NEW YORK — As Dr. Ruth Westheimer holds the door open to her Washington Heights apartment her cheer spills into the hallway. It’s plain to see why she has served as a sort of sex therapist-in-chief to the nation for more than four decades.
Now 90, Dr. Ruth, as she is affectionately known, is every bit the firecracker those of a certain generation have come to know — and those of a new generation are soon to meet.
There is her new graphic-novel style autobiography, “Roller coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth,” and there are plans for a return to television. There’s also her newly released, “From You to Two: Dr. Ruth’s Rules for Real Relationships,” which she co-authored with her longtime friend and advisor Pierre A. Lehu. And there’s a documentary in the works.
Born Karola Ruth Siegel in 1928, Westheimer was the only child of an Orthodox Jewish couple. She spent a carefree childhood in Frankfurt, Germany, until the Nazis took power. Her father was arrested in 1938, seven days after Kristallnacht. One year later her grandmother and mother sent her alone to Switzerland aboard a Kindertransport. She never saw them again — they were killed in Auschwitz.
While in Switzerland, Westheimer worked as a maid for a Swiss Jewish girls school. There she frequently dismayed the staff with her habit of talking about menstruation and other subjects they viewed as unmentionable.
Having become a Zionist, Westheimer left for Israel when she was 17 and joined the paramilitary group Haganah. Though she trained as a scout and a sniper, she never saw action. Just a little more than a month after Israel declared independence, a bomb exploded outside the kibbutz where she lived, severely injuring her foot.
She studied at the Sorbonne, taught kindergarten and pursued a doctorate in education at Columbia University.
It was while working at Planned Parenthood that her interest in human sexuality was first piqued. Her media career began in 1980 with the radio show “Sexually Speaking,” which aired for more than a decade. Using her humor and wit, she spoke frankly even in polite company about a range of topics once considered taboo.
My concern now is the loneliness I see
Still beaming about her birthday bash at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the newly minted nonagenarian sat down with The Times of Israel to talk about the state of sexuality in 2018 America and why she considers herself an “old fashioned square.”
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
In 2013 you received the Margaret Sanger Award for your lifelong commitment to empowering women and men to talk openly and honesty about sex and sexual health. How would you describe the state of sexuality in 2018 America?
The specific sexual questions I get have not changed so much. There are always lots of question about sexual satisfaction, questions about all the dysfunctions. What has changed, because of programs like mine, is the language. People speak much more explicitly now.
My concern now is the loneliness I see. I think it has to do with the internet. People don’t take time to date, that’s why I did a book on dating. People are losing the art of conversation because they are always on their phone. Young and older people need to learn relationships take time and effort. So I’m not so much concerned anymore teaching the specifics of sexual knowledge — men know enough about premature ejaculation. I’ve talked enough about that. My concern now is interpersonal relations. That’s why I did this book, “From You to Two.”
When you started in 1981 people didn’t speak of safe sex, they weren’t speaking of AIDS or HIV. What progress do you see on this front?
I was one of the first people to say you have to use a condom. I was one of the first ones to participate in fundraisers for AIDS. Now I’m very concerned because young people don’t think they have to be worried about [AIDS/HIV] because there is medication available.
I’m also concerned about older people who engage in sexual activity before they really know their partner. We’re going to see a rise in sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS. That’s why I keep talking about how careful you have to be. That’s why I don’t believe in one-night stands and I do not believe in hooking up.
I’m all for any place, any way, any media that can help people connect with somebody and not be lonely
How do you view dating apps since you’ve always emphasized the importance of relationships?
I’m all for any place, any way, any media that can help people connect with somebody and not be lonely. But people need to be clever about it. They should never, ever meet in a secluded place. Meet in a lobby of a hotel or a building, somewhere public.
I think you should use any available media to make a connection. That holds true for heterosexuals and homosexuals, that holds true for anybody. But I’m old fashioned and a square. I’ll teach you about good sex and different positions but I don’t want you picking somebody up from the street. I want you to have a relationship.
What’s the biggest concern you hear about sex as people age, and why is there a reluctance to show older people as sexual beings?
I did a book called “Sex Over 50.” Older people have to learn not to engage in sex at night when they are tired but in the morning when they are rested. It’s easier for men to have an erection in the morning and it’s not true that women don’t like to have sex in the morning, that they need to have the stars out there and darkness. People have to learn to adapt and continue to be sexually active until a very late stage in life.
It’s true people are worried about talking about older people and sex. They say “What? My parents aren’t engaging in sex anymore. My grandparents aren’t engaging in sex!” That myth has to be shattered.
What do you tell couples who have been together for decades who want to keep their relationship strong?
I tell people with children still in the house to go out once a week and talk about anything but the children. Otherwise, once you are an empty nester you might have nothing to talk about. I tell couples with teenagers to check into a hotel for a couple of hours, you don’t have to stay the whole night; you can pay the hourly rate. Take some bubble bath and some champagne and make sure you have some good sex. You have to work at the relationship to be productive and interesting.
How does the way sex is portrayed in the media and the widespread availability of pornography affect what people consider “good sex” or healthy sex?
There’s nothing wrong with reading “Fifty Shades of Grey,” if they don’t take it seriously. [Author’s note: Yes, Dr. Ruth read it, and thought it was silly.] But people have to remember everything they see on TV or in the movies is exaggerated.
There’s nothing wrong with reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ if they don’t take it seriously
People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown — how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that. I’m not saying they shouldn’t watch sexually explicit material. They can learn something from it, but they shouldn’t take it as something that is absolute in terms of research.
What do you think your grandparents would have thought about your profession?
At age 10 before I left Frankfurt I found a book “The Ideal Marriage.” I was interested. I don’t think my grandmother who lived with us, or my parents, would have envisioned that I’m going to be talking about sex from morning to night. In the beginning my parents, and my grandparents, would have said “What is she talking about sex all the time?” but then they would have been very proud of what I’ve done.
How can we transmit a healthy approach to sexuality to the more religiously observant segments of the Jewish community?
I believe that I can talk so openly about sex because I’m very Jewish and in the Jewish tradition, sex has never been considered a sin but always an obligation. And it’s an obligation for the husband to satisfy his wife.
Traditional Jews can use something on Friday night when the woman of valor is being said, the Eshet Chayil. There is a sentence there, where the husband says, “many women have done superbly, but you surpass them all.” I don’t know of any sexually more arousing sentence than when a husband says to his wife you are the very best.
How was your birthday party?
I had 350 people and it was great. We had a view on to the Statue of Liberty. We raised a lot of money for the museum because I said don’t give me gifts, except I hoped I would get a few gifts.
My friend Diane gave me a pen from Tiffany and I love it. I already had it engraved RKW. Why the K? Because when I came to then Palestine, and before I joined the Haganah, my name was Karola. They said I couldn’t use my name Karola so I used my middle name Ruth. I don’t know if Karola would have worked well here. Dr. Karola? I don’t think so, but I keep the K anyplace I go to keep my feet anchored in my past.