Sex therapist, TV and radio personality Dr. Ruth Westheimer is coming to town to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mazzoni Center during its fundraiser Elixir: the Cure for the Common Gala, May 20.
Westheimer will be recognized for her career in educating and advising the masses about sexuality, which, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 30 years, you know she’s world-famous for.
Westheimer’s life was colorful — even before she set foot in the U.S. in 1956. She was born in Germany in 1928 and sent to a children’s home in Switzerland at age 10, which became an orphanage for German Jewish youth who’d been sent there to escape the Holocaust. By age 17, she was living in Israel, fighting for the country’s independence as a member of the Haganah, the Jewish freedom fighters. She later moved to Paris, where she taught kindergarten.
Westheimer then immigrated to the United States, where she obtained a master’s degree in sociology and a doctorate in the interdisciplinary study of the family. She worked for Planned Parenthood for a time and decided to further her education in human sexuality.
Westheimer became “Dr. Ruth,” the radio and TV personality, when she began dispensing advice on sexual matters on her radio program “Sexually Speaking,” which debuted in 1980 on WYNY-FM (NBC) in New York City. It quickly went from a 15-minute pre-recorded show to a live, one-hour broadcast during which Westheimer answered call-in questions from listeners. It wasn’t long before she was all over radio and cable-television programs on talk shows bearing her name.
Westheimer said her radio show attracted LGBT listeners and callers from the very beginning.
“When I did radio from 1981-91, called ‘Sexually Speaking,’ I had many, many gay people call,” she said. “They right away knew that I’m not judgmental and that I give good advice. For example, a young man called from in the middle of the country. He said that he was gay, and if he told his parents he was gay it would be a catastrophe. This was in the early 1980s and he was very distraught. And I said keep your mouth shut, don’t say anything, finish high school, then go to a large university that has a group for gays and lesbians and then go to a big city because there will always be groups where it will be easy for you. I met him again many years later in New York City and he said I saved his life. So I have, instead of saying you have to conform or you have to come out, I said, in those years, make sure that you finish high school and you go to a large university. Today, it’s a different story. That’s one of the stories I smile when I think about.”
By the mid-’80s, Westheimer had become well-known as a sex therapist and pop-culture icon, and remains so to this day.
“I went and saw ‘The Normal Heart’ again and I’m [mentioned] in it,” Westheimer said of her fame. “An actor says, ‘Let’s call Dr. Ruth.’”
We imagine being the public face of sex therapy in the past 30 years would at times be rather tiresome, especially if strangers want sex advice from you when they see you on an elevator. But Dr. Ruth doesn’t seem to have any problems with it.
“I love it!” she said of her global fame, rather forcefully. “On June 4, I’m going to be 83. And I love walking in New York City and having even younger people knowing me. I’m very fortunate because I kept up my academic career. Up until this year, I taught for the past six years Mondays at Yale and Thursdays at Princeton. I’m very happy to be Dr. Ruth because I get house seats to see ‘The Normal Heart’ and, more important, I got to go backstage, meet the actors and congratulate them.”
Dr. Ruth’s enduring fame is even more impressive considering people today have access to a wide range of sexual information (thanks, Internet!). But Westheimer said she has kept up with the times.
“I do have a Twitter, but when I did the radio in the 1980s, there were very few places I could send people for counseling,” she said. “Thank God that has changed. Today, if anyone asks me, there are many more places [to recommend].”
Westheimer added that people ask a lot of the same questions about sex now as when she started.
“The questions have not changed. They still fall into two categories: relationship questions and specific sexual questions. What has changed is the vocabulary. No one says anymore about a pregnant woman that she’s ‘with child.’ They say pregnant. What has changed is that I get more questions about oral and anal sex than I did many years ago. The openness about the questions certainly has changed. But there are still plenty of questions about premature ejaculation, inability to have an orgasm and difficulty with erections. So there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Seeing how conservatives get all bent out of shape about discussions of sexuality these days, we wondered how Dr. Ruth navigated the Reagan era with her frank discussions on TV. But Westheimer said the way she presented herself negated much of the potential backlash she might have experienced.
“I was very fortunate because I was already 50 years old when I started on television and radio,” she said. “I never sat on television with a short skirt. Also because I right away stated that I’m old-fashioned and a square, I really had no difficulties. Once there was a politician who always wanted to be on television, they warned me about him ahead of time. He wanted to do a citizen’s arrest because I talked about homosexuality on state property at a state university. All I wanted to know was if he was armed since I was in the underground in Israel. I have tremendous respect for armed people. I made my talk so riveting that he forgot to ask the question. He was sitting there with his mouth open. Afterward he came up on stage and wanted to do a citizen’s arrest. I came out of Nazi Germany, so that part I did not like. But right away they escorted him out. All in all, I was fortunate somehow. People realized that I’m very serious. I can use humor, but deep down I’m very serious. I wanted to make sure that the message of respect gets served and the message [gets across] about being prudent, being careful and using condoms.”
We were surprised to learn Dr. Ruth had also done children’s programming parodying her therapist status on the PBS show “Between the Lions,” in which she helped anxious readers overcome their fear of long words.
We can’t blame her for branching out.
“I used to be a kindergarten teacher,” she said. “When I did the program on PBS for children with the puppets, teaching puppets how to read, I myself think that that’s fantastic. Here I can show that having been a kindergarten teacher is still being valued. I’ve had no problems with that.”
Westheimer is also an accomplished author who’s written more than 35 books and a syndicated column. It’s no surprise that of all her books, the one she recommends most to people is the most straightforward.
“‘Sex For Dummies’ because it has paragraphs and people don’t read whole books anymore,” she replied. “They’re used to small bites.”
Westheimer added when she was originally approached to write the book, she didn’t want to do it.
“Thirteen years ago I said no. I don’t talk to dummies,” she said. “They called 10 times. Finally I went to Barnes & Noble’s and looked at ‘Windows for Dummies’ because in those years they only had computer books. I immediately said yes, I’ll do it. I called the publisher and said yes, I’ll do it, and I’m expensive. That opened the doors to all the other ‘Dummies’ books because in those years, they only had computer books. Now they have tennis and skiing and cooking and “Oprah for Dummies.” ‘Sex for Dummies’ is out in 28 languages and just came out in the third edition in English. I think this is the one that right now is the most popular.”
When the subject of her Lifetime Achievement Award came up, Westheimer spoke highly of Mazzoni Center’s work.
“I’m very happy to do the gala and I’m very pleased that they’re placing an emphasis on talking about sexually transmitted diseases,” she said. “In New York City, there are sex clubs springing up with indiscriminant sexual activity, heterosexual and homosexual. I’m very worried. I don’t want to see a new rise in AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. So I say you have to be careful. I’m also old-fashioned and a square: I say the best thing is to have a relationship. I would like [gay] marriage to be legal, no question, for all the reasons of inheritance and family life. I know many gay people who have children. If a gay couple walks into my office, I treat them with the same respect that I would treat anybody else. Respect is not debatable.”
Dr. Ruth Westheimer is being honored at Elixir: the Cure for the Common Gala along with Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes, his wife Sheryl Lee Ralph and The Trevor Project, 6-10 p.m. May 20 at Loews Philadelphia Hotel, Millennium Hall, 1201 Market St. For more information, visit mazzonicenter.org/events/elixir or drruth.org.