Sue Johanson

"Sex with Sue" is a portrait of a television sex education icon, Sue Johanson

Leave the young kids at home and come ready to laugh and learn – “Sex with Sue” is one-part educational, two parts hilariously entertaining.

The documentary follows the life and career of Sue Johanson, a Canadian sex educator, starting in the ’70s and ending in the early 2000s. Johanson made a name for herself with her late-night talk shows, “Talk Sex” and “Sunday Night Sex Show” that originally aired on Canadian television. “Sex with Sue,” explores the legacy of Johanson as an educator whose career others continue to build off and how and why she was able to rise to fame.

In the days before the internet, Johanson’s call-in talk shows operated as helplines for people with questions about sex, relationships and sexuality. But at the time, classical sex education looked very different from what Johanson had created on television, which was far from orthodox.

Armed with degrees and backgrounds in nursing, sexuality and family planning, Johanson unabashedly faced the camera most Sunday nights and spoke candidly about topics considered taboo in public settings. Since it was rare to have such a conversation publicly, Johanson became something of a pioneer in changing the narrative around sexuality and opening the door to frank discussion.

But seeing Johanson’s experience come alive in the documentary makes it clear her career and legacy were possible because of her natural ability to be open, compassionate and honest on camera.

“She was not intimidating at all,” said one of the TV show’s producers, Julie Smith, in the documentary. “People felt they could speak to her about their most intimate subjects and she was not going to judge them and she was not going to make fun of them.”

In the countless clips from Johanson’s shows that are featured throughout the documentary, it’s clear just how comfortable the audience was. Questions ranged from deeply personal concerns about the caller's sex lives to laughable questions that Johanson answered with tact.

This tact woven in with humor and knowledge, led to Johanson’s rise to stardom and her show was eventually able to land itself a slot on American broadcasting stations. She also began touring schools and universities and speaking and educating publicly to classrooms and college students.

The documentary includes a number of insightful interviews with Johanson herself that were conducted between 2016 and 2018 when Johanson was in her late 80s. Interspersed with Johanson’s reflections and clips from her shows are interviews with a number of people from varying professions who spoke about Johanson’s legacy.

These expert voices included comedians, activists, the TV show’s film crew and other sex educators whose careers were inspired by Johanson.

A common thread throughout everybody’s reflection on Johanson and her work was the importance of thoughtful and inclusive sexual education. For many, this kind of education can have an even greater impact when done in an entertaining and playful way.

“Well, Sue Johanson really nails it,” said the adult entertainer and activist, Nina Hartley, in the documentary. “If you can get them to laugh, they will relax, and when they relax they can let in the information.”

Shan Boodram, a sex educator featured throughout the documentary, spoke frequently to the impact that Johanson left behind after her retirement.

“I loved the fact that Sue was starting those conversations and pushing the narrative that this matters,” Boodram said.

Sierra Cistone is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Missoula.