Dr. Ruth Changed the Way America Talked About Sex

A new documentary chronicles the revolution Ruth Westheimer brought to the air

At nearly 91, Dr. Ruth is still committed to the cause (Getty Images/Rachel Murray/Stringer)
smithsonian.com

When Dr. Ruth Westheimer first hit the airwaves in in the early 1980s, she was a woman on a mission: America’s favorite sex therapist—psychosexual therapist, she’ll correct you—says she knew there was a “desperate need” for Americans to be better educated on human sexuality. So in her 15-minute, prerecorded time slot late Sunday night on New York’s WYNY-FM (97.1), she used her call-in show Sexually Speaking to dispense her vast knowledge on sex—“good sex,” she amends cheekily—to as wide an audience as possible.

“This is Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer and you are listening to Sexually Speaking. I am not a medical doctor and I do not do therapy on air. I am here to educate. If there’s anything you want me to talk about relating to sexual matters you can reach me at 212-873-7888.” She’d say a variation of this each week on air—this amalgamation comes courtesy of Mark St. Germain’s biographical play on her—and people called in, to talk to her about everything from erectile dysfunction, female orgasms to masturbation.

What she was doing was unheard of at the time in the United States. The Chicago Tribune reflected that if her show had debuted a decade earlier, the questions she answered “would have sent the Federal Communications Commission reeling toward revocation of a broadcast license.” Go back two decades, to the 1960s, the situation seems even bleaker: “She might have been hauled off to jail.”

But there was something about her: a “je ne sai quoi” as she’d say. Just 4-foot-7, with the holdover of a heavy Bavarian accent from her childhood, she had the chutzpah—and the professional degrees—to confidently answer her audiences' many pressing questions on human sexuality.

The newest tribute to Dr. Ruth, Ask Dr. Ruth, is a documentary that plays like a love letter to Westheimer’s life, and explores just how she bypassed the taboos of Puritan-Victorian America that still gripped the country in the 1980s to get Americans talking frankly about sex. As the documentary shows, it is hard to understate how much of a cultural sensation Dr. Ruth became. She was a talk show circuit darling, who made the rounds on Letterman and Carson. She cameoed on “The Simpsons.” She quizzed Jerry Seinfeld about his sex life. In 2009, Playboy magazine declared Westheimer one of the 55 most important people in sex from the past 55 years for its 55th anniversary edition.

Born Karola Ruth Siegal to an orthodox Jewish family in Germany in 1928, Westheimer was sent away from her parents on the kindertransport to Switzerland in 1939 to escape Nazis rule. She survived the war, but her family did not. Orphaned at 16, she moved to British-mandate Palestine, where she became known by her middle name (her first name, she was told, was “too German”) and trained as a sniper for the forerunner of the Israel Defense Force (fortunately, she says, she never had to put her skills to use). After being injured in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, she followed her first husband to France in 1950. When he wanted to return to Israel, she asked for a divorce so she could continue to study psychology.

In 1956, she immigrated to America, and found her way as a single mother living in New York who didn’t speak English. She went to work, learning the language and earning money as a maid as she continued to pursue her studies. By 1967, she had been appointed director of research at Planned Parenthood Harlem, where she followed some 2,000 patients and their contraceptive and abortive history at a time when the practice was still illegal in New York. The experience fundamentally shaped her mission to educate people on human sexuality. “I believe in the importance of sexual literacy in an age of unprecedented sexual freedom." Westheimer reflected in a 1983 interview. "There's a tremendous amount of ignorance."

Westheimer calls Helen Singer Kaplan, a pioneer in the field of sexual therapy who founded the first clinic for sexual disorders in the U.S., “instrumental” to her journey becoming “Dr. Ruth.” By the time Westheimer approached Kaplan, she had earned her M.A. in sociology from the New School and a doctorate of education from Columbia University’s Teachers College, but Kaplan only wanted medical doctors for her clinic.

With characteristic determination, Westheimer didn’t let that stop her. When she attended a talk Kaplan was giving in New York, she remembers everyone being too afraid to raise their hand to ask a question—everyone, that is, except Westheimer. During an interview with Smithsonian tied to the premiere of Ask Dr. Ruth, she mimics her younger self with an impish smile, raising her hand. Good question, she recalls Kaplan saying in response. “So then I right away went over to her,” she says. “I said: ‘Can I please come to your program?”

Westheimer may not have been interested in becoming a star, but as Ask Dr. Ruth shows, she had an inescapable star quality. While she says she wasn’t thinking about ratings when Sexually Speaking first debuted in September of 1980 ( “I knew that I’m an educator and that’s all that I wanted to be on the air. Education about human sexuality and education about relationships”), it quickly became apparent that there was an audience eager for what she was saying. Soon, her show expanded, going live on Sunday nights from 10 to 11 p.m., putting her on her way to becoming the top-rated program in the New York area. “Higher than morning radio in rush hour,” Ryan White, the director of Ask Dr. Ruth, adds proudly.

While you may not have agreed with her on everything, her voice made a difference. She was vocally progressive when it came to answering questions on the LGBTQ community, people with H.I.V./AIDS and women who chose to have an abortion. Later in life, she says people would contact her and say, you saved my life.

Dr. Ruth rose to fame as the genre of talk therapy was exploding. By 1982, the Los Angeles Times reported that “approximately 80 radio psychology programs with mental health professionals” were being broadcast. Westheimer says she never paid attention to her peers in the field on air. “I just knew what I was doing. Let everyone else do what they want to do. I wasn’t in Los Angeles, I wasn’t in Hollywood,” she says, “I just did my way of doing it and it worked.”

The rise of the cheap personal radio player certainly played a role in her listener count. (The first portable cassette player, the Walkman, debuted in 1979, and Sony and its competitors soon experimented with adding AM/FM receivers to their devices.) “That was key to her success,” White says. “People could go to bed, like teenagers, and secretly listen to her. Parents would never know.” Or, as Westheimer puts it, slyly: “Sunday night at 10 youngsters didn’t have to be told to take a shower and go to bed; they were already in bed.”

As it happened, the year Westheimer first began to blow up—1981—was also the year the Centers for Disease Control would retroactively identify the first patient of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. “It really coincided with whatever I was doing,” says Westheimer.

Westheimer shies away from talking about politics in interviews, and she’s about to leave the conversation there when White gently pushes her on it. “That shaped how you messaged that to the country. Because you cared deeply,” he prompts.

No question, she agrees. She pauses to collect her thoughts. “AIDS affected me personally because I can think of about ten guys that died of AIDS. That’s a lot, but it’s New York,” she says, shifting the conversation to talk about how much more research needs to be done on H.I.V. and AIDS today. Always one to take an opportunity to talk about safe sex, she adds a PSA: “I want to tell young people, gay or not gay, you don’t know who the people you’re going to bed with were with the night before. Even a condom can’t protect because a condom can break.”

Historically, Westheimer has been reluctant to speak publicly about her own politics as well as her own personal life. “I always say one of the surprising things about Dr. Ruth,” White says, “is how she never talks about sex.” That makes one of Ask Dr. Ruth’s biggest accomplishments filling in some of the blanks on her crusade for sexual literacy in the U.S. (The documentary includes interviews from her family, which help spells out the things Westheimer won’t say, like in one scene, where her granddaughter tries to get Dr. Ruth to see why she’s seen as a feminist, whether or not she wants to accept the label.)

But her hesitancy to talk politics with a capital "P" makes sense when considering the tightrope she had to walk down the political aisle: she wanted to disperse her message to as many listeners as possible at a time when just saying the words “penis” or “vagina” on air was considered shocking.

Today, she’s recalibrated her position a little. While Westheimer is still insistent she doesn’t talk politics, she will speak out openly on two issues now, both which connect to her on a fundamental level: her distress over children being separated from their families—“We have to stand up and be counted,” she says—and reproductive rights: “I would be very upset if Planned Parenthood doesn’t get funding and if abortions should become illegal,” she says.

Ask Dr. Ruth was filmed as Westheimer readied to turn 90, and it leaves you with a picture of a woman not interested in slowing down anytime soon. Dr. Ruth, in our interview, remains the same (Jewish) evangelical for her cause, sexual literacy, continuing to work to educate anyone she speaks with not just about good sex but safe sex (more than once in our interview, she reminds me, condoms can break).

Already the author of approximately 40 books, she has a new edition of her book Sex for Dummies, focusing on millennials, dropping later this year; she says she supports online dating because she doesn’t want anyone to be lonely (as long as people meet up safely, “in a church or synagogue”); she even uses Alexa (she tries it out in the documentary's delightful opening scene).

While she’s hosted at least five television shows (and one glorious short-lived test for “Dr. Ruth’s House”), her first cable TV show, “Good Sex! With Dr. Ruth Westheimer,” became a breakthrough moment for her when it debuted on the fledgling Lifetime network in 1984. That same year, she gave a lecture at the University of Connecticut on the need for a more sexually literate society. “The more we will educate, the less we will need sex therapists,” she told the roughly 1,300 students that crowded into the auditorium to hear her speak.

When I ask her about that quote today, she clarifies that she never anticipated a time where she herself wouldn’t be needed. Without missing a beat, she insists, “I never said I’d end. I’m going to be 91 June 1, and I’m still going.”

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