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A conversation with Sue Johanson

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Sue Johanson may look grandmotherly -- she is one -- but she's been tackling topics that might make the savviest youngster blush for the past 30 years. Johanson, a registered nurse, started teaching sex-education classes in the early 1970s in Canada, after noticing the education her teenaged children were receiving seemed lacking. Her wit and candor caught the attention of a Toronto radio station, and she started doing a weekly phone-in sex advice show. She took the call-in format to television in 1985, and has been broadcasting to U.S. audiences since 2002 on the Oxygen network's Sunday-night program, "Talk Sex with Sue Johanson." Johanson comes to Pittsburgh this week as part of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania's 75th anniversary celebration.

 

What sex misconceptions do you encounter most often?

Probably the prevalence of venereal warts and chlamydia -- those are two of the things I find people don't know about. You can get [HPV, the virus that causes warts] from practicing safer sex -- you don't get it from toilet seats or doorknobs. I get a lot of questions about "Is oral sex really sex?" That's a tough one. It's your value system. It depends on how you value your body.

 

What do you think of the current climate regarding sex information? Kids are bombarded with sexual imagery in pop culture and sometimes taught in schools that abstinence is the only choice.

I have a great concern about sex education and the need for in-depth sex education. I don't know anybody that doesn't support abstinence. Sooner or later, though, teens have to make a decision, and they need information. You can't make a decision in a vacuum. They need to have a comfort zone with their own bodies before they can relate to other bodies. You have to have information so you can say yea or nay. We're going to have to give parents the skills to teach sex ed, since it's not being taught in schools.

 

In Canada, your laws about emergency contraception are easier for women to navigate than here in the States. Big boxes like Wal-Mart won't even carry it, and the supposedly more progressive Target allows pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions on moral grounds.

That is an enigma, isn't it? Wal-Mart has denied emergency contraception for years, forever. Target is a high-volume store. Because they appeal to all classes of people, it would make sense for them to offer emergency contraception. We have that in Canada, where you can get emergency contraception pills. You have to speak to the pharmacist, that's all. The pharmacist just wants to make sure you understand.

 

There is so much information available, on the Internet and elsewhere. Are people better off now, with all this potentially at their fingertips?

I think right now the information is available, I'm not sure people are accessing it and making use of it. I see a discomfort in talking to one's own partner. People have not given themselves permission to talk with their own partner. We've got to develop the communication skills.

 

Is the trend of the college newspaper sex column helpful or hurtful?

They're fine if they've got accurate information, but often they don't check the facts, they go to the Internet, they pull it from somebody's blog. They have no business diagnosing anything. If the college student is just saying, "Break up with your boyfriend," that's OK. When they become self-proclaimed experts, it's terrifying.

 

What are you speaking about here?

It won't be that serious and I'm quite sure there will be questions from the audience that will be quite fun. I've been involved with Planned Parenthood in Toronto for a long time. I support their work. What I would like to do is compliment Planned Parenthood on surviving the battles they've had over the years.

 

"What Happens in Pittsburgh Stays in Pittsburgh: Talk Sex with Sue Johanson," 7 p.m. Fri., Nov. 11, Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland. See www.ppwp.org.

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