Like a lot of people, Sue Johanson likes to talk about sex. Unlike a lot of people, Johanson is an elderly Canadian woman who talks about sex in the most graphic detail six nights a week on national television. No perversity is too polymorphous for Johanson—a registered nurse, “sex educator,” and host of the Oxygen network’s call-in shows Talk Sex (Sundays, 11 p.m. ET) and Sunday Night Sex Show (Monday through Thursday, midnight ET). Say you’re a woman who wants to have two men in the same place at the same time, and by “place” you mean orifice, not edifice. Or you’re a gay man, your boyfriend is going to be in a waist-high cast for a few months, and you’re wondering how to keep the home fires burning in the meantime. Who you gonna call?
You might want to try Johanson. She’ll tell you exactly what to do, without a hint of judgment and with all the perky enthusiasm of a can-do grandma showing you how to pull off that complicated stitch for the sweater you’re making Dad for Christmas. What makes Johanson’s blunt, raunchy banter all the more bizarre is that she is a grandma, straight from central casting. She looks like the septuagenarian love child of Estelle Getty and Alan Greenspan. Her un-nipped, untucked face is a lived-in collection of craggles and divots. And with her short, unkempt hair; ill-fitting, never-in-style wool and floral print jackets; and not-quite-right makeup, she could pass for a frisky nun out for a day trip.
Johanson has been a Pied Piper of sexual frankness in Canada since the 1970s, when she opened a birth control clinic in her kids’ Toronto high school and began traveling to schools and universities around the country to talk to students about s-e-x. She was recently made a member of the Order of Canada, Canada’s equivalent of knighthood. The Sunday Night Sex Show began as a radio show in Canada in the mid-’80s before moving to television in 1996. If you stumble onto Sunday Night Sex Show or Talk Sex, it’s hard to believe you’re seeing this woman talking this way about this subject in this detail. The overall effect is even weirder than that of watching Dr. Ruth. Dr. Ruth is a self-described “sex therapist for couples,” more interested in dispensing relationship advice than, say, demonstrating how to insert a female condom or give a good hand job. And it’s much more jarring to hear detailed talk about doing the deed from an old lady who pronounces “about” as “abote” than one whose German-accented Freudian frankness is exactly the voice we expect to hear talking about such things.
Eventually, though, you get past Johanson’s age, appearance, and accent and begin to admire her knowledge, candor, and Depression-era practicality. (Got a yeast infection? No need to buy fancy creams or expensive lotions when an a few overnight applications of unsweetened, corn-starch-free yogurt will do.) Sue fields the expected questions about female orgasm (“The Venus Butterfly is ab-so-lutely the best way to reach G-spot orgasm!” Sue tells Catherine of Nova Scotia) and penis size (Sue tries to explain to Kelly of Louisville, Ky., without much success, that her boyfriend’s penis—three and a half inches at full-mast—is not itself to blame for her lack of sensation during intercourse: “Honey, the top two-thirds of your vagina has no nerve endings! There’s nobody home up there!”). But she also answers poignant questions from people like Gene of Baltimore. Gene wants to come out to his homophobic mother, but he’s afraid “she’ll turn her back on me if I do.” The only time I’ve heard Sue value something over the truth was when she gently suggested to Gene that he not be honest with his mother.
Sue knows she’s a hoot—how can she not? But she never seems to think she’s cute. For all her explicit talk and demonstrations of sexual gadgets, Johanson isn’t out to titillate. Her goal is to stimulate discussion, not desire, and to demystify her subject. Many callers worry that the satisfying, loving acts they engage in with their partners aren’t “normal” or “common.” Others want to engage in such acts with their partners, but don’t have a clue how to.
“There are no rules,” Sue tells Dwayne of Toronto. Dwayne wants advice on how to find a willing accomplice for that threesome he and his girlfriend have been talking about. But that doesn’t mean there are no rules at all in Sue’s sexual universe. Her encouragement and celebration of sexual freedom are not a sanctions for a sexual free-for-all. She has a clear, if inexplicit, sexual ethic rooted in mutuality, reciprocity, and equity. It boils down to these variations on the Golden Rule: Don’t make others do unto you what you would not want to do unto them, and don’t make others let you do unto them what you would not want done unto you. So while masturbation gets a big thumbs-up from Johanson, once sex moves from a solopiece to an accompanied number, for Sue it’s about more than individual gratification. It’s about old-fangled intimacy. Andrea of Winnipeg, Manitoba, isn’t satisfied by her boyfriend, but she worries that she’ll get addicted to the vibrator that Sue has prescribed for her. “Oh, no,” Sue reassures her. ” ‘Cause with the vibrator you don’t get the hugging and the cuddling and the snuggling and the nibbling and the sweet nothings whispered into your ear.”