Back in the ’80s, you rarely saw anybody waving around sex toys on TV.

The one shining exception was Sue Johanson, who passed away Wednesday, surrounded by family, in a long-term care home in Thornhill, Ont. She was 93.

Johanson was a registered nurse and sex therapist who gave advice to several generations of Canadians and Americans on her Sunday Night Sex Show.

Born in Toronto, Johanson’s maiden name was Powell. Her great uncle, in fact, was Lord Robert Baden-Powell — founder of the Boy Scouts.

Their motto was “Be Prepared” — sex advice Johanson passed on to many listeners and viewers of her radio and TV shows.

Before her media career took off, Johanson was a wife and mother with degrees in nursing and family planning. In 1970, she opened a birth control clinic in her daughter’s high school in Don Mills, Ont. Imagine the firestorm that kind of intervention would set off today!


Many Torontonians first came to know her through her broadcasts on Q107, a progressive rock station making waves in the late ’70s and ’80s on the FM dial. Her Sunday Night Sex Show would feature call-in listeners — some cheeky, some desperate — who had questions only Sue would dare tackle at the time. The series transitioned to Rogers’ community television in 1985, a platform I knew well through my involvement with Pat Bullock and other friends on a community cable comedy series called Etobichannel. Our show, it could be argued, was also a compelling argument for birth control.

The people at the Woman’s Television Network (WTN) brought her to the national Canadian specialty tier in 1996. The series remained there through 2005. WTN later morphed into today’s W Network.

Johanson, in her straight-ahead, all-knowing, grandmotherly style, dispensed sound, practical advice not just in matters sexual, but also for people struggling with mental health or abuse issues. Her work inspired a whole generation of educators, something that was recognized when she was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2001.

Among her more familiar phrases: “Gently, Bentley.” Don’t rush things, said Sue.

Johanson became something of a pop culture personality. She wrote three books and had a monthly advice column in The Toronto Star. She made several appearances, essentially playing herself, on Degrassi Junior High. The US version of her series, Talk Sex with Sue Johanson, aired on the cable channel Oxygen from 2002 to 2008. It was Oxygen’s biggest draw in late night especially among women 18-49.

Johanson was wise enough not to take herself too seriously. When I interviewed her in 2008, she told me that her sex advice had limitations, especially when it came to raising her own children. She once caught a rude dude necking with her daughter at home on the sofa and hit him on the head with a tennis racket. Not the kind of advice she dispensed to others on her series.

“Ah, but when it’s your daughter, it’s very different,” she says. “You can be as liberal as you like with everybody else’s kids, but no daughter of mine is going to be that kind of a girl.”

Johanson took her act on the American talk show circuit, appearing on David Letterman, Jay Leno, Dr. Phil and Conan O’Brien. Her favourite host, however, may have been Craig Ferguson.

“Oh my God is he funny,” she told me. “Craig and I get together and it’s just no holds barred because it is a late night show and I get away with murder.”

Talk show hosts loved her — and so did viewers.

Below: my salute to Johanson Thursday on CTV with Marcia MacMillan:

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