Legendary Sex Expert Still Has It

Warning: Content May Be Offensive To Some

Sue Johanson is a popular sex educator and former host of the TV program "Talk Sex with Sue Johanson" on Oxygen. In this week's Wisdom Watch, Johanson, 78, talks about her decades-long career as a sex expert, and also weighs in on debates about sex education for kids.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a few minutes, we're going to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of Warith Deen Mohammad. He is the son of the founder of the Nation at Islam, but he went on to lead thousands of African Americans into orthodox Islam. He died yesterday at the age of 74. But first, Wisdom Watch. It's the part of the program where we ask respected elders to guide us through today's most challenging and important issues.

Today, the issue is sex - education, that is, and I have to warn our listeners that this conversation may be a bit explicit for younger listeners. But every so often, sex education pushes to the forefront of national conversation. It seems to be happening now because of the news that Alaska Governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's teenage daughter is pregnant.

Sue Johanson has been talking about sex and teaching about sex for more than three decades. One of Canada's top educators, she received the prestigious Order of Canada in 2001. Americans know her as the former host of "Talk Sex with Sue Johanson" on the Oxygen network, and she's with us now. Welcome, Sue.

Ms. SUE JOHANSON (Sex Educator): Thank you for inviting me. My pleasure, I always love to talk sex.

MARTIN: How did you get involved in sex education? I understand that you're a nurse?

Ms. JOHANSON: By having kids.

MARTIN: Oh, well, there you go.

Ms. JOHANSON: By having teenagers and realizing that I could talk to everybody else's kid about sex, but I couldn't talk to my own kids. I became the wicked witch of the west. I lectured. I preached. I moralized. I said the stupidest things to my kids, and yet, when other kids came around, and we'd have them all gathered around the kitchen table, my kids wouldn't be there. They were too embarrassed. But I could talk to the friends and then hope that the friends conveyed the information to my kids.

MARTIN: I think people in this country know you mainly as a person who deals with adults and talks to adults about their sort of various issues, but I'm wondering if you think the two are related? Is the reason that there's such an interest in adult sex education is that somehow or other, they don't get it when they're kids? They don't get it when they're younger?

Ms. JOHANSON: Well, there's that, but also, I mean, kids are curious about sex from when they're about five minutes of age, and little boys discover they've got a penis. All of a sudden, it feels good. And they're curious, and they want to know more. And the way mom reacts and responds, I do teach at colleges and universities right across Canada and the United States and talk to university students. They have numerous questions about sex and information that they weren't able to get at home or misinformation that they got from their peers.

MARTIN: I'm remembering that you opened a birth control clinic in Canada in 1972. Was that very controversial at that time?

Ms. JOHANSON: Not at all. Actually, we set it up in the health room of a high school in suburbia, and it went nuts. It just went crazy because it was free. It was a guaranteed confidential, no appointment, a drop in because I know when kids need birth control, they need it tonight.

The one reason that a lot of teenagers will not get contraception is they are terrified to talk to their parents, and so they don't want the parents to know they're going for the birth control pill. They are terrified that if they go to the family doctor, the doctor will phone mumsie (ph) and tell mumsie that little Betsy is involved in a sexual relationship. Of course, that is illegal. Medical doctors are not allowed to that, but the kids don't get that information from schools.

MARTIN: This is still very controversial in the U.S., the idea that teenagers particularly can get birth control without parental consent or any reproductive services without parental consent. (unintelligible) the different attitude?

Ms. JOHANSON: But, you see, the thing is that teens are not going to get parental consent to have sex. If your daughter asked you if she could have sex with Jimmy Joel, would you - would she? No. There's no way. She's out in the back forty doing it and not using birth control or not practicing safer sex. So we've got a problem right away. Anybody who's old enough to ovulate, to menstruate, to be involved in a sexual relationship is old enough for effective birth control. And pulling out, it was not a method of birth control.

MARTIN: But there are those who say that, when you remove parents from the equation, you're giving kids an opportunity to not have the kinds of values discussions that people feel that they really should be having with their parents. If parents should have an opportunity to talk to their kids about what they think sex is for, what circumstances under which they should be happy, just to impart their values, and that when you have clinics and places like that, that kids can have access to without the parents, that gives them an out without having those conversations. What do you say to that?

Ms. JOHANSON: You don't have a conversation. It's very difficult to talk to your own kids about sex. But you've taught your kids about relationships, about love, about intimacy in the way you react to your partner. So if you hug your partner, if you kiss your partner with meaning, not that peck on the cheek, goodbye dear, have a good day kind of a kiss, but a kiss that is a kiss, if you hold hands, that shows kids relationships, how you communicate with each other. That gives them their first idea about love.

And then, if they learned a little bit about sex in school, then they can start to put two together. Now, if you've got a close relationship with your kids, they will ask questions. And maybe some of the questions you would prefer them not to ask, oh, mother, do you and daddy do that? Oh, mother, that's gross.

MARTIN: You know, I have to note that - speaking of folks - talking to folks outside the family for your sex education, I have to note that some of our best-known sex educators, yourself, Doctor Ruth are not from America, but you're very popular in America. I'm just wondering, why do you think that is. Is it just we need somebody from somewhere else to tell us how to get it together? I don't know. What do you think?

Ms. JOHANSON: I have no idea. I had no idea that, in the whole of the United States of America, nobody else is doing that kind of explicit sex show, sex information, answering questions very explicitly using medical language but combined with what I call slanguage, which is street terms, not four-letter words, but language that people understand.

MARTIN: Do you think that being a woman helps in some way? People are more inclined to listen to you because both men and women do listen to your show. You know, Oxygen, that network is more woman-oriented.

Ms. JOHANSON: It is, but - and I am female. I think one of the benefits that I have going for me is my age. 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.

MARTIN: Well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We'll see.

Ms. JOHANSON: We won't go there.

MARTIN: We won't go there. If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with sex educator Sue Johanson for this week's Wisdom Watch conversation.

Has the way we talk about or think about sex changed over the years that you've been doing this? I mean, I know that a lot of people think that it has to change, in part because the risks have changed. I mean, AIDS, HIV/AIDS, which is still incurable, did not exist when you first started in this business. So has something changed over the years in the way you talk about this?

Ms. JOHANSON: No. What has changed is some of the activities that teenagers and young people are involved in, and now, more and more adults are experimenting and trying, and it is high-risk behavior, and it scares me.

MARTIN: What do you mean, like particular practices, or you mean having multiple partners?

Ms. JOHANSON: Yes, yes, I'm talking about anal sex. And it has become very, very common question on the show and amongst teenagers, but...

MARTIN: Why do you think that is, that they're so much interested in that particular activity now?

Ms. JOHANSON: Well, because it's different. It's the latest taboo. And so many, many women are very uncomfortable with it, very nervous about it, very fearful about it, and so they should be. And sometimes, I get questions from males who say, my girlfriend wants to try this. What do I need to know? I'm scared. Can I get a disease? Does it hurt? Can she get an infection, that kind of thing.

MARTIN: What's your opinion of abstinence-only or abstinence-based sex education programs? I mean, a lot of parents say, well, that's exactly why the message, particularly for young people, should be abstinence until marriage.

Ms. JOHANSON: Every single sex educator does emphasize abstinence. Please do not have sex. Now, I will never say until you are married. I will say please do not have sex until you know what you're doing, you like your own body. You can think ahead, plan ahead, get a good method of birth control. Never let sex just happen and be able to talk about it with you partner. That's the stumbling block right there, to be able to say to your partner, are we going to do it? Because if we are, we're going to use condoms right? This is not a choice. No condom, no sex. That's it, game over. Forget it.

MARTIN: Why, though, do you think it's so controversial, because you do both. I mean, on one hand, you're saying, for young people, you say, these are the steps that need to be in place before you go forward and start having sexual contact with other people. But other people say, gee, you don't - but you also will answer any question. If somebody wants to know how you have safe sex, you will tell them. Some people just think that's - you're telling people how to swallow the poison, as it were...

Ms. JOHANSON: Yes. If you tell them about it, they'll go right out and do it.

MARTIN: Precisely.

Ms. JOHANSON: Honey, they're going to be going right out and doing it. If you watch television, if you listen to music, if you read any of the popular magazines, and I'm not talking about Playboy and Hustler and Penthouse, I am talking about women's magazines that always have at least one major article on sex in every single edition, and Seventeen magazine is no exception.

So our kids are talking about it, thinking about it, and curious about it, and along comes somebody who talks them into it, and please don't think that's necessarily a male trying to talk a female into sex because I've watched in enough universities to know that some of those ladies are coming on like blockbusters. And it is scary for some males.

MARTIN: Why did you end your show after six years? It was very well received, very popular. Why, after all these time, I mean, it would seem that there's still a need for it.

Ms. JOHANSON: We left the show because Oxygen was taken over by NBC, and the climate changed that way, in that respect. They changed the time and things like that, and it was much later at night. And so the caliber of callers went down dramatically, and I wasn't proud of the show anymore.

MARTIN: So what's next for you?

Ms. JOHANSON: Oh, right now, continuing to teach at universities. I did a university the other night with 6,500 kids, and I mean, it was absolutely wonderful. I just love teaching. And I'm goofing off a little bit more. I take the summer off and just, you know, pull up the draw bridges behind me.

MARTIN: And keeping it sexy, I hope.

Ms. JOHANSON: Oh, every chance I get, dear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Sue Johanson is a sex educator. She recently retired as host of Oxygen network's "Talk Sex with Sue Johanson." She joined us from Toronto. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. JOHANSON: Thank you, Michel.

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