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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
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 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
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
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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