Dr. Ruth: The Private Parts


by Kira Albin, interview conducted in 1996
photograph by Sharon Green

In a townhouse-style dollhouse sits a miniature Dr. Ruth Westheimer bent over her desk doing research. Later she will recline on her Freudian couch, with her stiff ceramic legs extended awkwardly in front of her.
The owner of this dollhouse is none other than the real Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a renowned sex therapist, who is also rather miniature at 4' 7" but whose force of personality fills a room with laughter and energy. Whenever she talks on the phone, Dr. Ruth-as she is generally known-plays house with a cast of inanimate figures that includes a replica of herself, a grandmother, grandfather, and other family members. One of the diminutive rooms serves as a nursery and is already filled with miniature toys for the newest addition to the doll family, a baby granddaughter. The miniature maid tries to keep everything in order but is frequently found sleeping under a huge pile of small-scale clutter.
Dr. Ruth reiterates that the dollhouse is hers, not her grandchildren's. And she uses it to "recreate family."
Dr. Ruth is all too familiar with recreating family. At the age of 10, the only child of an Orthodox Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany, Karola Ruth Siegel was sent on a train to a children's home in Switzerland for six months. It was to be a temporary move to a place of safety, until the trouble in Nazi Germany "blew over." But Ruth never saw her family again, for they died in the Holocaust. She stayed at the Swiss "school," which became a kind of orphanage for 100 refugee girls, and after six years, earned a maid's certificate.
By 1948 she had emigrated to Palestine, where she was trained as a sniper for the Haganah, an underground Zionist movement. It was there that Dr. Ruth married her first husband in the hope of replacing the family she had lost. After several years together in Paris, where her husband was studying medicine, their marriage was dissolved. In the 1950s, while living in New York, Dr. Ruth fell in love with a Frenchman, and after she became pregnant, they married. That marriage also fell apart, but their daughter became the first part of Dr. Ruth's new family.
Family is the theme of Dr. Ruth's latest book, The Value of Family (Warner Books, 1996), coauthored by Ben Yagoda, in which they question Dan Quayle's perception of family values, offer realistic remedies to the challenges facing families today, and provide a blueprint of family life for the 21st century.
Dr. Ruth accepts the many faces of the American family, whether parents are divorced, gay and lesbian, or multiracial, but she is, herself, traditional. "I'm old-fashioned and a square," she is often heard saying and expresses her belief in marriage, her third having lasted 35 years to date, in religion-she regularly attends synagogue-and in her heralding of the Bible as an authoritative sex manual. And though she is frank and straightforward in her discussion of sexuality, she has always held to the convention that sex is a private matter.
"I speak very explicitly, but I never ask personal questions," explains Dr. Ruth emphatically. "I never ask, 'Are you doing it?'" Likewise, she never answers personal questions about sex and keeps her family out of the limelight. She jokes, however, that her husband is never invited to attend her lectures because he would only reveal "it's all talk."
Dr. Ruth takes her lessons of "sexual literacy" to small groups of teenagers, auditoriums of adults, seminars for professionals, synagogues filled with seniors, and face-to-face with clients in her office. Her words grace the pages of 14 books, she's hosted numerous radio, and television shows, writes an internationally syndicated column Ask Dr. Ruth, teaches at New York University, and has been featured on several videos, including Playboy's instructional series called "Making Love." Many wonder how this Jewish German immigrant, with the thick accent and grandmotherly looks, came to start such a titillating career.
Along her academic path, which culminated in a doctorate in education from Columbia, Dr. Ruth became interested in the study of sexuality. One day in 1980, following her lecture to a group of New York broadcasters about the need for more sex-education programming, a local radio station invited her to be a guest speaker. Soon after, Dr. Ruth became the host of "Sexually Speaking," a 15-minute taped show aired Sundays after midnight. When the station offered listeners a promotional "Sex on Sunday" T-shirt, producers expected a few hundred calls. The requests exceeded 3,500.
People giggle, blush, and twist uncomfortably in their seats when Dr. Ruth talks. But she makes them laugh and, as the Talmud says, "A lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained." Yet humorous though she is, Dr. Ruth is serious about teaching sexual literacy, teaching, for example, that with age come changes in our sexual functioning: men don't get psychogenic erections (an erection that occurs just by thinking about sex), they need physical stimulation; women after menopause may need to use a lubricant so intercourse is not painful; and the missionary position requires more strength and energy than other positions.
For those who wonder why older people would even care to know such things, Dr. Ruth says, "We do know-through the best scientifically validated data about human sexual functioning-that people can be sexually active until the age of 99."
Her vision for a brave, new world includes a "dating room" in retirement homes, complete with a couch, fireplace, and a little placard outside the door which reads, "Please do not disturb." Sex would not be eliminated from television but would be shown responsibly, with discussions about relationships, love, and commitment. And of course, consequences.
"I'm not worried about soap operas," says Dr. Ruth. "I just would like a box of condoms next to each steamy love scene. And condoms come in different colors; they can be matched to the sheets," she adds with a sparkle of humor. But the worst part of television, she reminds us, is the violence.
Above all else, the message that Dr. Ruth hopes to impart is that a joie de vivre-a joy for life-"is more important than orgasms." "Then," she adds, gesturing with a schoolteacher finger, "I want people to know, if they are in a relationship, they can vary the sexual experience so it doesn't become boring, and to say to each other, 'How fortunate that we are in a relationship, that we also have emotional and intellectual stimulation.'"
Joie de vivre, not sexuality, is what emanates from this unabashed sexologist. Sixty-eight this year, Dr. Ruth skis, rides a "short mountain bike" every weekend in the summer, and walks regularly. "The night before last, I danced for three hours," she exclaims with delight.
With the certainty of a king making a proclamation, Dr. Ruth announces, "I have a brand-new granddaughter, six weeks old, and she's the most beautiful granddaughter in the world, and my grandson is the most beautiful grandson." Dr. Ruth's two children, Miriam and Joel, both have doctorate degrees, are happily married, and live in New York City. And of course they both learned the facts of life from none other than the world's expert. "I didn't tell them about a stork," Dr. Ruth says during an interview on NPR radio, "I told them how babies are born."
Ari, her six-year-old grandson, doesn't yet realize that the grandmother who takes him to Disney World and showers him with toys is a sex expert. But Dr. Ruth laughs in expectation of the day when Ari will say, "Omi, you can't talk about these things."
"Like my son, when he was at Princeton," recalls Westheimer gleefully, "and I was on the radio every Sunday night. From all the dormitory's he heard his mother's voice..."
Dr. Ruth and her husband, Fred Westheimer, still reside in the same three-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights where they raised their two children. The neighborhood is home to a community of German Jewish World War II refugees, Dr. Ruth's two synagogues, and a Y.M.H.A., of which she is president.
Dr. Ruth could live on Park Avenue if she cared to. But for the woman who has reaped generous financial rewards for her fame and frequently commands $15,000 per appearance-Washington Heights is still the home to a family of friends she cannot afford to lose, a decision that stems directly from her Holocaust experience.
"However you define it," she writes in her latest book, "family is one of the most precious gifts a human being can be given. And it should never be squandered."

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Photograph: 1996 Sharon Green, Berkeley, California, 510-528-4439. Ms. Green's images have been exhibited in fine art galleries throughout the United States and Europe.