GUEST: Dr. Ruth Westheimer
AIR DATE: 02/13/10
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And every time my friend and neighbor Ruth Westheimer — “Dr. Ruth” to so many millions both in America and around the world, every time she’s joined me here for one of our many broadcast conversations, I’ve thought all over again about that often repeated Civil War story of what Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What he said, supposedly was, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war”.
For in her own way, over the years this little lady has written many of the books, has starred in many of the television and radio programs, has given many of the speeches and public lectures, has taught many of the college courses that in their own massive way have contributed to the sexual revolution of our times, another “great war” – though perhaps not of liberation.
Indeed, some have claimed we were in bondage before that sexual revolution … others that we have been ever since.
Well, whichever, whatever, I wonder how Dr. Ruth herself evaluates the changes in public and private lives since she first began to educate us about sex. What about that, Ruth?
WESTHEIMER: Richard, first of all, there are changes. Second, I have to tell you … when … the moment when you say “sex” I see that little twinkle in your eye and I like that.
So there are changes. Not enough, but there are changes. Across this great country of ours there are less unintended pregnancies. Sometimes we read an article that again there’s a little bit of a rise, but in general that shows that we have done a fairly good job in talking about contraception, in talking about condoms, in talking about what you have to do in order to be safe. Even in terms of sexually transmitted diseases.
The big change across the country and that’s because of people like you … and me talking about it … there are less women who don’t have sexual satisfaction. See how careful I am on your program. Less women …
HEFFNER: Say it straight.
WESTHEIMER: Less women who don’t have orgasms. Why? Because we have talked more about. I’m not the only one. There are many other people. And women have heard the message that they have a responsibility to be sexually satisfied, that they have to train their partner.
Even the best lover, even one trained by me … can’t bring a woman to sexual satisfaction if she is not teaching what she needs.
So across the country after Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, Helen Singer Kaplan who trained me … there is no question that that has changed and there is one more important point that has changed … people ask me questions at every lecture, every place I go. The questions are not so different … relationships, loneliness, all of the questions of satisfaction in terms of sexuality. The vocabulary has changed.
People don’t say any more “She’s with child”. They say “She’s pregnant”. They say, “orgasm”, they say the word “erection”. So the vocabulary has changed because of people like you.
HEFFNER: So the way we speak or our willingness to speak, to talk frankly, is what you consider the most important change. And that it has led to other important changes.
WESTHEIMER: Absolutely. Changes in terms of satisfaction. For example, older people have to learn that an older man … don’t blush … an older man …
HEFFNER: Who’s “older”, come on …
WESTHEIMER: … an older man doesn’t have what is called a psychogenic erection. He doesn’t get an erection just by wanting to have sex. He has to either be touched or to touch himself. A woman after menopause needs to use a lubricant. So we have a lot of scientifically validated data and it has to be “out there”, that’s what we are doing.
HEFFNER: We talked so many, many, many years ago, Ruth, about what we were like when you came to this country. And you said at the time when you got here you thought “These Americans are crazy, all they talk about is sex.”
WESTHEIMER: I did. Because I worked for Planned Parenthood …
HEFFNER: Yeah …
WESTHEIMER: … and I thought “What’s the matter with these Americans? They don’t talk about literature. They don’t talk about the weather. They don’t even talk about food. All they talk about is sex.”
And 48 hours later after I got the job as Research Director for Planned Parenthood, I said, ‘Hold it, what a fascinating topic. What an interesting subject matter.” I used the data of 2,000 women and their contraceptive and abortive history .. that was before abortion was legalized in New York State … for my doctoral dissertation.
And now I’m 81 and a half and I haven’t stopped talking about sex yet.
HEFFNER: I noticed that. I notice that.
HEFFNER: Are you ever going to?
WESTHEIMER: Never. If I would get bored, then, Richard, you would know it because it would project that I’m bored with the subject matter. Then I would stop.
But I know what to do not to get bored. I do other projects … we’ll talk about that in a moment.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s the thing that, that I wanted to ask you about. I, I asked Daphne Doelger to bring these … just the ones that I brought with me … the disks, the books, that have to do with Dr. Ruth doing these many other things.
Your wonderful, wonderful book Shifting Sands about Bedouin women …
WESTHEIMER: Richard …
WESTHEIMER: … that woman there, in this film … in this DVD … it’s going to be shown 2010 across the United States on public television … you will love that woman, she’s gorgeous. She’s a Bedouin, the first in the world, an ecologist working in Israel, in Beersheba … coming from a family background where this was unheard of.
And my interest in the Bedouin, in the shifting sands, because the sand is shifting under their feet as we speak … was to see what does it do to the fabric of the family when a woman brings home a paycheck. That has never happened to the Bedouins … they used to be nomads. Suddenly we see Bedouin women doing carpets, doing other things. But this particular one … and I have an attorney … two of them are gorgeous … the attorney says to me in the market … of the Bedouins … she says, “You see on the outside I look like everybody else. I’m wearing jeans, but inside I’m a Bedouin.”
So I’m fascinated everything that has to do with the family. That’s why I did the documentary on the Druze …
HEFFNER: Which I remember so well.
WESTHEIMER: How is it that the family has such a strong hold on them? And for my personal history, it makes sense that I’m interested in family.
I didn’t have a family from the age of ten. I was an orphan, I was in an orphanage. I created later a family of wonderful husband who you knew and who loved you. Fred already is gone for ten years.
And, but the, the whole issue of family is a burning issue with me. So I know how to do … to say family is crucial.
Sex, within the family, with that couple is also important, but I try to do every single year some thing that is not just orgasms and erections.
HEFFNER: But, but let’s, let’s continue along those lines. I remember when Elaine and I saw the documentary about the Druze. And you talk now about inside it is the same for the women, even in the marketplace. But how can it be when they are now earning a living? What must be the impact of a different economic situation vis-à-vis men and women, husband and wives?
WESTHEIMER: Tremendous changes are going to happen. It will not be the same. How fast? I don’t know. But there is no question that the Druze family eventually will be assimilated and we can say, I can say “how sad” because I hope they keep the values of their family lives.
The Bedouins are going to be changed … at the moment they are now in towns and not nomads picking up their tents. And it’s interesting to me to talk and to teach about the early childhood socialization.
The early years of a child, where the influence on the family is tremendous.
HEFFNER: The interest of the family.
WESTHEIMER: Yeah. The influence of family.
HEFFNER: And what is happening?
WESTHEIMER: What is happening is that people have to see, despite the changes, which we see in this country … look how many people are divorced. Look how many people live in different types of families … homosexuals, lesbians, everything. But that the core of that relationship between people has to remain.
HEFFNER: You say, “has to remain”, Ruth. Aren’t you protesting too much? Aren’t you spitting against the wind? The wind of change?
WESTHEIMER: No. Because I say here I’m now at .. in the 21st century. I have an iPhone, I have two “apps”, I do all of these things, but the core of decency, the core of being interested in a conversation … that’s where you are the master of … has to remain.
I’m very worried about the new age of all of the texting. Of all of the emails, because I want people to talk to each other. If you weren’t so far away, I would say, “I want people to be able to touch each other” when they talk, and we are going to be … have to be very careful that this doesn’t get lost, our teen-agers already have trouble talking. And I know that I go to dinners and somebody sits and texts.
In my classroom I don’t permit them to have their computer. I said this is a seminar, you have to talk to each other, I grade you on that. And put that computer away. And don’t let me see you use any texting or any, any email during that time. I think we have to stand up to be counted that that relationship of conversation, of listening to each other, has to remain intact.
HEFFNER: Do you think there’s any possibility that what you want and certainly I want it, too, will be the case as we march into the future, that electronic future?
WESTHEIMER: Yes. Because we have to adapt our thinking, but we also have to stand up and tell the techno-geeks that they have to be careful about that. When somebody says “I met my beloved …” aww and it just happened to me now in Jerusalem at a big conference.
A big shot said “I met my partner on the Internet”. I said “Wonderful. But I also want you to talk to her”.
WESTHEIMER: It’s alright to meet because we live in such a, a place. But you still have to have that core of being interested in talking to each other.
HEFFNER: That’s to maintain the human situation that you know and I know. Where is it written … Ruth … where … is … it … written that we must maintain those traditions.
WESTHEIMER: I tell you where. In the Jewish tradition, the word “to know” … in Hebrew it’s “ladat” .. the word “to know” means to know somebody, it also mean sex. Which is wonderful because yet “to know” means sex, it’s intercourse … means all of those things and gives instructions of how to caress and everything else, but the word “to know” means to know each other. It means to take the time … like you are doing on your program … to listen and to talk to each other. There is nothing out there interrupting us. There is no music, there is no other dancing, all we do is conversing. In the Bible it says “to know”.
HEFFNER: Well, in the Commandments certainly true. Which reminds me, Ruth … you, you, you, you say in the Jewish Bible … I was fascinated before when you talked about your own origins as an orphan.
You didn’t and I wondered why weren’t you saying that Hitler orphaned you, that it was the Holocaust that made you a refugee. That it was what happened in Germany, as you used to talk about that so much.
WESTHEIMER: I do say that I am … I’m not a survivor. The reason I make that distinction is because I’m an orphan of the Holocaust. I was in an orphanage in Switzerland, I was not in a camp. I was not in an extermination camp like Auschwitz, I was not in a camp where there was a danger of life.
So I’m very careful to say “I’m an orphan of the Holocaust” …
WESTHEIMER: I came out of Nazi Germany and I’m saying how sad I am that German Jews did not listen to the book of Hitler, Mein Kampf, because they would have realized that they should get out.
But they were so taken by assimilation, they were so taken by being Germans, of Jewish origins, even Orthodox, I come from a very Orthodox home. But I am very saddened when I know that just, even now, we just don’t listen carefully when there are dangers.
My museum, I’m on the Board of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a living memorial to the Holocaust. That’s where I’m supposed to be because I’m an example of that. We now have an exhibit about Morgenthau and it’s fascinating because Morgenthau’s father wrote a letter to Roosevelt and used the word … Yiddish … “shiker” … shiker means drunk. And Roosevelt responded, “A little bit shiker?”
So there were things there that I have to say to this wonderful country that I have made my home, raised my children, will not leave … even so I have visited Israel every year, that some people up there did not, were not careful, because they could have stopped the war and they could have entered much earlier. That makes me very sad.
HEFFNER: And Israel today?
WESTHEIMER: And Israel today … I’m very worried. Because I want peace. All I want is for these different ideas … I don’t, I don’t talk politics. Because I’m sitting here … so I don’t do armchair politics for Israel. If I want to do politics, I have to move there.
However, I’m very, I’m very sad. I go every single year. And I see the magnificent country, I see the, they live differently than when I lived on a kibbutz and didn’t have anything to eat. Or when I was in the Hagganah, as you know … and I was a sharpshooter …
HEFFNER: You certainly were a sharpshooter …
WESTHEIMER: And I can put five bullets in the red circle. I never killed anybody, but I was badly wounded. So I strongly believe that Israel has to exist. But I’m also worried about … I would like it to be happening in my lifetime.
HEFFNER: In your lifetime, in my lifetime. Recently I did a program with Elie Wiesel and as always with Elie, one thinks about memory. And I have to say that I feel so strongly that our recollection of … our memory of … and I’m not even talking about the “deniers” of the Holocaust, our memory is fading fast …
WESTHEIMER: Very fast.
HEFFNER: As we’re fading … very fast.
WESTHEIMER: Not only that, there are going to be very few people, that’s why we have to have these courses … I’m very grateful to Elie Wiesel. Because Elie Wiesel devoted his entire life to talking about memory and to talking about those things.
That’s why I can talk about sex all day long. Because somebody else eloquently and with many books has been talking about the things that have to be talked about.
And I agree with you, the “deniers” is a small, a few people and I don’t want to waste even thoughts on them … except to stand up and say “You know what, what’s … don’t you read history? Read. Read in the books.”
But there is no question there is a very serious concern about my, my generation not going to be around and who will be able to say “This is what happened to these children, when they had to leave Germany … Nazi Germany”.
If I had not been on that train, leaving Frankfurt to go into Switzerland, I wouldn’t be alive. So I feel very strongly about that responsibility. But I’m fortunate that other people … like you and Elie Wiesel talk about it, so I can talk about the other things.
For example, I just did something brand new. It’s called a Jewish Spirit Sings …
HEFFNER: And the Jewish “spirit” we know who that is …
WESTHEIMER: And …
HEFFNER: … there she is.
WESTHEIMER: And I’m singing … don’t ask me to sing … I sing false …
HEFFNER: I wasn’t going to, Ruth, don’t worry.
WESTHEIMER: (Laughter) I’m singing with Tom Chapin. What it really is, it’s the book … musically speaking, that I did with the University of Pennsylvania …
WESTHEIMER: … Press … on tape with a, a … very famous cantors. And it shows a little bit the spirit of my childhood … again.
Again talking about this early influence of the family because my parents certainly sang to me … and when I heard, yesterday, at Alice Tully Hall … Pinkas Zuckerman playing a Brahms lullaby, it’s in there and he didn’t even know that … I didn’t give him the tape yet.
But I have to tell you something seriously. This is being sold and … at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in the store and I established a scholarship in the name of Fred Westheimer … he loved music … for children who sing in the choir of the Zamir Chorale.
HEFFNER: And tell me what do you do when you go to Yale? When you go to Princeton?
WESTHEIMER: Oh, I like the way you say “Yale”. Even so you are Rutgers … I like the way you say “Princeton”. Look how fortunate I am, in the spring …
HEFFNER: They’re fortunate, Ruth. They’re fortunate.
WESTHEIMER: I’m fortunate. In the Spring, every Monday, I’m being picked up, I go to Yale … I spend the whole day. I do my seminar with Rabbi Ponet … Jim Ponet who has been at Yale for 20-some years. Then I listen to other people’s lectures … whatever is available on a Monday.
Then I go to a performance … either Shakespeare, or there’s a wonderful cello ensemble and then at 11 o’clock at night the car comes … I say a few words, I go to sleep, I go home. Same thing with Princeton. So I’m very fortunate.
I know the students have something unique because of those things that we discuss now, because I do documentaries and I bring them and they can watch them. Not in class, I don’t waste a class on watching a documentary … that’s homework for them.
But we have enough to discuss about. So I’m very fortunate, I’m very grateful for that.
HEFFNER: What do you teach them?
WESTHEIMER: I teach the Jewish family. At Yale I was teaching three years … the American Family and Intimacy, together with a psychiatrist and a historian.
At Princeton I do the Jewish family, but I bring in a Rabbi to talk about the Biblical family. I don’t know enough about that. And the students have … they have to write a paper and they have to write a final paper. No exam, it doesn’t lend itself. But what, what the strength of the seminar is … each one has to report … sometimes two together … on a topic and has to bring in questions for the other people in the seminar to respond to. So that’s where the conversation comes in. That’s where you are the master of conversation.
HEFFNER: But you, you’re very kind …but conversation. I remember the time up at our beloved Lake Oscawana when Elaine and I asked you and Judge Judy to come over for drinks one afternoon …
WESTHEIMER: I’ll never do that again …
WESTHEIMER: … because she didn’t let me talk, she talked more than me.
HEFFNER: (Laughter) That’s what you said when she left.
HEFFNER: The first time you’d met someone who talked more than, than you did.
WESTHEIMER: She didn’t let me get a sentence in … I tried.
HEFFNER: Where else do you find this, this desire for conversation. You’re concerned that it’s gone in the electronic age, or that with the kids and their cell phones and their thumb …
HEFFNER: … use, that it’s gone.
WESTHEIMER: But I see it all over. I was last night at a big fundraiser for a hospital at Tel Hashomer in Israel. And I was very sad that even at my table and I believe that I’m a good conversationalist … I saw three people, they were not sitting right next to me … I would have taken it away from them …
WESTHEIMER: … they were sitting over there … they were texting. I don’t know what they were talking about. Maybe it was very important or maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was just saying “I’m bored”. But that, that’s one of the things that, as educators … you and me … have to stand up and say, “Wonderful, the new age, use it, but also know when not to use it.”
HEFFNER: Of course, I don’t go along … I’m not as gracious as you are. I don’t say, “Wonderful, the new age” because I think there are many more dangers even than using it when you and I are at dinners. But, again, I have the feeling that we’re just spitting against the wind.
WESTHEIMER: No. Richard, I’m an optimist.
HEFFNER: I know.
WESTHEIMER: I would not be Dr. Ruth Westheimer, talking about arousal and resolution phase and after sex and caressing and talking to your partner if I were a pessimist.
We have to be very careful … that saying “Yes, there are some dangers, but to keep that optimistic nerve in us. Maybe my optimistic nerve comes from my early childhood. I had a wonderful upbringing the first 10 years of my life. A grandmother who had nothing else to do but take care of me. A father and a mother who worked … lower middle class, but a wonderful upbringing. And maybe my optimism stems from that.
Because pessimism is just going to tear you down. You will not be productive. So we have say, “Warning”. But we have to say, ‘This is what we can do with it’.”
HEFFNER: And in the one minute we have remaining, I, I, I’m going to comment on the fact that you and I both believe so strongly in the role of the grandparent. And I remember the time we sat at this table and you had just had the arrival of your first grandson …
HEFFNER: … and I of mine.
HEFFNER: And it is a great thing.
WESTHEIMER: And look at the joy.
WESTHEIMER: Even for a pessimist like you. Where you were beaming for happiness?
HEFFNER: True. True, true, true.
HEFFNER: But I remember, too, Dan Heffner sending us sweatshirts that said, “If I had known how great grandchildren were, I would have had them first.” And maybe that’s the point at which we ought to end this program.
WESTHEIMER: No. I don’t agree. I wanted to have my children. My Joan and Miriam are fantastic. The grandchildren are fantastic, too …
HEFFNER: Okay, on that …
WESTHEIMER: Did I get it in?
HEFFNER: You got it in.
HEFFNER: Dr. Ruth, thank you so much for joining me again today.
WESTHEIMER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.