When Sue Johanson started The Sunday Night Sex Show in the mid-1990s, it was taboo to talk about sex acts, dildos and STIs on TV.
But even in retirement, the unlikely Canadian sex educator continues to influence conversations about pleasure and consent as she passes the torch to a new generation of online sexperts, say the makers of a new documentary.
Sex with Sue explores how Johanson’s grandmotherly appearance and matter-of-fact manner amplified the radicalness of her message: that there’s nothing shameful about talking about sex.
The Canadian TV show Johanson hosted has been off the air since 2005, and its American counterpart, Talk Sex with Sue Johanson, wrapped in 2008.
In the nearly 15 years since the now-92-year-old has been off the air, filmmaker Lisa Rideout said much of sex education has migrated online, but the Canadian nurse’s influence is still felt.
“She was on the air at a time when there wasn’t the internet, there wasn’t social media. So we were really learning about sex from our nervous PE teacher,” Rideout said in a phone interview.
“Her legacy lives on today … We have many different voices in the space; there are many different sex educators.”
They talk about sex in a similar way to Johanson, she said.
“Sue was talking about pleasure,” Rideout said. “She was talking about consent. She was talking about all these things that we hadn’t heard about before. So she really opened up the definition of sex and sexuality. And I think she assured millions of people that what they desired was OK.”
Rideout’s film features some of those educators who were influenced by Johanson, including author and podcaster Shan Boodram, as well as Sriha Srinivasan, whose TikTok account “sexedu” has 200,000 followers.
Johanson’s daughter Jane Johanson said it was powerful seeing those people speak about her mother’s influence – along with other notable names such as columnist Dan Savage, comedian Margaret Cho and adult entertainer Nina Hartley.
“I don’t think I had any idea the size and magnitude and the influence my mother had, not just in my small little world, but in all of North America,” Jane Johanson said in a phone interview. “It was unbelievable to me.”
Johanson interviewed her mother on camera between 2016 and 2018 in order to “capture her fading memories,” the film says.
After that, she said, she passed the tapes to Rideout and the pair let the elder Johanson enjoy her retirement.
“To see this documentary being made, and to pay tribute, too, that is such an honour,” the younger Johanson said.
“Sue is retired. There is no more after this is done, and now she can pass the torch. That’s what this documentary was supposed to do.”