Sue Johanson, Who Talked Sex With Aplomb, Dies at 92

Sue Johanson, the blunt, bawdy and beloved Canadian sex educator and host of the long-running television call-in program “Sunday Night Sex Show” and its American counterpart, “Talk Sex With Sue Johanson,” died on June 28 at a care facility in North Toronto. She was 92.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter Jane Johanson.

Sue Johanson dressed demurely, often in blazers and wire-rimmed glasses, but she had a comedian’s timing and instincts, which defused the hot-button topics she addressed. (In demonstrations, she had a way of stretching out condoms — she was an evangelist for them — that recalled a clown making balloon animals.)

And like Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the Holocaust survivor and onetime Israeli sniper turned sex therapist, Ms. Johanson, a registered nurse and mother of three who had run a birth control clinic in a public high school for nearly two decades, became a media star in midlife.

“I wasn’t young,” she said in “Sex With Sue,” a 2022 documentary about her directed by Lisa Rideout, with Jane as her mother’s interlocutor and the film’s creative consultant. “I wasn’t beautiful. I didn’t have bodacious tatas. I was a mother with a load of information.”

Is it weird to put body glitter on your boyfriend’s testicles? Is it safe to have sex in a hot tub? Could a Ziploc baggie serve as a condom? If condoms are left in a car and they freeze, are they still good? Answers: No. No (chlorinated water is too harsh for genitals, particularly women’s). Definitely not. And yes, once they’ve been defrosted.

Every Sunday night, the questions poured in about straight sex, gay sex, masturbation and all manner of fetishes, fantasies and fears. At the show’s peak, in the early 2000s, nearly 100,000 calls were fielded and screened by operators, though only 10 or 12 made it on the air on a given night.

Manufacturers of sex toys sent their wares by the boxload. Ms. Johanson would divvy them up among her young crew for road tests — “The Unofficial Sex Toy Testing Facility of Canada,” she called them — and demonstrate their features at her desk, reaching into her “hot stuff” bag, a black tote emblazoned with flames, to pull out the latest offerings. “The good, the bad and the ugly,” she liked to say. (Makers tended to gild the lily, like the company that made a vibrator with a camera at its tip. “It gives a whole new meaning to, ‘I’m ready for my close-up,’” Ms. Johanson deadpanned.)

A child of the Great Depression, she was thrifty and cost-conscious, and she often presented homemade alternatives. Why not turn your cellphone ringer to vibrate, tuck it in your underpants and have your friends call nonstop?

“I remember her giving a hand job to a cucumber,” Russell Peters, the Canadian comedian, said in the documentary. “I never looked at a cucumber the same.”

Ms. Johanson started her broadcasting career in radio with a wildly popular show on a rock station that ran for more than a decade. “Sunday Night Sex Show” first aired on Canadian television in 1996. In 2002, the Oxygen network commissioned an American version, which ran right after the Canadian show, so American callers could have their shot. The U.S. audience was shyer and more naïve than her Canadian viewers, Ms. Johanson told Mireya Navarro of The New York Times in 2004; they seemed to lack basic knowledge. Many young female callers wondered if they could get pregnant from oral sex.

“Ms. Johanson said she could not ride the subway or stand in a grocery line in Canada without being approached to answer the kind of question that would make even the frozen chicken blush,” Ms. Navarro wrote. “But in the United States, a much bigger market, her growing fan base seems almost bashful but mostly grateful. ‘I find that Americans are so polite and so respectful that being recognized is wonderful,’ she said. ‘People will look at me and say, “Hi, I love your show.” And that’s where it ends.”

She was, however, feted on the American talk-show circuit, appearing with Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, whom she terrified one night with the contents of her hot-stuff bag: It included a vibrating rubber duck, a dildo she strapped to her chin and a handmade, hand-operated vibrator that she had fashioned from a tin can fitted with Bubble Wrap and a tube sock.

“You’re like a perverted MacGyver,” Mr. O’Brien said, horrified.

“I regard sex as a gift from God,” Ms. Johanson told Ms. Navarro. “We’re the only ones that really are able to enjoy sex, so we have an obligation to learn about it and enjoy it.”

Susan Avis Bailey Powell was born on July 29, 1930, in Toronto. Her mother, Ethel (Bell) Powell, was a homemaker. Her father, Wilfred Bailey Powell, was in the Royal Canadian Air Force and had a number of jobs. Her mother died when Sue was 10, and she was raised mostly by an aunt.

She met Ejnor Karl Johanson, an electrical inspector, on a blind date just before she entered nursing school at the St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg; they married in the early 1950s and moved to Toronto to take over her aunt’s real estate business.

Ms. Johanson opened her birth control clinic in 1970, after a friend of her eldest daughter became pregnant in high school and had an abortion, which was mostly illegal in Canada at the time. “Kids get involved with sex without their parents’ consent,” she told a reporter in 1983, “and therefore they should be able to get contraceptives without their consent.”

Throughout her career, high school and college students were her biggest concern. She was an indefatigable speaker, a regular at college freshman orientations each fall and at hundreds of high schools each year. Her husband, Jane Johanson said, was a reserved, private man, the opposite of his gregarious wife, but he handled her career and fame with grace and “took it like a champ.” He died in 2014.

In addition to her daughter Jane, Ms. Johanson is survived by another daughter, Carol Howard; two grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Her son, Eric, died in 2021.

Ms. Johanson also wrote a magazine column and was the author of three books: “Sex, Sex and More Sex,” “Sex Is Perfectly Natural but Not Naturally Perfect” and “Talk Sex: Answers to Questions You Can’t Ask Your Parents.”

In 2000, she was awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honor for pioneers in their field.

Ms. Johanson’s Canadian show went off the air in 2005, and the American version in 2008. It was time: The internet had become the go-to source for sex inquiries. As Dan Savage, the sex columnist, put it in the documentary about Ms. Johanson, there was a Wikipedia page for every piece of equipment and every sex act, and Ms. Johanson felt she was unable to keep up with the times. At 77, she was ready but sad to call it quits.

“There will be a great big hole in my heart,” she said as she introduced her final episode in May 2008, her voice breaking. “I love doing this show.”

She added, “I’ll close with the same condom quickie that we ended the first show with 174 episodes ago: Sex will be sweeter, if you wrap your peter.



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