When someone finds out I’m Sue Johanson’s daughter, their whole face lights up. Their whole body transforms and they’re like, Whaaat?! There is an amazing shift in energy. It’s quite extraordinary.
Everybody has a story about Sue, Canada’s best-known sexual educator. “Oh, my goodness, Sue came to my school when I was 12,” or “We listened to Sue on the radio in the car,” or “I used to have the radio by my bed so that my parents couldn’t hear.”
Despite her outspoken public persona, I had a very normal upbringing. My dad was able to work from home managing a land development company, and Mum didn’t really get into her line of work until I was a teenager. When I was a kid, she made our clothes; she taught us how to knit and sew; and she baked so that we came home from school to the smell of cookies in the oven.
When I was about 13, Mum opened a sexual health clinic for teenagers. Before she had us kids, she was a registered nurse, and she felt there was a lack of access to contraception at that time in our area; the location, in a local high school, was suitable for teens to visit anonymously. The idea came about because an acquaintance of mine from high school had become pregnant at a young age and had no one to turn to. She came to Sue for advice and that got the ball rolling. Sue felt that had there been a place for this girl to go, this unplanned pregnancy could have been avoided.
After the birth control clinic opened, it took off. Mum started teaching about sex and safe contraception in schools. She even taught in my class. I remember being in Grade 11 or 12 and hearing that Sue Johanson was coming to talk to us and I could feel myself sitting in my seat like, Oh, no, here we go. I was blushing, but deep down I was so proud of what she was doing.
My sister and I both worked at the clinic when we were teenagers. There were two filing cabinets, a counselling room, and a little examination table for the doctor to do a sexual wellness check. No one got paid at first. There were doctors and nurses, social workers and public health workers volunteering their time. There were always people lined up in the hallway waiting. Then as the public health department realized that it was something viable, Mum was able to get salaries for workers.
I was the receptionist, dealing with people who were not that much older than I was. I had friends and kids from school who would come into the birth control clinic and there I was, sitting behind the desk asking for their names and creating a file for them and trying to remain calm. I had to be respectful of anyone who was brave enough at that age to want to go on the birth control pill or get other contraception. I learned at a very young age that sex was also a private thing. Mum made it very public with her work, but if you needed privacy, you could find it. These teens were nervous, too: They would see me and their eyes would go wide. But when they realized that my lips were sealed and I wasn’t going to go back to school and spread this around, a trust developed.
By the time I was 16, my friends were sexually active. I was not. I was curious and experimenting, but I don’t think I felt that pressure to have sex because I knew I wasn’t ready. I felt too young.
People assume that because I was raised with Sue that I went to her for all my sexual questions. I absolutely did not! It’s not that Mum wasn’t amenable to that—she was. She would have loved for us to come to her to inquire about sex and sexual health, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to hear it from my Mum. Mum had three kids and I remember saying to her, “You did that three times?” I don’t think any kid wants to hear about sex and sexuality from their parents. You don’t want your mom telling you that the man does this, and to pleasure a man you do this and then this. No.
In a way, not running to my Mum with questions or letting her into my sexual world was my teenage rebellion. I wanted my sex and sexuality to be private. On the other hand, if I brought friends home and they started talking to her, they were in heaven and so was Mum. I would leave the room and they would stay in the kitchen and drink tea, and she would talk to them about sex. How convenient that I could go to my friends and find out about sex from them afterward.
We didn’t have Google back then; if you had a question about how to give a hand job or how to put a condom on back then, you were on your own, finding things out—and sometimes too late. That’s what was important to Sue: She wanted to catch kids before it was too late, before they had to make decisions they didn’t want to make.
I was recently attending a 10-day silent retreat in Barrie, Ont., when the idea for a documentary about my Mum’s legacy burbled up inside of me. Upon returning home, I bought a video camera and started getting Mum, now 92, on tape, asking her questions about her life and filming family occasions. I wanted Sue to be remembered for the way she blazed a unique trail for herself. I spent a lot of time gathering photos, old VCR videos of interviews and appearances, and going through books she had written. Then I started my search for a documentary filmmaker who could make this vision come to life. Sue was a pioneer who people knew and loved, and I didn’t want her to be forgotten.
When I was a kid, I wouldn’t watch Mum getting interviewed by David Letterman or Jay Leno. It was too embarrassing. She would come out in her bright yellow skirt and strappy little shoes and her glasses and smile, and she’d be waving her hands around. And I would be thinking, Oh, god, there she is. And yet now I see that clip and think, God bless; look at you! She was up against a lot of odds. She broke down barriers.
I am just glad she was able to remain safe through it all. Now it’s getting ugly again. If you look at sex and sexuality curriculum in schools today, we are walking backward. I think Sue would be saddened and ashamed that this is happening after all that hard work. Hopefully things will turn around.
When I watched the trailer of the final product, our documentary Sex With Sue, I was bursting with pride. I am so fortunate to have this amazing woman as my mother. These days, if I had a question about sex, I would have no problem going to her and she’d be able to answer even now. Isn’t that a beautiful thing after all this time?
Sex with Sue premieres Oct. 10 at 9 p.m. on W.