Raindance 2023: Sex With Sue

A remarkable documentary about Canada’s ‘potty-mouthed Grandma’ and leading sex educator.

It says something that despite decades of working in the worlds of sexual entertainment and education, I was entirely unaware of the work of Sue Johanson until I saw this new documentary from Lisa Rideout, who has made several films about interesting people on the sexual fringes over the last few years. My lack of knowledge about Johanson is my bad, clearly, but also a sign of how insular the world – Britain in particular – is on such things. While the likes of Dr Ruth were known over here, it was as much because of her celebrity status as for her work as a sex educator (and as this film shows, she was always a very safe sort of sex educator, never one to frighten the horses and so easily absorbed into pop culture). Other well-known figures tended to be the authors and academics on all sides of the moral divide – the people who literally wrote the books on sexual expression, education and politics. But everyone else involved in the difficult world of sex education – especially those of a more open-minded persuasion – tended to be ignored and marginalised.

Sue Johanson hosted a radio and television show in Canada and as such, tended to have an influence that was very much restricted to North America. She was also something of a novelty figure for those who wanted to treat her that way – an elderly woman who hosted explicit phone-in shows was not the sort of person that we tended to think of as a ‘sexpert’. Her age and appearance was not an immediate stumbling block – it was Dr Ruth’s similar incongruity that made her a star, after all. But her upfront, no-nonsense, sex-positive advice certainly made her a difficult international sell in a world of moral finger-wagging, of which the British have long been experts. Certainly, her show would never have made it onto British TV – even if her unbridled enthusiasm for sex toys and anal sex had made it past the censors, her complete lack of moralising about kinky behaviour would never have flown. And let’s be honest here – for all their claims about equal opportunities, no British broadcaster would ever have hired a woman past retirement age to host a show about sex.

Rideout’s documentary – produced by Banger Films, better known for their music documentaries – is an enthusiastic and lively look at Johanson’s life and work, exploring just how this seemingly unassuming former nurse became Canada’s leading cheerleader for sexual knowledge and the influence that she has had on subsequent generations. The latter aspect at times feels a tad over-egged – an expansion of non-governmental sex education in the mid-1980s when AIDS demanded that experts and educators be a lot less coy about telling people how to not only practice safe sex but also how to explore alternatives to run-of-the-mill penetration seemed to be something of a global thing, though admittedly few people managed to do it with as much straight-forward lack of judgement as Johanson. Notably, for all the modern sex educators, sexperts and – ahem – sex doulas that appear here and proliferate elsewhere, I’m not sure that we still have the same sense of open-minded acceptance now. Sex education these days – in Britain particularly, but I suspect everywhere else too – seems to come with a side dollop of tut-tutting about the ‘wrong sort of sex’, be it role-play or rough sex or anything else seen as somehow abusive and ‘bad’ even if all involved are consenting adults. BDSM, in particular, is still all too often seen as a questionable activity (especially if it involves male-dom/female-sub, women still being seen as somehow unable to consent to non-vanilla sex) by those who would style themselves as sex educators.

The great thing about Johanson, seen in the many clips from her shows that appear here, is just how unphased she was by anything. Tell her your wildest (consensual) kink and she was going to be encouraging, accepting and reassuring – something vital in the days before people could find information online and may well have been fretting if their foot fetishes, anal play or taste for watersports was normal, safe or even legal. There was no moralising or ‘yes, but…’ prevarication about sex that fell outside the norm and her enthusiasm, humour and no-nonsense acceptance seemed infectious – her show clearly put people at ease to talk about their sexual secrets and to accept the kinks of others. It was the exact opposite of the shame-based religious ‘education’ that we see examples of here (the most outrageous being the tight-lipped response to a boy who asks, not unreasonably, “What if I want to have sex before marriage?”. “Well, you have to be prepared to die” comes the answer, which even by Christian fanaticism standards seems a tad extreme).

Her shows – on radio, TV and in front of huge audiences of students – seem to have been an exercise in acceptance and awareness-raising. Her motive in beginning this career was to avoid girls having to have abortions – not through any moral anti-abortion stance but because it just seemed better to provide teenagers with the knowledge they needed to never reach that point in the first place. Most sex education of the time – and now – focused on the mechanics of sex but not the pleasure or the misconceptions. As one commenter in the film says, if drivers-ed was as basic, people would go straight out and crash their cars, yet for reasons of moral panic, we refuse to tell teenagers – people on the verge of actually having sex – how to explore pleasure safely and without shame. This ignorance runs into adulthood, which is why we have so many people hiding their desires through a misguided belief that they are ‘wrong’ and others having utterly miserable sex lives because they know no better.

As a sign of how little we have come as a society since Johanson’s show began on Canadian radio in the 1980s, this film will undoubtedly be a challenging experience for a lot of people (it comes with a content warning at the Raindance screening, which seems a tad excessive for a film that has ‘sex’ in the title). Assuming that they see it at all – which is unlikely, let’s be honest – you can imagine how the sort of audiences who titter nervously at a scene of male nudity would react to a woman in her eighties demonstrating hand-job techniques on dildos and cheerfully waving around anal beads. Rideout’s film admirably has an equal lack of embarrassment about the content – something that we can’t say about every sex-based documentary, unfortunately – and there is no sniggering or purse-lipped disapproval here. It’s a lot of fun, certainly, because Johanson was as much an entertainer as an educator and she believed in making sex enjoyable – not just in the doing but in the discussing. The film features commentary from her contemporaries and admirers, most notably from the outskirts of respectable sex education and so more sympathetic to Johanson’s unrestrained style – people like Nina Hartley (where’s the documentary about her remarkable life?), Margaret Cho and Dan Savage – not all academic educators but people who have enthusiasm and openness about sex without shame.

Central to the film is a series of interviews – conducted by her daughter – from the end of Johanson’s life, originally shot as a way of recording her memories before they faded, and they show a woman who is rightfully proud of what she did. Her show perhaps outlived its usefulness – with information about everything now available online and Johanson unable to keep up with both the widening of sexual expression and the demands of identity politics (one clip features her apologising after being accused of stating that bisexuals couldn’t form relationships, something that it seems highly unlikely was ever her intention but shows how people will now ferociously pick on the slightest ambiguously or clumsily stated word and worry away at it despite the intent of the speaker). But I can’t help but feel that we need someone like her now – fearless, open and unfettered by personal bias. The end of the film features a TikTokker who wants to be the new Sue Johanson but who seems entirely driven by her own opinions – as sex-positive as she might be, I just can’t see her giving the same sort of non-judgemental advice to someone who doesn’t quite know how to deal with their partner’s kinks.
Sex with Sue is a documentary that ticks all the boxes – informative, entertaining and just biased enough to have a voice of its own (I think we can say that no one involved in this had much sympathy with religious moralisers!). The film now also stands as an obituary for Johanson, who died in June 2023, aged 92. What a wonderful woman. And what a wonderful film.

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