commercial doing commentary while an actress faked an orgasm. "She went on Hollywood Squares, and then on Phil Donahue dressed up as a nurse in leather. You lose a lot of credibility when you do stuff like that."

Johanson saves the risqué and playful behaviour for her own show, where viewers have come to expect some pretty bizarre stuff. She's big on demonstration, and can be up to her elbows in lubrication within seconds. She'll strap on a chin dildo to show paraplegics how to have sex, or sew up some homemade lingerie and have her crew model it on camera. And she's always arranging those genderless artist-supply dolls in the most unappealing of sexual positions. Her favourite gag, though, is just to turn on a vibrator and let it spin around on her desk.

I had the pleasure of assisting Johanson on the Sunday Night Sex Show for three years, and one of my duties was making sure the batteries in those toys were fully juiced. I know first-hand that Johanson treats her callers with respect, whether she's sharing a laugh with a guy who wants to masturbate with raw chicken (but is worried about salmonella) or advising a different young man, newly infected with HIV, how to tell his past partners. Johanson is always focused more on the caller than on hosting a TV show - and it makes for a refreshingly honest hour of viewing. There's nothing slick about the production or Johanson, who sews most of her own wardrobe and refuses to have her hair properly coiffed. "It's like Sue's your quirky great-aunt," says R. J. Gulliver, director of both the U.S. and Canadian programs, "and she made this show in her basement."

Off-camera she's just as quirky and caring. She bakes sourdough biscuits for the crew every week, spends a bit of quality time with everyone before the show, and invites the entire crew up to her cottage during the summer for a weekend of eating, croquet, and a sex toy giveaway. "Every month we send Sue flowers," says Oxygen's Laybourne. "Sue gives the flowers to someone on her crew and then writes to me with these beautiful grandmotherly cards and tells me about the crew member she gave the flowers to."

JOHANSON WAS BORN (she won't say in which year) in Toronto to a decorated British war hero, Wilfrid Powell, and an affluent Ontario-born Irish-Protestant mother, Ethel Bell, who died when Johanson was 10. After high school in Kenora, Ont., where she was living with her stepmother and heavy-drinking father, she went to nursing school in Winnipeg at a hospital run by nuns. "We were taught that sex was only for marriage," recalls Johanson. "There was to be no birth control. Condoms were for protection against disease, and you had to punch holes in them to give sperm a fighting chance."

Soon after graduating, Sue married Ejnor Johanson, a Swedish-Canadian electrician, and they had three children at 10-month intervals, Carol, Eric and Jane. "We were living in Kenora, in a Swedish area," says Johanson. "We called it Horny Hollow - we were all pregnant, all the time." Although she had no desire to work after her kids were born, she wasn't destined to stay home forever. She had a reputation as someone teens could talk to. And after helping a neighbourhood girl cope with an unwanted pregnancy, Johanson found her path.

Recognizing how many uninformed kids were having unprotected sex, in 1970 she set up the first North American sexual-health clinic located in a high school (Toronto's Don Mills Collegiate). When irate parents called the principal after finding their daughters' birth control pills, he gave them Johanson's home phone number. "They'd be on a rant," she remembers, "and I would just say, 'I don't know if your daughter was at this clinic, but if she was, then you should be so proud of her. She planned ahead, knew what she was doing and was mature enough not to take any chances. You did a great job, you raised a daughter who has a sense of herself.' By the time we finished, mom had simmered down."

Johanson began teaching sex ed in schools before taking her message to the airwaves in 1984 - she's been on the radio or TV ever since. But teaching remains her first love, and every fall and winter she crosses the country, often driving by herself through snowstorms, to lecture at universities and colleges. Robin Milhausen, the Canadian-born co-host of Life Network's new show Sex, Toys & Chocolate, still has a poster from when Johanson visited Guelph University, where Milhausen was a student. "I listened to her on the radio growing up, with the lights off, volume on low so my parents wouldn't know I was still awake," says Milhausen, 28, who teaches sexuality at Indiana University. "Like so many people in my peer group, I got my basic sex education from Sue."

Over the years, the Canadian public has claimed Johanson as a counsellor-at-large. It's not uncommon for her to be cornered in the frozen food aisle of a grocery store and asked, "There's a problem with my husband's erection; what should I do?" But that kind of attention took its toll on Johanson's own marriage. "My life was so hectic," she says, "and the way Ejnor was brought up, women weren't high-profile; it was the men. So it's difficult for him - I can't go anywhere without people staring, stopping or getting an autograph." Their solution was to live apart and remain married, seeing each other often and celebrating all holidays together. "We like each other," she says, "and we talk to each other just about every day."

But do they "do it"? It isn't easy asking Johanson about her sex life. In person, she's more grandmother than dirty old bird. And while she told Carson Daly she still enjoys "fun and games," when I broach the topic over lunch she gives a flat-out "We're not going there." Whew, with that behind us, it's back to the safer topics of gardening, sewing and cooking - after all, she has a great meatball recipe that involves salsa and grape jelly.

MAKING THE MORNING TV rounds in Manhattan, Johanson shares a green room with Carly Simon and Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell at Regis and Kelly, and at The Early Show she's in with two Survivor alums, Sean from Survivor: Marquesas and Brandon from Survivor: Africa. She recognizes no one. In the studio at The Early Show, the Survivor segment is being recorded live and only the people directly involved are paying attention. Sue and her interviewer, the distinguished and funny Harry Smith, are in the corner quietly chatting while everyone else goes about their jobs with heads down. But when Johanson and Smith start rolling, the whole vibe of the room changes. As they discuss Sue's three Fs of sex - fun, flirting and fantasy - more and more people gather around. Hosts of other segments, the entire crew and the Survivors are enthralled. And when Johanson shoots Smith her signature "copulatory gaze," the room breaks into hysterics and you can hear the commotion on live TV.

When they cut, everyone applauds. Even as a stranger to the environment, you can tell this is rare. In fact, the woman who booked Johanson says she's never seen it happen. On the way out, executive producer Victor Neufeld, wearing sunglasses indoors, personally asks Johanson to visit regularly. She stops short of telling him she's got a college audience to attend to. But it's pretty obvious he's not the first TV bigwig she's charmed. And he certainly won't be the last.


Sue's Top 10 Myths

As host of call-in sex shows in both Canada and the U.S., Sue Johanson has a pretty good idea of just how deluded we can be about sex. Ten of the most common sexual myths she encounters:

- if you have sex in the bath, you won't get pregnant

- nice girls don't carry condoms

- it always hurts the first time you have sex

- homosexuals always have strong mothers and weak fathers

- sexual education promotes sexual activity

- if you masturbate, you'll have a lower sperm count

- a guy can get trapped in a vagina

- a penis pump will make the penis larger

- if you swallow ejaculate it will give you big breasts, clear up acne and eliminate menstrual cramps

- a man can always tell if a woman is faking orgasm

Source: Nocturnal Admissions (a book about Johanson's Canadian show) by R.J. Gulliver with Julie Smith and Sue Johanson (ECW Press)

Toyland in the Torrid Zone

ONE OF THE MORE obscure examples of life imitating Sex and the City dates back to an early episode in which Charlotte, the "good girl," became hooked on a candy-coloured vibrator called the Rabbit. The very next day, sex shops across North America sold out of the model. To this day, in fact, the Rabbit family of products (yes, they've multiplied) remains among the best-sellers. Once the stuff of seedy back-alley porn shops, sex toys - vibrators, dildos and other adult novelty products - have gone mainstream to the point where soon, buying a "personal massager" may be about as outré as owning a crimping iron.

On television, zany vibrator storylines are integrated into shows like Ally McBeal and Will & Grace. In New York, a trendy company called Safina is offering "shtupperware" parties for women (at-home gatherings where vibrators, instead of plastic containers, are the merchandise on offer). Even, a leading on-line retailer, is selling a vast selection of vibrators, dildos and bondage gear alongside its allergy medications and paper plates. "Sex toys are definitely coming out of the murky sexual closet and being seen as legitimate products to buy," says Cory Silverberg, a sex educator and the co-owner of Come As You Are in Toronto, Canada's first co-operatively run sex shop.

In North America, sex toys are a $500-million-a-year industry, supported largely by middle-class heterosexual couples in their 30s and 40s. And it's growing fast thanks to a new generation of savvy, confident consumers who unapologetically watch shows like Sue Johanson's Sunday Night Sex Show. "Our sales are in the $5- to $10-million range," says Larry Gayne, president of Lady Calston, a Toronto-based sex toy manufacturer that sells its products on-line and distributes them to retail stores. "Let's just say that 20- to 25-per-cent sales increases per year are not uncommon."

To feed the growing demand among women in particular, marketers are creating packages and retail spaces that are non-threatening and more aesthetically appealing. "Gone are the days when every vibrator came in a box with a naked woman with huge breasts on it," says Silverberg. Instead, the latest designs are subtle, playful and, in some cases, even stylish. "We have people who come in and buy sex toys to match the colours of their sheets," he says.

Perhaps most remarkable is the explosion of choices to have emerged in the past decade. In stores like Montreal's Boutique Séduction - the Home Depot of sex shops - customers can choose from hundreds of shapes, sizes and colours (hot pink and lavender being among the most popular). They sell vibrators that light up or have 10 speeds, are triple-pronged or hypoallergenic, and shaped like everything from a rubber duck to a tube of lipstick. Some will do everything but light your post-coital cigarette.

For the would-be gynecologist, there's the Video Voyeur ($189.99), equipped with a tiny camera that plugs into your TV for "internal viewing action." For the big spender, there's the $12,000 Real Doll - the most expensive, realistic "love doll" on the market - made with "Hollywood special effects technology." (You can customize everything from breast size to French manicure.)

Sex toys may not be on department-store shelves yet, but the idea seems less outlandish now than it did a decade ago. Get ready for a different kind of Toyland.

Maclean's May 17, 2004