How an 87-year-old grandmother became the best sex educator America has ever had
Mom and dad and the church wouldn't talk to me about sex. The birds and the bees and butt sex and BDSM were all an enigma … until I was 11 years old, and I flicked the channel to Talk Sex with Sue Johanson.
The old woman on the screen was talking with a young man over the phone. She asked if he was having sex — you know, putting his penis in a woman’s vagina — and in that moment, an incredible revelation struck me. I understood what sex was for the very first time.
From that day on, Talk Sex with Sue Johanson became my childhood fascination. The late-night talk show aired on the Oxygen network for American audiences from 2002-2008, and served as a source of sex education no public school program could ever compete with.
The typical public school Sex Ed class was a powerpoint slide of herpes-covered genitals and bloody scenes of women giving birth. Every student would sit in the back of the class, refuse to raise their hand to ask embarrassing questions and giggle every time someone said “penis.”
The standard sex talk with our parents was no better. We were mostly lectured on “the importance of waiting,” even though abstinence-only education has proven to be a total bust.
For kids like us — kids who had nowhere else to turn for real-life lessons on doin’ the deed — Sue Johanson was a fountain of sexual knowledge.
Shortly after finding Johanson’s show, I shared my discovery with my childhood friends.
“Throughout middle school and until high school, I’d always watch that old bat talk about sex,” laughs Claudia, 28. “So many of the things people would call in and ask her were absurd. But I was so sheltered back then, I didn’t know half the shit she was talking about."
Johanson lit up our world. Prior to stumbling upon her TV show, we couldn’t understand why riding our bicycles a certain way felt so good.
“I’d read a book with a sex scene and didn’t know I was getting horny,” Claudia says, “so I’d ask my mom why my vagina was aching.”
“I’d hump everything when I was little,” Katie, 28, says. “I loved that shit, but I had no idea that I was masturbating.”
As sexually clueless kids with an endless curiosity about our own bodies, Talk Sex with Sue Johanson was the refreshing honesty we needed.
The inimitable host only spoke with adults on air, but she certainly knew that a portion of her audience were kids.
“Kids are curious about sex from when they're about five minutes of age, and little boys discover they've got a penis,” Johanson told NPR a couple years after her retirement from Talk Sex. “All of a sudden, it feels good. And they're curious, and they want to know more.”
She satisfied our curiosities shamelessly. Nothing was too taboo for discussion, and no ridiculous question could ever catch her off-guard.
Best of all, Johanson’s responses were always patient and kind.
“I remember an episode about a guy who complained that his boyfriend didn’t clean his uncircumcised dick well enough and it smelled bad,” Katie reflects. “She gave tips about how to nicely explain the importance of keeping it clean, and politely suggesting he take a shower.”
In her own kind-hearted way, she could explain what it meant to have wet dreams. She could tell you how to properly suck the dick of a well-endowed young man. She could show you her hot stuff bag full of sex toys, and explain how to use each one.
And somehow, it never came off as offensive. The host mostly credited her age for that.
“I think one of the benefits that I have going for me is my age,” she said. “I am seen as mature, long in the tooth. Totally, you cannot flap me. You cannot embarrass me at all. And also that I'm not a sexy kitten. I don't have bodacious totos and great long blond hair, and I'm not flirtatious. So it is very safe and informative more than anything else. I'm harmless.”
Johanson spent three decades educating generations of viewers about pregnancy, contraception, STDs, masturbation, sex positions, fetishes, BDSM and so much more.
At a time when no one had the courage to speak honestly with youngsters about sex, she was America's savior. She filled in all the gaps of every curious child's knowledge so that eventually, they would know how to fill their own gaps.
But it’s times like these — when STIs are through the roof, kids think anal sex and Mormon dick soaking preserves their virginity, and ripping off the condom is America’s new favorite pastime — that the world could use someone like Sue Johanson more than ever.