Ruth Westheimer

America’s Significant Other: Dr. Ruth

VTR Date: September 21, 1991

Guest: Westheimer, Ruth


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Title: “America’s ‘Significant Other’: Dr. Ruth”
VTR: 9/21/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, where it’s really been too long now…a half decade, in fact…since I last indulged myself (and my viewers, of course) by talking here with a very dear friend and Lakeside neighbor who has remained – indeed, over these years has become even more – the somewhat improbable doyenne of popular American sexual literacy: Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose radio programs, television series, books, columns, lectures, even board games about sex – good sex, always good sex and what she calls responsible sex – make her one of the most readily recognizable “significant others” in America…and overseas now, too.

Of course, I know that what looms even larger in Dr. Ruth’s life now than what I’ll call her national sexual prowess is the pleasure that she and I share respectively in her grandson and mine. But I don’t think that you’d really want us to spend this half-hour sharing stories and snapshots of Ari and Alexander, so instead, I’ll ask Dr. Ruth what changes – for good or for bad – she sees as having taken place in our country’s sexual climate in the years since we’ve talked together here on THE OPEN MIND. Dr. Ruth, what’s, what’s happening besides Ari?

Westheimer: The first thing I have to tell…when you talk about “significant other”, that’s a sociological term, but there’s no question that for you, Alexander, and for me, Ari, has become already a “significant other”. What a pleasure to see another generation already growing up and when I look at that little child, I have to say something seriously to you, because with you and at the Lake and here I always talk seriously…then we talk about sex. I look at that little 15 month old boy and I say, “Hitler ws wrong” because Hitler did not want me to have grandchildren. He didn’t want me to be around in the first place. So the joy that I feel, Richard, with this new life that I see growing up, it’s just…I can’t even explain it. Now, about sex.

Heffner: Wait…

Westheimer: (Laughter)

Heffner: …there are in Ari and Alexander centuries before and centuries to come, too, and that’s the glorious part of it.

Westheimer: And that also has to do with what I talk about in terms of sexual literacy. I don’t see any tremendous changes in the 90s. What I do see, however, people are more careful. That’s how we see that there is more of a romantic notion, that’s how we see, and I was at the wedding of your son, let’s tell that to our viewers here…there was a feeling of romantic in the air, which I think is wonderful. I have always talked about that. I have always said that in order to have good sex, there has to be a relationship, there has to be that look, don’t let your wife or my husband see this program…that look between you and me that’s what really it kind of shows a relationship…it shows…it doesn’t show sex, per se. When people say “she talks about sex all the time”, that’s not what I stand for. I stand for something that is built on a relationship, that is built on wooing another person, then making a decision of remaining together. I think because of sexually transmitted disease, I think because of AIDS particularly, we do see more of a responsibility, of people having a relationship and not saying, “Okay, if he doesn’t look at me the right way, tomorrow I’m moving out”. I do see in terms of…you said before that I’m very much for good sex, but responsible sex…I do see that we talk more openly. And it pleases me. I’m 4’7”. It pleases me to no end…

Heffner: It pleases all of you…all 4’7”…

Westheimer: …all 4’7” of me…it pleases me to think that I had a little part in people being able to talk about issues of sexuality, and people being able to use a vocabulary that I was taught by Masters and Johnson, by Helen Singer Kaplan, particularly, who trained me, of being a little bit more sexually literate and explicit and say, “Look, there’s a problem. Let’s read a book, let’s go to see a sex therapist, let’s do something about it”. If I hear from a woman who says, “You were so important in my marriage. I’m not faking orgasms anymore”, that makes me feel 6 feet tall. If I hear of a man who says, “Look, I’m getting older, but I heard you say that I should have a check-up with a urologist. I heard you say that there are certain things needed, like fantasy, like not engaging in sex when I’m tired or when I have too many beers”. That makes me feel fantastic. If people can have good sex until the age of 99…do you hear, Richard?

Heffner: I hear…I hear.

Westheimer: …you with gray hair, me now being 63, if people can have…not you and me together…you know what I’m talking about…if people can have good sex until the age of 99, and if I was fortunate to be a part of that…fantastic. And part of it is because of people like you who are willing to give television time, radio time…people who are saying “This is a serious subject. Let’s discuss it”.

Heffner: You know, Ruth, when, when you came here first I, I was…I had looked at a…I had seen a USA interview with you and you said, and I questioned you about this: Westheimer: “I was shocked at first (when you came here from abroad) because I come from a rather traditional European background and at first I thought ‘My God, these people must be crazy. They don’t talk about politics, literature, nothing…only about sex’. But I got used to it very fast”. And I remember asking you about that and my, my note that…from all the time…from all those years back…my note to myself to ask you “Why add to it?”, and I’ve begun to see in recent years that you didn’t add to it, that what you did was make use of it for what I have to consider not therapeutic purposes…you reject that idea that you’re a therapist for people who watch you…

Westheimer: On the air.

Heffner: …on the air…

Westheimer: Right.

Heffner: You’re a therapist for people who come in and see you in private practice…

Westheimer: Who come to me in my office and tell me about private innermost thoughts and worries in an office with the doors closed.

Heffner: So you think that the, that the…by adding to the discussion about sex, but adding a sense of openness, along with the explicitness has helped bring about a…

Westheimer: Yes.

Heffner: …a shift, a change, some greater sense of responsibility, some greater sense of romanticism.

Westheimer: And, and knowledge…actual literacy, and I am so grateful to these giants before me, like Masters and Johnson and Kaplan because they have given us a scientific body of knowledge of us to talk about these issues. Now, you’re absolutely right…if you would have told me…will I ever talk about these things from morning to night…I would have laughed, I would have said “That’s not a topic of conversation”. And these days I’m saying “Yes, we need even more talk about it”. Why? Because gain, we do have…we see The New York Times had an article that there is a reduction in the number of unwanted pregnancies…that’s partly because of talking about contraception. But not enough. There are still over a million unwanted pregnancies. We see that among the homosexuals the rate of that terrible disease of AIDS, that it has been contained…partly because of people going on the air talking publicly, but not enough. We still have to talk about condoms even on a very serious program like THE OPEN MIND.

Heffner: Why, why do you say “even”?

Westheimer: Because what they always think of is if I go to a David Letterman, if I go to California, if I go on all of these talk shows that’s where it belongs because the young people are listening, the young people will hopefully go to the pharmacy and get condoms, and women will go and get a contraceptive. I’m saying this talk belongs into every college classroom, it belongs into the boardrooms of corporations because we know what it does in a relationship at home if people are not sexually satisfied. We know what it does…he looks someplace else and she looks someplace else.

Heffner: Yes, but Ruth, you’re talking now, I believe…I, I just read your…the newest book…”The Guide to Erotic and Sensuous Pleasures”. This isn’t the sexuality that is referred to by people who are concerned with the prevailing climate of sex, sex, sex. This is, and again I’d be careful in using the word “therapeutic”, this is educational, this is informative. You can’t help but read through this, and I can testify to that without learning a very, very great deal. But the level of sexual, not playfulness, but sexual involvement…not the kind of sexuality you talk about in this country, doesn’t it lead to the very thing you’re most concerned about…irresponsible sex, disease…and so on.

Westheimer: But…you see…if we bombard…I would rather there’s more sex on television, the type of sex that you’re talking about, just seeing some sex, rather more sex than violence. But what I’m saying is “Yes, have sex on television, but let people go home with knowledge of what to do in their own bedroom to make it less boring, to make it more interesting, to do something that gives this God-given, free, activity a different frame. You know in this country there used to be…you could never say a woman is pregnant…you had to say “She was with child”. That’s not so long ago, and there are still people who say we shouldn’t talk about it. We should not mention those three letters. I‘m saying we need to talk about it openly, but with humor. And with this kind of sensitivity to say…I tell you another reason, because you could ask me, Richard, why another book? This book, particularly, I did because we are in a situation these days that, for many people, it is not possible to go and see a sex therapist.

Heffner: What do you mean…the…not the…the economics of it?

Westheimer: Yes. The economics of it, and also there are places in this country and in the world where sex therapists are not available. I’m saying if people say, “Hey, we could learn a little bit how to use fantasies. We could learn a little bit what to do about premature ejaculation”. I say, “Read a book”. Take it out from the library. You don’t have to buy it. Read a book, do the exercise in the book and if that doesn’t help, then go and see a sex therapist. Because we can’t just sit…that’s what…when I like when you say this issue about therapy…you can’t do therapy on the air to start with. You can’t do therapy in a book. But you can give advice by saying “Tonight this is what you try. Tonight bring home a long stemmed rose”, like I like to say, an I’m going to check with your wife if you did…tonight…and try something that is different, and the, if there’s a problem, go for help.

Heffner: Now, Ruth, a growing…your, your very optimistic sense of what’s happening…greater sense of romance in our lives. How do you account, then, for the incredible numbers of date-rape cases, how do you account for the incredible mixture of violence and sexuality that does characterize our society?

Westheimer: Yes. Yes. Look, our society is very violent, and anything that has to do with rape, has nothing to do with sex. That’s a violent crime of one person committing against another. The issue of date-rape, there are many people who do not agree with me, and I have to tell you why. I’m very worried about that. I’m worried about courses on…at universities…date-rape courses.

Heffner: Why?

Westheimer: Because I want people to know, men and women, I want a woman to know and there are people who don’t agree with me…Stanford University I had a big discussion…I don’t want a woman in bed with a man, naked, if she doesn’t want to have sex. Because I know, and Richard you know, because you’re an older man and you know, once there is sexual arousal, and once that message is given to the lower part of the body of “go”, it is very difficult to then say “Aha, she says ‘no’, in that ‘no’ really that she means ‘no’ or does it mean ‘yes’”? I’m not saying that these things don’t happen, I’m saying if a woman is in bed naked with a man and then the next day she tells me that that was date-rape, I have serious questions.

Heffner: Do you think that is exactly what has been happening in more cases then we’d like to recognize?

Westheimer: I cannot answer that, Richard, because I would need…you know how careful I am…I would need a good study. I have not seen, yet, maybe there’s one out there. I will come back and talk to you…I haven’t seen a scientifically validated study about what happens. I think the issue is communication and not sex. If they don’t know, if they don’t know each other and then something happens that she didn’t want and maybe he didn’t want…that’s an issue of communication. That’s not an issue of what happens between the waist and the knees. And I don’t believe that people should go into bed without knowing each other and without knowing what…where are the parameters…what is permissible and what is not.

Heffner: Yes, but Dr. Ruth, I know you well enough now to know that you’re not talking about this because it’s just a notion on your part. You obviously have some fairly strong feeling, even without knowing the statistics, even without having the research at your fingertips, and you’d like to…

Westheimer: Yes.

Heffner: …but even without that, your sense, I gather is that is…that is what is happening…on the campuses…

Westheimer: My sense is…

Heffner: …today.

Westheimer: …Yes. My sense is that it’s dangerous. If you have a son who, who studies law and who gets accused of date-rape, he can forget about going into a law practice. Now, I would like to sit down with that son and first say, “Why did you put yourself into a position of going out with a girl and now knowing if she tells you to come up to her room…of not being a little bit more careful. Why do you say ‘yes’ because she says ‘come up to my room’ you have to go to her room?” So I would kind of scold as a mother, as a grandmother, both of them. But I would never have a seminar and I know plenty of people who disagree with me, of just talking about date-rape…of talking of it as if it’s just a question of these terrible men who violate the woman’s right to say “no” at any moment. You see, if she says “no” in the restaurant, I don’t want you to be in her room. But if she is in bed with him and then says “no”, I’m worried about that. And you’re right, I have strong feelings about that and I know it is controversial, and I would love a study. I few only…you see the one problem in our country, these days, we don’t have a newer Kinsey study because there’s no money available. There’s a group in Washington who would like to do a study on human sexuality, we need new data. We need more data of what happens today. Psychological data, also, because women today can say to a man “What’s the matter with you, don’t you have genitalia, how come you don’t’ try it with me?” There are all kinds of issues these days.

Heffner: What’s the connection, in your estimation, between the feminist movement of the last generation, and what you suspect, if I’m not putting words in your mouth, and I don’t think I am, which you suspect is something that happens at least too often, how often, you don’t know…I don’t know…

Westheimer: Right.

Heffner: …but happens too often…

Westheimer: That’s a nice way of saying it, “too often”, because that I can live with.

Heffner: Okay.

Westheimer: I don’t want to say a statistic. You see, I have not been a member of NOW…that’s because of many reasons…maybe my Europeans, very traditional background. So I have certain problems with that. I certainly believe in equal pay for equal work and I raised my daughter that way. But I do think that we are not talking enough about those issues and I think that the feminists who said to women “Don’t get married, have a career, you don’t need children”, I see some of these women in my office, now at the late 30s and they really would love to have children. And I say it differently…I say, of course be a feminist…equal pay for equal work…I don’t want to do the dishes 6 days a week. You are going to do them twice a week, Richard, and you know what, but at the same time, I believe have children, have a family…that’s…in my way of thinking, the basis. Do something that you are not, at the age of 45, going to have to go to a therapist, not on television, in the office, and say “I…all I really wanted was a child, and now it’s too late”. I believe that we can do it all if we do it without these dreams of saying…everything, I can’t be a superwoman. If I’m working then I’m not doing other things…

Heffner: Now, wait a minute, wait a minute, Ruth…you said, you believe and you…then you sort of swallowed it…you…we can do it all…do you really believe anyone…

Westheimer: We women…

Heffner: …can do it “all”, have it “all”?

Westheimer: I believe we women, we are very strong…

Heffner: That I know.

Westheimer: We women are very strong…we can have children, if we are smart enough to let other people do some of the things that maybe if we are working we don’t do. That’s why I’m right now involved, very actively, in setting up a day-care center at the, at the Kennedy Airport, for example, for the employees. Because I’m saying, women if you want to go to work, do go to work, but we as a society have to help…to make sure that daycare is available.

Heffner: Well…

Westheimer: Nobody can do it all.

Heffner: Now, let me go back a few steps…in age because you’re talking about women who are in their 30s now, you said people who come to you in their 40s…let me go back again to the subject of date-rape. To the young woman, the college student, do you see any connection between the feminism of the last generation and the phenomenon that may be akin to what you describe in bed and then “no”…the message “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” and suddenly the answer “no” and the charge that there is rape.

Westheimer: Yeah, I, I don’t want to say that there is a connection with the feminist movement because first of all, I’m grateful to the feminist movement…look what I’m dong…and in terms of my being able to sit here and talk about sex. So I don’t want to say that the feminist movement, per se, that the books that were written have brought about these problems…I’m saying there wasn’t enough discussion and foresight that we also have to talk to you men because we live in this society…men and women. If we stop living men and women together, there will be no more children and no grandchildren. So I’m saying there was a one-sidedness, but I’m not saying, God forbid, that what we see today…that has other reasons, that has some sociological reasons…because of violence, because of people being impatient, because of values, and beliefs not being as rooted as they were. Look what we do with grandparents…most of them are being shipped away.

Heffner: Yes, let’s talk about that…we have a stake in that…

Westheimer: They are being shipped away…in Alaska what they did with the Eskimos, they used to…

Heffner: Put them out…

Westheimer: Right…on a piece of ice. We are not doing much better. We are saying “It would be so much better for you to go down to a warm climate…” I’ve nothing against warm climates…but I’m saying we have to think very hard about what we give up in giving up the extended family. And I’m not saying that we all have to live on top of each other…but I’m saying that this country has to do some hard thinking about using the wisdom and the experience and the knowledge of us grandparents rather than to ship us off. I’m not saying when people are sick, look if somebody is sick, there’s no choice and we are not talking about that. I’m talking about healthy people. And I think that’s what happened…that there wasn’t enough foresight in terms of society.

Heffner: Well, you said “not enough foresight”…you can reach…a critical mass…you can reach a critical point at which it doesn’t even make very much difference that even Dr. Ruth says “We must think once again about the extended family and its values”. You think we’ve gone too far?

Westheimer: I think…yes…

Heffner: For that to be meaningful again?

Westheimer: Yes. I think…but I hope we can come back…that’s why you and I talk on television about that. I want everybody to hear us and do some thinking about that. Yes, we went too far. Yes, we were so concerned about that youth-oriented society and that’s why I did a documentary…next time I come and talk to you about it…because the Ethiopian, what they do is they have tremendous respect for their elders. When I did the documentary and I went into Ethiopia and Israel, there is something about their tradition that should be preserved. Not likely. Because what will happen is Western society is going to be much stronger, but we went too far by saying only the young, the beautiful, the shapely, are going to have the say in this world.

Heffner: But, Ruth, there’s such a thing as going, you say “too far” again…too far, so far that the notion of turning back doesn’t make all that much sense. Whatever it is you and I would like to see happen…if you…and I put the question to you, if you have to read the future, do you read it as going back to the extended family?

Westheimer: First of all, there’s no such thing for me as having gone too far hopelessly. I believe that you can make a U-turn and I do believe that with more talk and with more, even uncles and aunts, you’re not just talking about grandparents, friends who fulfill the roles of uncle and aunts…I think that this will happen because people will see that this force and this kind of what…how much it can enrich a child’s life to have these other people around, I believe that this will happen. And you know what, Richard, it will happen in your and my lifetime. Not in ten generations…right now we have to do that.

Heffner: We have a minute left…doggone it…only a minute because it seems to me that this would be the time to take your optimism, your positivism…forget the word “optimism”, you’re a very positive person, and ask you how you connect it to the fact that you’re a child of the Holocaust, and you made it.

Westheimer: And you know, Richard, the reason I can be so optimistic is because I had a fantastic early socialization, and you know what, in addition to parents, I was an only child with a fantastic grandmother and grandparents on a farm. And I believe strongly that that’s why I can be so optimistic. 4’7”, but positive.

Heffner: Dr. Ruth, we have to buy up a lot of property up at Lake Oscawana and then build a giant farm…

Westheimer: I…

Heffner: …so that we can go back to it.

Westheimer: I would love that (laughter).

Heffner: Ruth Westheimer, thank you so much for joining me on THE OPEN MIND. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, our unquenchable guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.