Thoughts on Sue Johanson
Canadian birth control advocate and self-proclaimed sexual health educator Sue Johanson died today at the age of 93. This fills me with all kinds of feels that I really don't know how to process.
Through the 90's and early 2000's, Sue was the nemesis of many sexual health educators, myself included. I was pleased when she finally decided to stop touring and presenting. No longer did I have to work so hard at correcting the misinformation she spread every time she came into town to do one of her talks. But I do have to give credit where it's due. Sue was, in many ways, a trailblazer.
She opened a birth control clinic in a high school in Toronto in 1970! Even today this would be a controversial thing. It helped, I am sure, thousands of young people get information and contraception that they couldn't get anywhere else,
Most Canadians who were teens in the 80's and 90's remember her for the Sunday Night Sex Show on radio and then television. Long before the internet made it possible to 'google' any sex question you might have, Sue brought the information young people desperately needed. When most 'sex education' talked down to young people and tended more towards scaring than informing, Sue told it like it was.
So I will give her her due - she did some amazing things. The problem was that she didn't keep up with her own education. Information is constantly changing as our knowledge increases and Sue did not seem to want to change with the times. While her popularity grew, making her the most renowned sexual health 'expert' in Canada, the information she shared became outdated and incorrect. But she had become such an icon that the general public seemed to never question her.
I attended a speak she did at MacEwan University about 12 years ago. I made a list of the things she said that were incorrect. It was a long list. Most upsetting was that she did not account for gender diversity or for any diversity in sexual interests or attraction. She addressed everyone as if they were heterosexual and only interested in penis in vagina sex. She also had an obvious aversion to anal sex (and many other types of sex) and exaggerated the level of risk involved. So many people love and engage in anal sex very safely - I wondered how they felt about her assessment of it. So much of what we do at the Tickle Trunk is normalizing and giving permission - letting people know that there are lots of ways to experience and enjoy sex and there is nothing wrong with them. This felt like the complete opposite of what I've spent the last 20 years of my life doing.
If you choose to continue to disseminate information when you know that people regard you as an expert, I believe you are obligated to make sure your information is current and correct. Sue did not do that,
Sue Johansen did so much good. I know that she will be missed by many, But being sad about her being gone does not mean that we should simply forget about the harm she did - and she did do harm. I think we can acknowledge that a person can do both good and bad things. Sue helped many people - especially in the earlier part of her career. We have long been ready for a much more informed and inclusive kind of sex education than she gave us.