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Now, grannies impart lessons in sex to Americans

india Updated: Jun 30, 2006 21:05 IST
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In a garishly coloured TV studio, a diminutive, grey-haired old woman listens with mock disapproval to a caller's query before launching into a graphic response with the aid of a plastic penis.

In Sue Johanson, Americans have found another respectable, grandmotherly figure capable of ministering to the sexual confusion of generation X-ers in the same way that the celebrated Dr. Ruth did to their parents in the 1980s.

Every Sunday at 11:00 pm, the retired Canadian nurse sets out to expand the nation's education about love-making with her show on the Oxygen cable channel, "Talk Sex with Sue."

For one hour, she addresses subjects as diverse as double penetration, rashes in awkward places and her top 10 sex toys.

While callers' questions often provoke exaggerated grimaces of pain or despair, Johanson's responses are never judgmental. The only taboo subject, she insists, is her age, which conventional wisdom puts in the seventies.

Despite the obvious generation gap between Johanson and the vast majority of her viewers, her show gets high marks for relevance and clarity by other sex experts.

"She does a wonderful job and uses the most updated data," said Joy O'Donnell, education and outreach manager at the National Sexuality Resource Center at San Francisco State University

"This kind of show increases sexual literacy in the United States, which is beneficial to adults and helps to counter the shame, fear and silence that often surround sexuality in the US," O'Donnell said. "There should be more!"

The idea of having an elderly woman host a sex talk show works, according to O'Donnell, because her age commands respect, encourages confidences and deflects criticism of the program's explicit nature.

"These women, Sue Johanson and Dr. Ruth, appear motherly, and comforting. It's not threatening," she said.

In her tiny New York office -- the walls covered in photos taken with famous people like Bill Clinton, Gerard Depardieu and Eddie Murphy -- Ruth Westheimer, a.k.a. "Dr. Ruth", has her own take on what made her successful.

"It's so clear that I'm old-fashioned, but also I speak explicitly about sex," she said.

"They need people like me, who respect religion ... respect moral and ethical values," the 78-year-old added. "I just say, 'You have a problem. Do something about it! Don't just sit there and suffer'."

After some 450 broadcasts in the United States -- as well as others in France, Switzerland and Israel -- the multi-lingual Westheimer, who has degrees in psychology and sociology, has been searching for fresh pastures.

Projects have included teaching courses on the family at Princeton University and making documentaries on Ethiopian jews and the Druze in Israel.

But she still talks on sexual matters, at conferences and on TV guest appearances, and recently authored the best-selling manual "Sex for Dummies."

Westheimer still sees a lack of comprehensive sex education in the United States -- a situation she puts down to insufficient public funding and an unhealthy dose of Victorian puritanism.

"The questions that I get are still more or less the same," she said, "about relationships, about loneliness, about specific sexual problems. There's still a lot we have to talk about."

Her celebrity is such that a stroll in the streets of New York is repeatedly interrupted by strangers looking for an unscheduled roadside consultation.

Living in Ontario, Canada, Johanson can avoid such intrusions, and devotes most of her spare time to her garden and grand-children.

She chanced on her vocation as a reaction to the absence of sex education on her children's school curriculum. Her public career began in 1984 with a show on Canadian radio.

Johanson's current Oxygen slot receives an average 80,000 calls per show, of which only 12 make it onto the air, the cable channel said. Already available in Brazil and Poland, the program is slated for broadcast in other European countries.

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