The Chutzpah That Made Dr. Ruth the Real Wonder Woman

Legendary sex therapist Ruth Westheimer tells Haaretz – in Hebrew – about the limits of the #MeToo movement, Judaism's contribution to sex theory, and the documentary about her that's now hitting Israel

Ruth Westheimer in Tel Aviv, July 2019.
Meged Gozani

A compact bundle of energy – smiling and amazingly task-oriented – bursts into the Tel Aviv living room where I’m waiting for her. Under 5 feet tall, 91 years old, a broad smile – and let’s go, she tells me, let’s sit at the table and begin.

I still haven’t recovered from shaking hands with the icon who has solved sex problems for tens of millions of people in the United States and around the world. I haven’t even had a chance to employ the foreplay of small talk and she has already scattered a pile of booklets, books, advertising leaflets and God knows what else on the table.

>> Read more: Sex and the Jews: How the rabbis made it up as they went alongSex education: How to teach porn-addicted teens about intimacy

Dr. Ruth is ready for the interview, which takes place in Hebrew; more on her biography later. It’s impossible not to feel like an extra in her show for a moment. She starts asking questions; have I seen the documentary, which is the reason we met? What did I think of it? Does it have Hebrew subtitles? Then she wants to know when the interview will be published to see if she’ll be able to get a copy of the newspaper.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, one of the most famous sex consultants and therapists in the world, is an experienced interviewee, so if she’s going to talk to a newspaper, she definitely plans to exploit the situation and promote a few of her books along the way. It turns out that a little chutzpah, when it’s accompanied by loads of charm and humor, is amazingly effective. Dr. Ruth would be the first to admit it.

Example 1: On the plane, on her way to Israel, she sat in economy class because she didn’t want to ask her Israeli hosts for a business-class ticket, she says. It wasn’t long before this considerate act cost her dearly.

“I was sitting in a terrible place: a screaming child, a mother screaming even more, I couldn’t sleep,” says the doctor, pulling out from the pile of books the July 1 issue of People Magazine. The cover headline screams “100 Reasons to Love America” – it was just before U.S. Independence Day.

“When I picked up the newspaper I saw the word ‘love’ in the headline, so I said, ‘Let’s see, maybe they included a picture of me.’” A few minutes later she was handing the magazine to a flight attendant. “She didn’t recognize me, but I gave her the magazine and told her, ‘Open to page 84, see who’s in the picture, and show it to the other crew members.’ Within two minutes I moved to business class,” she laughs.

Example 2: Fifteen minutes into the interview, Donald Trump comes up. Westheimer refuses to refer to him personally but recalls a caricature by an Israeli illustrator that she saw recently in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. The U.S. president is standing opposite his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un, each of them threatens to press the red button he’s holding, and between them stands Dr. Ruth saying “relax, size doesn’t matter.”

“It was great, I wanted to get the original. Maybe you can get it for me?” Westheimer asks. I tell her that the illustrator’s name is Guy Morad and offer to give her his phone number. “You call him, now,” she laughs. “I’ll speak to him.”

'Relax, size doesn’t matter!'
Guy Morad / Yedioth Ahronoth

Morad answers. “Guy, this is Dr. Ruth Westheimer from New York here, and I promise you a wonderful sex life if I can get your drawing,” she says in her imperfect but charming Hebrew. “I’m in Tel Aviv now, sitting with Haaretz, can I get the drawing? I showed it to everyone on television in Europe, I’ll give you more publicity, and I’ll give you a kiss. And if you come here and bring me that drawing, I’ll give you a box of chocolate from Switzerland and a promise of a wonderful sex life.”

With promises like that, is it any wonder Westheimer has become the sex-advice guru in America and worldwide, the person who for four decades has had the masses eagerly imbibing every word she utters and every piece of advice she proffers? Sex instead of Torah, clitoris instead of commandments, and tens of millions of viewers fantasizing about a wonderful sex life have made Westheimer an icon, a celebrity, the Jewish grandmother who saves humanity from the curse of mediocre sex, the superheroine who has the power to bring us closer to the longed-for orgasm.

When asked to analyze how it happened that she of all people has become the Wonder Woman of popular sexology, Westheimer surprises me: “It’s first of all because I’m Jewish, and for us Jews, sex was never something that you weren’t allowed to talk about,” she says.

“On the contrary. They always talked about it a lot because they wanted to have more children. There’s even a prayer on Friday night – when everyone wants to have sex – about ‘who can find a woman of valor,’ and there’s one verse there at the end where the husband says to his wife something like ‘a lot of women are successful, but you’re the best.’

“In terms of sexology, no sentence is more sexually arousing than that. So, even though I’m not religious, I’m Jewish, so I never had a problem talking about proper sex between a husband and a wife. And aside from that I have chutzpah, I dare, just like the turtle.”

She slyly manages to bring up the hero of one of the children’s books she has written; it’s on the table in front of us. She points to the book, just to make sure.

“If he stays in one place, that’s security, nothing happens,” she says. “But if he wants to progress he has to take a chance, he has to stick his neck out of his shell. And I realized that.”

A nonfeminist pioneer

The new and successful documentary “Ask Dr. Ruth,” which will be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Monday, is set to be released in movie theaters and will later will be aired on the Yes Docu channel in Israel. It offers another explanation for Westheimer’s success; her complex life story reveals a woman with tremendous passion, endless optimism and determination to live life to the fullest.

Her first boyfriend, who met her in the Swiss orphanage where she was sent at age 10 after the rise of the Nazis, says that already then he was impressed by her constant activity, by the fact that she couldn’t sit still for a moment. Years later she found herself a single mother in New York after divorcing her second husband; she did cleaning jobs and she and her daughter scraped by, but she still held parties in her home every week – as her daughter says in the documentary.

From the documentary 'Ask Dr. Ruth' about legendary sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
Hulu/Magnolia Pictures

And even after the traumatic death of her third husband, Fred Westheimer (“his two predecessors were affairs that became conventional; he was my great love”), right at the end of the shivah mourning period she returned to work full force.

“Ask Dr. Ruth,” directed by Ryan White, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary dwells on the traumatic childhood of a girl who lost her entire family and was forced to grow up as a kind of child-servant in an orphanage, and insisted on studying there at night, in secret, because that privilege was reserved for boys.

The film also brings Westheimer back to her days on Kibbutz Ramat David, when she served as a sniper in the Haganah pre-state army, and to the bombing in which she was seriously wounded in both legs. “Ask Dr. Ruth” skips among the various stations in her life in a very lively manner. Westheimer too – she explains in the documentary and in the interview that yekkes, German Jews, don’t cry in public – wraps even the gloomiest periods of her life in an airy package of humor.

Her cinematic biography becomes particularly enjoyable when she starts working at a Planned Parenthood center in Harlem and realizes how much people are suffering from a lack of knowledge about sex. Soon enough she gets a successful nighttime radio program and becomes the aunt who isn’t embarrassed to speak in prime time and in a heavy German accent about erections, orgasms, G-spots and premature ejaculation.

In the four decades since her first radio advice program in New York, which quickly made her famous, she has had sex advice slots on radio and television, moderated talk shows (including one in Israel), written more than 40 books, taught at universities, received patients at her clinic and even sampled a career as a movie actress – she appeared in a forgettable French comedy in the '80s with Gerard Depardieu and Sigourney Weaver, “Une Femme ou Deux.” Now she teaches two courses at Columbia University in New York, stills writes books and runs around the world with “Ask Dr. Ruth.”

In the documentary, in an amusing conversation with her granddaughter, Westheimer firmly refuses to describe herself as a feminist – despite her efforts over the decades to educate the masses that women too have sexual needs, that they too are entitled to orgasms and that they too, believe it or not, deserve sexual freedom. The film mentions that she also insisted on speaking publicly about lesbians and gay men and to grant them legitimacy, at a time when public opinion, and certainly that of the establishment, didn’t. And she wasn’t afraid to preach about safe sex and speak openly about AIDS when many people preferred to sweep it under the rug.

How to get pregnant

And still, like a good Jewish mother, when asked what she’s most proud of, she doesn’t hesitate: “My four wonderful grandchildren.”

When I try to get her to focus on her career, she explains how she’s “most proud of the fact that people know that I never talk about something that I don’t know about. If you ask something and I don’t know the answer, I say that I’ll phone you tomorrow or in a week, or I simply admit that I don’t know.

“Nor do I care if I sound like a broken record when I tell someone that I can’t answer them and they have to go to a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a urologist. I’ve always said that it’s impossible to do therapy on the radio or television. But I’m proudest of the fact that I’ve never gone on a reality TV show to give advice. I’ve been offered a lot of money, I’ve been offered the moon.”

Ruth Westheimer in Tel Aviv, July 2019.
Meged Gozani

But you’ve advised people over the phone. What’s the difference?

“It’s a big difference because they don’t see you, it’s anonymous. Over the phone it can be done.”

One of the complaints about you is that it’s irresponsible to give advice over the phone to someone you don’t know.

“There’s some truth to that. It’s not like sitting for an hour in my clinic, that’s why I can only say something brief, nothing more. But the man who said in the film that it’s presumptuous – I didn’t like that. I didn’t know him, he’s no longer alive, but he was the brother of the man who discovered the vaccination against polio, so apparently he has a lot of problems of his own.”

Do you believe that you've helped change something in America during the 40 years of your career?

“I think I helped explain that we don’t know the reasons for homosexuality. That we don’t know what it comes from, but that we have to respect everyone.”

What do you think about the #MeToo movement?

“I know that what I’m about to say isn’t popular, but I’m conservative and a little square. My values are old-fashioned. I claim that if two people – whether it’s a man and a woman or two men or two women – didn’t agree to have sex, they have no business being naked together in bed. It’s written in our tradition that if a man’s sexual organ is erect, his brains leave his head. So if two people haven’t decided to have sexual relations, they shouldn’t be naked together in bed.”

So you claim that it’s the responsibility of the woman not to go there in the first place?

“It’s the responsibility of both of them. Because the moment you get into bed naked the sex urge is very strong, and then it’s impossible to say ‘I don’t want to, I’ve changed my mind.’ I know that it’s not popular, but that’s my opinion. Of course I want you to earn money like a man, to have the same rights, to have your husband help around the house. There’s no question that I’m in favor of women’s liberation. But on the other hand, I don’t want you to take it to the streets burning bras. I prefer that it came from education.”

There’s a claim that #MeToo limits sexual freedom, that today men can’t woo women as they once did.

“True, it’s a disaster. I want a woman to be able to hit on a man, and a man to be able to tell you ‘what a pretty dress’ without you going to the police to complain because he sexually harassed you. Look, I’m conservative, I always say that. Even though I talk about erections and orgasms all day, deep inside I’m a yekke from Frankfurt,” she laughs.

“And you know what, maybe that helped pave my way to success. After all, there are other people who talk about sex; I’m not the only one. For example, there was one nurse, whose name I prefer not to mention, who had all the knowledge about the scientific aspect of sex, but she sat on television with a dildo and stroked it all the time. I would never do such a thing, that’s not my way.

“I talk about it, I tell a woman to use a vibrator – but not to get used to it, because no penis can do those vibrations, so it’s a good idea to use it and then put it aside and continue manually,” she laughs again. “And I like the fact that I can make you smile and laugh, because it says somewhere in the Talmud that if the teacher teaches with humor, the students remember what he taught.”

For 40 years you’ve been asked all kinds of question about sex, you’ve heard everything. Was there a question that managed to embarrass you?

“When they asked me once about sex with an animal, I said that I’m not a veterinarian. Period.”

You’re 91 years old – is there anything that we don’t know about sexuality at that age that we should know?

“I knew you would ask me,” she says, pulling out her book “Sex After 50” from the pile in front of her, adding that she hopes it will soon be translated into Hebrew. “You should know not to have sexual relations in the evening, only in the morning, when it’s easier to get an erection. You should know that it’s not true that women don’t want sex in the morning. After a good sleep, and after a small meal, it’s a good idea to go back to bed. And after middle age you have to use lubricant, because if it hurts her, she won’t want it anymore.”

You told me earlier that when you arrived in the United States you were sure it was temporary, that in the end you would come back to live in Israel. If you had lived here, would there be a Dr. Ruth?

“No. Absolutely not. I might have appeared on television once, and then they would have said we need something new. In America I succeeded, but in Israel you always need something new. I worked a little here in television, but it happened only once and wasn’t very successful. Still, I was happy that I did it in Hebrew and in Israel.”

In the film you also joke that maybe if you had been tall, blonde and gorgeous everything would have looked different.

“True, I said that in an interview with Diane Sawyer, who herself is tall, blonde and gorgeous, whereas I’m short, plump and old. I told her that if I had been sexy like Marilyn Monroe, I wouldn’t have succeeded. Maybe just because I was a little like a grandmother and thought I wasn’t pretty, everything worked out so well. That’s funny, isn’t it? She laughed, too.”

In recent years the research shows that Millennials have less sex.

“I don’t know if that’s true. I think it’s nonsense that they say that there’s no time for sex. Women who came to America in the 1920s and worked in the textile industry, for example, worked many more hours than people work today. So I don’t agree that there’s no time. And it’s hard for me to believe that they’re really having much less sex today.

“What does worry me very much is that young people are losing the ability to conduct a conversation. Everyone sits with his computer convinced that he has to look at the phone every minute. I go to a restaurant and see an entire family and they’re all sitting and looking at their phones. That’s a problem.

“The younger generation is losing the talent for conversation, and later that harms interpersonal relations and maybe the desire to have sexual relations. After all, it’s impossible to have sexual relations and look at the phone at the same time. I’m also worried that young people think, perhaps more than ever, that maybe someone better will come along.”

You once had a talk show. If you were hosting Dr. Ruth, what would you ask her?

“What should happen now. What we have to do to learn better about sexual relations. For example, I would like some university – I won’t do it at age 91 – to do a study about something that I learned from our tradition. It says that if a man brings his wife to orgasm before he ejaculates, she’ll have a child.

“And I have a theory, I want to know if it’s scientifically possible that if the woman achieves satisfaction, and there’s a lot of moistness in the vagina, it’s possible that this makes the man’s sperm swim faster and there will be a pregnancy. It would be very interesting if they researched this and we could see what our sages knew.”