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This article by Deb Cooperman was prepared for the April 6, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Sex, and Life, According to Dr. Ruth

The phone rings 15 minutes before our scheduled interview and the

voice at the other end begins, "Hello! This is…" but I don’t need

to hear her say her name to know who I’m talking to. Dr. Ruth

Westheimer’s voice is a familiar as that of a member of the family.

Before Sue Johannson was talking sex on the Oxygen network and Dr.

Phil was "tellin’ it like it is," America had Dr. Ruth. A psychosexual

therapist, Westheimer’s "Sexually Speaking" radio show debuted in 1980

as a 15-minute taped program that aired Sundays after midnight on an

NBC affiliate in New York, where she still lives. A year later, the

show was nationally syndicated and went live. For one hour every week

Dr. Ruth fielded calls from listeners, dispensing practical advice and

dispelling myths on all things sexual to people in an era when sex was

easy to get but not that easy to figure out. This sprightly woman with

her distinctive accent and straight-talking advocacy for sexual

literacy seemed to sweep the country. You couldn’t go anywhere in the

1980’s without seeing her smiling face or hearing her intone brightly:

"Have good sex!"

Not quite as visible on television as she used to be, the

four-foot-seven-inch 76-year-old Westheimer still maintains a schedule

that puts people half her age to shame. She maintains a private

practice in New York. She has written 30 books and countless articles

– "Sex for Dummies" has been translated into 23 languages, and the

"Ask Dr. Ruth" column is syndicated around the world. She continues to

teach and speak around the country, spreading the gospel of good sex

through knowledge, respect, and empowerment.

On Thursday, April 14, Westheimer will speak and sign books at a

fundraiser to benefit the Family Guidance Center of Hamilton at the

Janssen Pharmaceutica corporate campus in Titusville. The $90 ticket

includes wine, a dinner buffet, and silent auction.

She is also currently teaching a spring semester seminar, "The Jewish

Family," for the Judaic Studies department at Princeton University for

the second year in a row. The day we spoke she said she had just

received word that the university wanted her to teach the course again

next year – and she was clearly delighted.

But then, there seems to be very little that does not delight Dr. Ruth

Westheimer. She was full to bursting with enthusiasm about the wide

variety of topics we covered in this phone interview including but not

by any stretch of the imagination limited to sex. An engaging woman

and the epitome of no-nonsense, with Dr. Ruth, what you have seen on

TV (and heard on the radio) is what you get.

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1928, Westheimer, an only child, was

sent to a school in Heiden, Switzerland, when she was ten, following

the capture of her father, Julius, by the SS. The school became an

orphanage for most of the German Jewish students who had been sent

there to escape the Holocaust. (She never saw her parents again; both

were presumed to have been killed at Auschwitz.) At 16 she went to

Israel where, as a member of the Haganah (freedom fighters), she

fought for the country’s independence. Later she moved to Paris, where

she received her undergraduate degree from the Sorbonne. She moved to

the United States in 1956, obtained her masters degree in sociology in

1959 from the New School of Social Research (writing her thesis on the

children of Heiden camp), and received her doctorate in the

interdisciplinary study of the family from Columbia University

Teacher’s College in 1970.

While working for Planned Parenthood Westheimer decided to continue

her education in the field of human sexuality, studying at New York

Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center. Being known as a sex-pert

isn’t always easy for Westheimer. "I still blush sometimes. I’m really

old-fashioned and a square." (Imagine hearing that last sentence with

the trademark Westheimer accent and try not to smile.)

When asked about such hot-button topics as Chastity Clubs (there’s a

new one on Princeton’s campus) or the trend of young people "hooking

up" for casual sex, and the misguided idea among many junior high

school students that oral sex isn’t really sex, Westheimer says: "I’m

not interested in the extremes. I talk about the importance of

relationships. About nobody putting pressure on anybody else. And if

they want to wait, fine. You have to make decisions based on your

values."

When she speaks at the Family Guidance Center benefit Westheimer will

expand on that concept, and she also plans to stress how important it

is for people in the helping professions to be sexually literate.

(According to the Family Guidance Center’s web site, its mission is to

provide "community-based services to a culturally-diverse population

in mental health, addictions, family and financial counseling, and

education.") "I tell a group like this that they have to be

comfortable," she says, adding that the more comfortable people are

talking about real issues in sexuality – those in the helping

professions and private citizens – the fewer unintended pregnancies

and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as broken and unhappy

relationships, there will be. "We have to talk about these things,"

she insists.

She is eager for attendees of the Family Guidance Center benefit to

come with questions, as she likes to open the floor to questions.

Often, however, people are too nervous to stand up and ask, so she has

audience members write their questions on index cards that are

collected, which she then answers during the Q&A period. "I’ll bury

some of the stories that still abound about contraception and

masturbation and older people not having sex."

Talking about the sex lives of older adults is something Westheimer is

about to get a lot more practice in. Her newest book, "Sex Over 50,"

is due out this summer, and she will be making the regular press

rounds; Westheimer sounds like she’s relishing the chance to get out

there and bring her plain-speaking conversation about sex to the

masses again.

As for her seminar at Princeton, sex enters into the dialogue but

there is a lot more to it than that, Westheimer says. "I have quite a

bit of personal experience," she says, referring to the areas of

discussion covered in seminar. In conversations about the Holocaust,

she says, "We talk about the Kinder Transport – I was one of them;

Kibbutz living – that’s where I lived…"

Westheimer’s son, Joel, graduated from Princeton, Class of 1985 (he is

now a professor of education at the University of Ottawa), and she

says that she has had a love affair with the university and town ever

since. When she was participating on a panel there several years ago,

department of Judaic Studies director Froma I. Zeitlin asked if she

would consider teaching a seminar the following year. "I said yes so

fast so they wouldn’t change their minds," she says. "These are very,

very smart students, and it’s a lot of work. But I learn something

new every time." Her daughter, Miriam, is the director of HIPPY

International (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters).

Westheimer relishes her days in Princeton. "I don’t just come in and

do my seminar. I make it a Princeton day, I have lunch with somebody.

And there are other people’s lectures; I listen to lectures that have

nothing to do with my topic." She rattles off several lectures she has

attended, and then enthusiastically makes a pitch for a music program

that the Judaic Studies department is co-sponsoring: "Lost in the

Stars," Thursday, April 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Taplin Auditorium in Fine

Hall. The concert is free and open to the public. Given this woman’s

lust for life, it wouldn’t be surprising to see her in the audience.

"Whenever I can," she says, "I participate."

– Deb Cooperman

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, keynote speaker at an evening to

benefit the Family Guidance Center, Thursday, April 14, 6:30 p.m.,

Janssen Pharmaceutica corporate campus. $90, includes wine, dinner

buffet, silent auction, and book signing. Call 609-586-0668.


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