Dr. Ruth, the world’s most famous sex therapist—and at 90, the subject of a new documentary—has long harnessed the power of pop culture to tackle that most intimate of subjects.
It’s January 2018, and Dr. Ruth is visiting the place where her fame began, roughly 40 years ago: a radio studio in New York City. This time around, though, she isn’t the host of the show, dispensing advice about sex and relationships with candid words and a signature accent (“a cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse,” The Wall Street Journal put it). Now she is the guest. Her legs dangling lightly from a chair that is, like most chairs, far too big for her—she is 4 foot 7—the woman who spent years answering other people’s questions is now answering some about herself.
“We are back,” her host says into the studio’s microphone. “This is Midday on WNYC. I’m Jonathan Capehart, and I am speaking with the iconic, world-renowned sex and relationship therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. In her latest book—”
“Jonathan, wait!” his interviewee interrupts.
“Yes, ma’am!” he replies.
“I would say the word sex with more emotion.”
“Oh!” he says.
“Say that word sex as if you really mean it. With some warmth! With”—she thrusts up her hands—“some excitement! With some aRRRRRRousal!”
“Okay, yes, ma’am,” Capehart says, grinning. “Um, I am speaking with the iconic, world-renowned”—he adds a newly guttural emphasis to his delivery—“seeeeeex and relaaaaationship therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.”
He looks over at Dr. Ruth. “How’s that?”
“That,” she says, “was wonderful.”
A century ago, Edward Carpenter, the poet and activist, wondered, “Why, we may ask, should people be afraid of rousing passions which, after all, are the great driving forces of human life?” It was a question about religion; it was a question about politics; it was a question that never got fully answered. In American culture, instead, sex has existed in a kind of haze: It has been everywhere, and yet, in a more meaningful way, it has been nowhere. It has often been discussed, when it has been discussed at all, in language that is coded and furtive, its warm truths concealed under a network of strategically desiccated fig leaves. It has been rendered as images that flicker on distant screens. It has been outsourced to marketers who have promptly converted it into a sales proposition. It has been decided on our behalf.
That has been changing, gradually, in part because of the idea Dr. Ruth spent decades impressing on the public through her radio show, and her several TV shows, and her several books, and many of the other outgrowths of a one-woman media empire: Sex, she insisted, should be a topic of public conversation. And it should be given, when it is talked about, the basic courtesy of blunt language. Her inaugural radio program, Sexually Speaking, launched in 1981, was premised on the notion that the tentative new freedoms promised by a sexual revolution might bring with them tentative new questions. She set about answering them, call by call: queries about, among many other things, erectile dysfunction (don’t worry, Dr. Ruth would say; that’s easily solved), about clitoral orgasms (don’t stress; they simply take patience), about the G-spot (don’t bother; it doesn’t exist). Toys? Boredom? Is it normal to—?
There is no such thing as “normal,” Dr. Ruth would interrupt, emphatically, empathetically, again and again, until it became a refrain. Her age (she was born in 1928) and her accent (German, with a hint of Hebrew) suggested that she might have a particularly profound comprehension of how notions of “normalcy” could be made into weapons of cruelty. She had no patience for sanctimony, and no time for people who preached compassion but failed to practice it. Sexually Speaking was a lighthearted show with a serious implication: The line between sexual freedoms and freedoms of the other variety is not as stark as it might seem. A Ph.D. rather than a medical doctor, Dr. Ruth refused to take refuge in euphemism. She found clarity in the haze. There are so many things, her life had taught her, that are more important than politeness.
At the height of her fame, in the 1980s and ’90s, Dr. Ruth was a frequent guest on late-night talk shows, and her visits would often go like this: Perched on the given show’s couch, legs dangling, she’d talk about vaginas and vibrators and anatomy and autonomy, with unapologetic warmth and excitement and aRRRRRRousal, and her interviewer, very often a man, very often burying his face in his hands in mock agony, would be brought into the bluntness along with her. So would the audience. Her utter lack of embarrassment made a claim that was as radical as it is obvious: Sex should not be a source of shame to anyone, because sex is something that belongs to everyone. “I am going to make you say ‘vagina’ and ‘clitoris,’ because I always hear you talk about ‘penis,’” Dr. Ruth once told Arsenio Hall. It was a joke that was also an argument.
Ascene in Ask Dr. Ruth, Ryan White’s vibrant documentary celebrating her life and work, finds the film’s subject, in the days before her 90th birthday, revisiting a diary she kept when she was a girl. One of the entries mentions the book Letters for Young Girls, a primer written by a physician for purposes of sex education. Its lessons impressed on the young Dr. Ruth not bashfulness, but wonder. “Everything in nature is so fantastically well organized,” she wrote, in German, in the diary. “One can’t possibly think that anything about it is dirty.”
It is a telling detail—the child, anticipating the path of the adult—but White does not linger on it. The central fact of the film, instead, is one of the central facts of Dr. Ruth’s life: The girl who was born, in Frankfurt, as Karola Ruth Siegel—the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel—left her family when she was 10, when they sent her to live in a repurposed orphanage in the Swiss Alps as part of the Kindertransport effort. The separation saved her life; it also meant that she would spend the years between girlhood and womanhood not knowing where her family was, or whether they were still alive. Only after the war ended did she learn that both of her parents had been murdered in the Holocaust, her father at Auschwitz, her mother at a location unknown.
“There were many years that I thought that if I had stayed in Germany, I could have saved my family,” Dr. Ruth told me when I met her recently. “Nonsense. I wouldn’t be alive. You would have never met me.”
One of the remarkable elements of Ask Dr. Ruth is that, though it is often a film about pain—of a woman who is both a survivor of the Holocaust and an orphan of it; of people who have been punished simply for being themselves—it is, on the whole, a joy to watch. That is largely because Dr. Ruth herself is a joy to watch. (“Why keep publishing books at 89?” an off-camera voice asks her at one point. “What a stupid question,” she replies, grinning. “Next question.”) Dr. Ruth has been, variously, a daughter, a mourner, a refugee, a sniper, a maid, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, an educator, and a celebrity who renders David Letterman speechless with stories about unconventional uses of onion rings. The film joins those identities, and others, in a way that reads as coherent but not overdetermined. It is aided in that by a subject who is, after all, a therapist—a professional connector of life’s disheveled dots. “By not having parents since the age of 10,” she says in the film, “I was very aware of the importance of being touched. Of being loved. So that’s one of the reasons that I became so interested in the issues of the family, and of relationships, and eventually of sexuality.”
A lesson that endures from her childhood, Dr. Ruth told me, is the idea that “you have to be educated, because education nobody can take from you.” While she has taken in knowledge, she has also studiously amplified it: She has taught courses on sexuality at Princeton and Yale, and still teaches at Hunter College and Teachers College at Columbia, where she earned her Ph.D. She has written academic papers. She has produced her own documentaries. Those efforts are of a piece with the less obviously instructive elements of her output: The sex-themed board game. The VHS tape. The line of low-alcohol wine (just the right percentage, the pitch goes, to loosen inhibitions). The ads for various sodas, and for Mr. Peanut, and for Herbal Essences body wash, and for LifeStyles prophylactics (“Do you use condoms? Goot!”).
It probably did not occur to whoever coined the adage “Sex sells” that the person who would take the idea to its logical conclusion would be a “bite-sized sex therapist” correcting the record about G-spots. But to watch Ask Dr. Ruth is also to come away appreciating the sense in her celebrity. “A lesson taught with humor is one retained,” goes the Talmud; here is that wisdom, applied to discussions of topics that aren’t typically afforded the freedom of open air. At lectures and other public events, Dr. Ruth will often break the ice by promising that the people who summon the courage to ask her a question will have “good sex for the rest of their lives,” and the laughter that results will serve a practical purpose: Don’t worry. Don’t stress. During last year’s interview at WNYC, a woman—Michelle, from Brooklyn—called in to the show. “I was a teenager in the ’80s listening to you on the radio,” she told Dr. Ruth, “and there was a lot of shame around sex. And your sex-positive, nonjudgmental perspective saved my life … So I just want to thank you—you’re an angel.”
“Well, I like to hear that! I accept to be an angel,” Dr. Ruth said, grinning. “I’m a Jewish angel.”
You could trace the moment Ruth K. Westheimer became Dr. Ruth to the time she started going by her middle name, Ruth, after the war; or to the day she married Fred Westheimer, in 1961; or to the day she got her Ph.D., in 1970. But you can trace it most immediately to 1981—the year that other radio station, WYNY, took a gamble on a sex therapist with a Teutonic speaking voice and a no-nonsense brand of empathy. She was qualified for the job in part because, earlier in her career, she had taken a position at Planned Parenthood in New York, preparing women to become family-planning counselors. Patients and others at the clinics she visited wouldn’t simply talk about sex, she says; they would also ask questions about it—precisely the kind she would later field on the air. At the time, she wasn’t sure how to answer. “I thought, These people are crazy—all they talk about is sex!” she told me. “Talk about the weather, not about sex! … And then 48 hours later, I said, Whoops! What an interesting subject!”
To learn more about it, she applied, and was admitted, to the postdoctoral program run by the famous sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan. And then, in 1981: WYNY reached out to the program, asking for a researcher to do a brief segment about sexuality on its air. While her fellow academics balked, Dr. Ruth agreed to do the show. Sexually Speaking was broadcast very late on Sunday evening; despite the constraint, it was almost an overnight sensation. “Grandma Freud,” as Dr. Ruth soon became known, was an expert who happened also to be a natural entertainer, and her guiding principle—There is no such thing as “normal”—proved a source of liberation both to callers of the show and to the many more who listened in. “She can seemingly say things on the air that no one else can these days,” The New York Times marveled in 1985, “even on Sunday nights, when men of the cloth are preaching hellfire and brimstone up and down the radio dial. This could be because she is short and sweet and takes her subject seriously.”
The radio show led to her first TV show, Good Sex! With Dr. Ruth Westheimer, in which she interviewed a series of the time’s A-list celebrities—among them Patti LaBelle, Fran Drescher, Cyndi Lauper, Isaac Hayes, and Burt Reynolds. The show led, as well, to her first book (Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex), and to a second (First Love: A Young People’s Guide to Sexual Information), and to a third (Dr. Ruth’s Guide for Married Lovers), and soon to many more. For a woman who, on arriving in New York, had worked as a housekeeper for $1 a day—and a woman who had taught herself English with the help of romance novels (“because I always wanted to read to the end to know what happened”)—it was a remarkable reversal. But it was also a logical one: There was a market for treatments of sex that prioritized truth over timidity. And there was, in an even broader sense, a need for those treatments. Why be coy about reality?
One of the best moments of Ask Dr. Ruth is an exchange, set at her kitchen table in Washington Heights, between Dr. Ruth and her granddaughter, Leora. “Omi … are you a feminist?” the young woman asks the older one. “No!” comes the emphatic reply. “Why?” Leora says, laughing in mock frustration—they have clearly had this conversation before.
“I’m old-fashioned! I’m a square!”
“Do you agree that men and women should have equal rights?”
“Absolutely, equal pay.”
“What about abortion?” Leora continues. “Should women be able to decide if—”
“Absolutely. I said that already.”
“Okay, so you’re a feminist!”
Dr. Ruth shakes her head. Soon Miriam, Leora’s mother, joins the conversation. “In our language, you would very much be called a feminist,” Miriam says, mediating between the generations. “What you resist is the activist protesting in, you know—”
“Burning bras,” Leora says.
“Yeah!” Dr. Ruth concedes. “I don’t want you to walk around burning bRRRRas.”
Their confusion is understandable. Dr. Ruth’s long career suggests a feminist mind at work. You could read Sexually Speaking, with its bold, bald language, as a mass-mediated form of consciousness-raising: What were those callers doing—and what was their ad hoc therapist doing along with them—if not spreading awareness through the sharing of stories? “I’ve never heard women tell the truth about sex before in public in my life,” Gloria Steinem said of the show, with a note of awe. And as Dr. Ruth’s celebrity took on an atmospheric quality, it summoned the power of pop culture to change myths and minds. But it also followed in the broad intellectual tradition of works such as Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power; Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex; the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves; and Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm—the essay that introduced many men, and for that matter many women, to the mere existence of the clitoris. (It was published in 1970.)
Those works fought for frankness. They understood that equality would not be possible in a world that treated men’s bodies as obvious and women’s bodies as mysterious. They resisted an environment in which, as Dr. Ruth puts it, people “were still believing that not only don’t you talk about sex, but women really don’t enjoy it.” (A male caller to her show: “If a woman is frigid, what happens if you—” Dr. Ruth cuts him off. “Whoa! Hold it! That word you can’t say on my program. There’s no more ‘frigid woman.’”)
It is rare to see a celebrity who is also so deeply humane. Joan Rivers called her “the goddess of good sex,” and the good was the radical part: Dr. Ruth emphasized pleasure and consent and respect—respect above all—during a time when those ideas were seeking purchase in American culture. They still are. “Don’t just sit there and suffer,” she advised. “Don’t fake it. Don’t be unhappy or frustrated, but do something about it.”
The first, crucial step: Talk about it. Frankly, openly, unabashedly. Language leads as much as it follows. It shapes the world even as it responds to it. Good Sex!began with the familiar warning “This television program contains explicit sexual language and may not be suitable for all audiences.” The message was revealing both because it was so dully perfunctory and also because it was so thoroughly wrong. “Explicit sexual language,” as Dr. Ruth deploys it, is not a threat; it is the point. It is the gift she has given to all those who have watched and read and listened and learned as she has repeatedly refused to be embarrassed. It hints at all the good that can come when people, finally, can say that word sex as if they really mean it.