At 82, Dr. Ruth Westheimer may look and sound like your bubbe, but it’s unlikely you’d go to grandma’s house for sex advice.
And yet, for the past three decades Westheimer has been a leading psychosexual therapist, hosting radio and TV shows and home videos, authoring newspaper columns and 35 books to date, teaching classes at Yale and Princeton and, along the way, becoming famous for her candid, entertaining and open approach to sex.
Born in Germany in 1928, Westheimer weathered the Holocaust in a children’s home in Switzerland before moving to Israel at 17 as a Hagana soldier, thereby fighting for Israel’s independence. After studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, she lived in America by 1956, soon working for Planned Parenthood. In 1980, Westheimer began hosting a 15-minute radio show called “Sexually Speaking.” It wasn’t long before Westheimer became Dr. Ruth, the compact (she stands at 4 feet 7 inches), frank sex celebrity she is today.
Westheimer will appear here May 26, brought by Adagio Health, the title X grantee for family planning in western Pennsylvania, for Rev Up the Romance: An Evening with Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Westheimer caught up with The Chronicle this week from her Manhattan apartment.
Jewish Chronicle: You often say that the key to healthy sex is knowing your partner. Can you elaborate?
Dr. Ruth Westheimer: It’s not just an issue of knowing what he or she would like sexually, but also knowing their interests, what brings them to passion. When you are really interested in your partner, in their life, their hopes, that can have an impact also on your knowing what they would like sexually.
JC: How do you feel your childhood, growing up during the Holocaust and then fighting in the Hagana, affected the person you became as an adult?
RW: There’s no question that having grown up as an orphan made me very, very aware of the importance of family life. That’s why my talk is not just about sex; it’s about the family.
I want to tell you something that came out of my course at Princeton. As an unintended consequence of my teaching about the Jewish family, a 20-year-old student who never had a bat mitzva had one just two weeks ago. I wasn’t there, but I saw the pictures.
So when you ask how that had an impact, I have to smile and say look at the outcome of teaching a course on the Jewish family.
JC: What does Judaism teach about having a healthy sex life?
RW: Part of my being so comfortable is, for us Jews, sex has never been a sin. Sex has always been a mitzva, an obligation — for married people, of course. Sex in Jewish tradition is not only for procreation, but also for recreation. Even after menopause, a husband is still obligated to provide sexual satisfaction for his wife, otherwise she can ask for a divorce.
JC: There’s a stereotype that, when it comes to sex, Jews can be Woody Allen-like and neurotic. Is that true?
RW: No. That’s Woody Allen; let him be in good health and continue to be creative. I do not find that to be true across the board. There are some people among us who have strange thoughts or feelings, but in general, that’s a comedian and not borne out by scientific data.
JC: You’re 82. How do you react to the notion in this culture that once people get older, they stop talking about and enjoying sex?
RW: Nonsense. I’m saying that a couple, if the relationship is a good one, is sexually literate, should know that a woman after menopause has to use a lubricant and a man at a certain age needs physical stimulation in order to obtain and maintain an erection, then people can be sexually active until a very late age. If they don’t know that, then there are all kinds of unhappiness occurring.
JC: What are some questions that, no matter how many times you answer them, people still ask again and again?
RW: The questions really fall into two categories. One is relationship questions. And one is specific sexual questions. I still get questions about women having difficulties obtaining an orgasm and from young men about premature ejaculation. The questions haven’t changed, but what’s changed is the vocabulary.
JC: What are the biggest changes in sex issues — the way we look at and talk about and have sex — that you’ve seen develop since when you were growing up?
RW: There are less women who haven’t heard the message that a woman has to take the responsibility of her sexual satisfaction. Even the best lover, even one trained by me, can’t bring her to sexual satisfaction if she doesn’t teach him what she needs. I’m also worried about boys and girls walking around half naked. Not at the beach, but at the malls. Boys with tight jeans where you can see their erection. Parents have to say — as long as you’re in my house, this is not the way you go to the mall.
JC: Have there ever been questions that were so out there you had no answer? What were they?
RW: If someone asks about bestiality, I say I’m not a veterinarian.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)