Ruth Westheimer

Dr. Ruth and the Sexual Revolution

VTR Date: September 15, 1998

Guest: Westheimer, Ruth


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Title: Dr. Ruth and The Sexual Revolution
Recorded: 9/15/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and I admit that whenever I introduce today’s guest I feel a bit as I think Abraham Lincoln must have felt during the Civil War when he first met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

For Lincoln is reported to have said, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.”

And I always want to say to Ruth Westheimer — the inimitable “Dr. Ruth” — so you’re the little lady who dared write the books and say the words that helped bring about the great sexual revolution of our times that some of us applaud and others deplore.

Well, now Dr. Ruth will undoubtedly deny having such a role for herself, and I would dare argue with her.

But I shall ask my guest to evaluate the changes in our sexual mores and behavior over the two decades in which she has played a major role in increasing our sexual awareness. What’s changed, Dr. Ruth?

WESTHEIMER: I tell you, Richard, what has changed. When I started in 1981, twenty years ago, on the radio people would not use specific, explicit sexual terminology. They would still that someone is pregnant … “she’s with child”. So what has changed is the vocabulary. The problems have not changed. The issues between men and women, the issues in terms of sexual literacy, of knowledge. The only thing that has changed is in this country we have the best scientifically validated data about human sexual functioning that has ever been available, and we are talking more about it. So, in terms of … first I give you an example. We do have less unintended pregnancies in this country, but we still have too many. We have less women who have difficulties having sexual satisfaction. Less because of Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, Helen Singer Kaplan who trained me. So there is that change. But in terms of being still embarrassed about issues of sexuality, and I’m old fashioned and a square, I want it to remain private to some extent. So, it’s a complicated question of what has changed.

HEFFNER: Well, then how do you explain the fact that we seem to have taken, as a people, and we’re taping this program here in the middle of September, I don’t know, and you don’t know when it will be on the air, and we don’t know what will have happened. But at this particular point in the midst of this Bill Clinton fuss about matters sexual … we seem to be taking in stride references…

WESTHEIMER: You see, I tell you. I’m the only one who has not talked about Washington. So I’m going to talk to you, not about specifics, but I’m going to say that we are actually maybe even more Victorian than Great Britain. Because in Great Britain you open a newspaper, every page three has a half-naked woman. We don’t have that except in some special magazines. So I would say because of television and because of talking about issues of sexuality and having more knowledge, there is more openness. And I welcome that. I do believe that people have to be sexually literate. From there to be so interested in what happens in Y, X or Z’s bedroom is a different story.

HEFFNER: How do you account for that?

WESTHEIMER: And, because it’s interesting, everybody’s reading about it. And everybody is a little bit of a voyeur, and I believe that people say to themselves, “oh, my gosh, how fortunate…I didn’t get into trouble,” because everybody has some kind of an attitude or some kind of a something that they don’t want to talk about it. So, it’s … I do believe it’s also the bombardment with this kind of information that is, like, constant. And I’m the first one to say that sex is a very strong force. And it sells. If I see … if I walk in the street and I go past by a news magazine on the newsstand, and I see a magazine that says the word “sex”, Richard, I’m the first one to buy that magazine. God forbid there should be something about sex that I don’t know. But I have been very careful not to talk, because I’m not an investigative journalist, so I don’t talk about specifics. I can talk about the interest in sex. As a sex therapist I’ll tell you, Richard, there’s nothing more interesting than that subject matter. And I think that that’s what’s happening.

HEFFNER: Well, now you’re walking past a newsstand, and you see a magazine and you see the word “sex”, and you’re the first person, as you say, to go in and buy the magazine…

WESTHEIMER: I hope you are the second. Just admit it.

HEFFNER: No comment. No comment. No comment.

WESTHEIMER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Have you learned anything by doing so? Is there a conviction on your part that with all the emphasis on sex there is something new to learn?

WESTHEIMER: You…that’s a very interesting question. Yes, we do have some new data. Science and scientific investigation … we have now data from sleep laboratories that was never available before. We can send a man to a sleep laboratory and the next morning he walks out with a computer print out of his erectile activity. Every ninety minutes, you’re going to see some kind of erectile activity … some times a full erection, sometimes a partial erection. We have now data that women can be aroused by visual stimuli. So in terms of knowledge, even that pill Viagra, is a fantastic pharmaceutical invention, that if properly used, with a medical doctor saying “okay,” with education of making sure that that man doesn’t think he pops that pill, he goes home, he hasn’t brought her home any flowers, he hasn’t taken the garbage out the night before, but he’s going to say, “I now took that pill, hop into bed.” I can foretell lots of problems, and then I would say, “I told you so”.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

WESTHEIMER: So we do have a tremendous amount of good scientific knowledge. That’s why I did that book Sex For Dummies. Because it’s really a lot of good information that is new and that I do believe we have to use, but properly. In sex education, in the … it has to be a combination of parents, schools, churches and synagogues, everybody together. And I do believe that we need that information and still to be able to say, “there have to be boundaries”. There have to be boundaries of good taste.

HEFFNER: You know I can’t help but think back to when you first came to this …well, when you commented about when you first came to this country and said to yourself, “these people are crazy”.


HEFFNER: All they do is talk about sex, sex, sex.

WESTHEIMER: I did. Because when I came to this country from Europe, I had lived already in Germany, Switzerland, Israel, and France, I worked for Planned Parenthood because I needed a job. I had been in public health for many years, and I really thought, for forty-eight hours only, “what’s the matter, how come they don’t talk about literature? How come they don’t talk about the weather, about politics, something.” And then very fast, I said “Oops, that’s the most interesting subject matter under the sun”. That’s how I became, I studied a doctorate in the study of the family, and became a sex therapist.

HEFFNER: But now, you’ve contributed, in these couple of decades past to this craziness … sex, sex, sex. How do you evaluate that contribution…?

WESTHEIMER: I … yeah … I sometimes … I knew that somebody like Richard Heffner, on The Open Mind…

HEFFNER: Would ask you that question.

WESTHEIMER: Yes. I said, somebody’s going to say it’s my fault. So, it’s not my fault. However, I take the responsibility that I said and acted upon that sexually literate people have to use the proper terminology. When I started in talking this way, The New York Times had not printed the correct term for the male sexual part…see how careful I am with you…


WESTHEIMER: See how super careful…


WESTHEIMER: They have never said the word penis. I do believe when you educate, but not for just arousal, not for shocking, but when you educate you have to use the proper terminology. I do believe that you have to use, and that’s what happens with women, that you have to use the proper terminology so that we have more women who know where their clitoris is located, how she needs to be stimulated in order to have an orgasm. That she has to teach him. Even the best lover, Richard, even one trained by me cannot bring a woman to sexual satisfaction if she doesn’t give herself permission to be sexually satisfied. So, on the one hand I say, “yes, explicitness”. On the other hand, I say there is also, and I am very European in that … there is also a measure of privacy, and it’s difficult to keep that boundary.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you say it’s difficult to keep that boundary. Because certainly I have not been critical of Dr. Ruth, I wouldn’t dare be. And I don’t…

WESTHEIMER: You know that I was a sniper in the Haganah and that I…

HEFFNER: No, I did not know that.

WESTHEIMER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: So that’s why I was afraid … Seriously, Ruth, there is the sense that we’re really not that much better off. Strike that, I don’t mean we’re really not that much better off…


HEFFNER: … we’re not better off at all.

WESTHEIMER: It’s a serious question.

HEFFNER: We’re a poorer people for our constant involvement into explicit sex.

WESTHEIMER: No, I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: I know you don’t.

WESTHEIMER: You see, I don’t think so because we have less men who are what is called in the sexological language premature ejaculators. We have less men in difficulties in obtaining or maintaining an erection. We have less men who are premature ejaculators, who ejaculate too fast. We have less woman, as I have said, who don’t have sexual satisfaction. So, in the broad picture, I do believe that we are better off.

HEFFNER: Does that…

WESTHEIMER: But if you say to me, do you feel sometimes that maybe some people don’t know where that boundary is between educating and talking about it without ever invading each other’s privacy, I will say yes. I’m worried about that.

HEFFNER: Well, I meant that, I also wanted to ask whether there is any evidence that the greater knowledge about premature ejaculation, the greater knowledge about where our physical parts are, whether that has contributed to, statistically, an American life in which marriage is a better and happier place to be.

WESTHEIMER: I believe so.

HEFFNER: You do?

WESTHEIMER: Yes. I’m not saying that people don’t separate when things don’t go well, but I do believe that if a relationship is basically a working relationship, if you can fix that sex part, that that couple is better off and will stay together.

HEFFNER: What about…

WESTHEIMER: I strongly believe in that.

HEFFNER: What about the reception in this country for your ideas, for your openness?

WESTHEIMER: I have to tell you fortunately that when I started already I wasn’t a young kid sitting in a television set with a décolleté and a short skirt. And I have had, I’m very fortunate, maybe it has to do something, not only with age, but with respect … has something to do with humor, in the Talmud it says, “a lesson taught with humor, is a lesson retained”. I have had very little real criticism. That doesn’t mean that some people, when I talk on television or when I did my show, might not have switched the channel, and then I would say, “do that. If this doesn’t fit into you values, into your beliefs, don’t listen to this kind of explicit talk”. But I have been very fortunate. Across the country different socioeconomic groups, different ethnic backgrounds, even from people where you would say, “my gosh, the Bible Belt,” I go and give lectures there. I don’t have demonstrations against it. It could have been, and I think it has something to do with my saying, for example, like I said at Oxford University to a young Catholic medical student, brilliant … he said he’s going to remain a virgin. That’s his spirit and he expected me to debate him. It wasn’t a debating class. I did not. I said, “you, don’t you dare to be sexually active before you get married, because these are your values. Stick to them”. Then I turned to the rest and I said, “however, any of you, if you are sexually active, make sure you use a contraceptive. Don’t get anybody pregnant when you don’t want to be parents. So you see what I mean that I respect somebody who will say to me, “this is not part of my way of behaving or being brought up. I’m going to wait”. I say, “learn everything there is to be taught, but then do it only when it sits right with you”.

HEFFNER: This young man was at Oxford University?

WESTHEIMER: Yes. A medical student…

HEFFNER: A medical…

WESTHEIMER: They were on a debating team and he was on the other, the other group, and he said what you just said, everything that I say shouldn’t be said, and he was with a very brilliant Irish Catholic journalist, debating me, and by my not screeching and by my not getting upset, but just taking … having the chutzpa, I want to say, having the nerve to stick to by, what I believe, and still respecting their values. I won that debate handsomely. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Ruth, following that, is it your observation that our young people in this country know what it is what their values are, could articulate to themselves…

WESTHEIMER: I would say many, yes. I would also say some are very confused because of the peer pressure. And I talk about that. I say, “don’t let anybody say ‘now that you are in college go out and sleep with the first man who comes along because all of your girlfriends say we did it already, so you have to do it’.” Don’t do that. I say you’re never going to forget that first sexual encounter, never. Don’t just throw it away. Make sure that you know when it’s right for you. The peer pressure in this country in terms of youth and youth oriented and all of the advertising is tremendous. But I do believe that we have to be able to say, you have to know when it’s right for you.

HEFFNER: You talk about young women in this regard. Young men?

WESTHEIMER: Young men, the same thing. That they don’t have to come back and brag. If they need to do that, I tell you what I say to them, “use a white lie”. Go to that group of your colleagues and say, “every night I have had another woman this week …three times the same night”. So use a white lie. I’m all for white lies. If that’s what your group demands because of that peer pressure that you have to show what a big shot you are, that you can pick up women every night, so lie a little bit. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Ruth, you get to many college campuses. Is that what you find that there, that the peer pressure reflects a … well, I don’t even know how to put it … but…

WESTHEIMER: Just ask it.

HEFFNER: … but a, a greater insistence upon sexual experience?

WESTHEIMER: Yes, but I do believe that when I talk, because of not being judgmental, I would never say what age is the right age for somebody to be sexually active. I couldn’t say that. A seventeen-year-old might be mature and a twenty-two year old might be immature.


WESTHEIMER: But in general, I can say loud and clear, “don’t’ do it just because there is pressure.” And the pressure is there.


WESTHEIMER: To answer your question, the pressure is there.

HEFFNER: And that is what I’m asking.

WESTHEIMER: Yes. And that’s why I think that somebody like myself is well received because I can say, I talk to you very openly about orgasms, I don’t hold any knowledge back. But when to be sexually active, only you can decide. That inner voice will tell you.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s compare today with twenty years ago. Are you suggesting that there has been an increasing pressure?

WESTHEIMER: I think, no I think there’s more sophistication. I think the contrary, there are more people who will say, “I don’t have to be sexually active in order to be self, you know, worth, and in order to belong to that group. I will do it when I’m ready”. I think there is more awareness of some of these issues … and I want to say something else, seriously … AIDS, it’s not just the contraceptive pill that, of course, has permitted women to be sexually active, without the fear of getting an unintended pregnancy. But I do believe that the sexually transmitted disease, especially AIDS has made people more responsible, to wait to engage in sex, and with who, and to make them be protected with condoms.

HEFFNER: I mean I knew that that was true from talking to my students, five years ago, six years ago. I’ve wondered whether it is as true today. I sort of had the feeling that it’s not.

WESTHEIMER: Yeah, a little bit. What happens today is that we don’t talk as much about AIDS so some people wrongly think they don’t have to be so careful anymore. Scare techniques don’t work.

HEFFNER: They did work.

WESTHEIMER: It wasn’t the scare techniques that worked in terms of saying horror stories, but it was the attention given to that disease. You know during World War II they showed the American soldiers horror pictures of syphilis…?

HEFFNER: Mmmmmhmmmm.

WESTHEIMER: And gonorrhea. I’m not asking you if you saw it…

HEFFNER: No, no, no…

WESTHEIMER: I just, I see your head nodding. So, that worked for forty-eight hours because the libido, the sex drive is a very strong one. But I do believe because we talked so much about it, in an educating way, by saying “look there’s a dreadful disease, a disease you can die of. Make sure that you are tested, that your partner is tested, that you use condoms, that you don’t just hop into bed”.

HEFFNER: Do you think that that’s simply past now, that the fear has dissipated.

WESTHEIMER: Well, I’m a little worried that people are reading about some cures…


WESTHEIMER: And think that that is okay if I get it, I’ll be cured. And I think that … that’s misleading. They’re working on it, but I think it’s misleading.

HEFFNER: Ruth, do you really feel that that’s a factor, that people are thinking, well as with gonorrhea or syphilis there’s some magic bullet maybe not here right now, but by the time I am a victim, it’ll be here.

WESTHEIMER: I think so. Also what we have say is young people always think that nothing is going to happen to them. It might happen to somebody else, it might happen some place else and in a different country, it’s not going to happen to them.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but…

WESTHEIMER: It’s part of being young.

HEFFNER: But by the same token you make the point that the change was to some extent because of fear.

WESTHEIMER: Absolutely. And I’m saying that the change to some extent is that false promise that here we have a cure already.

HEFFNER: What do you see, in the couple minutes we have left … what do you see as the major themes, developments that lie before us in this area of your expertise.

WESTHEIMER: I think that more and more because of television, because our children are more sophisticated, because of the Internet, I think that more and more people are going to do, and I welcome that … that sex education has … everybody has to be an askable parent. It’s a term coined by Sol Gordon, a sex educator from Syracuse, now retired. An askable parent. I believe there will be more and more education. There will be kindergarten teachers who will sit with the parents and say, “okay, let’s do this together. We have to talk about how babies are born”. There are going to be more grade school teachers, and parents who are going to say, “how are we going to control what our children see on computers and on the Internet”. I…I’m an optimist, I think…

HEFFNER: We know that.

WESTHEIMER: …that all of this is going to bring about more education and less problems.

HEFFNER: Of course, the question that is, what do we teach them?

WESTHEIMER: We have to teach them age specific … you know not to talk about Caesarian sections to a kindergarten child who says “where do babies come from”. But when that question comes to be able to answer it correctly, scientifically correctly, without having, for example, that attitude, “why are you asking, does it mean that you are sexually active?”. That’s the type of things that by talking, by listening to you and then talking about it. People think about that and that will get transmitted.

HEFFNER: Ruth, one minute, one question. Are people overseas, in Europe, for instance, increasing their level of sophistication or did they not have to since they were so much more sophisticated than we are.

WESTHEIMER: No, that’s not true that they are more sophisticated. I get the same questions on television in France and in Germany and in Switzerland, so this idea of the French, you know, being the world’s best lovers, and that they know everything. Their mores …maybe about mistresses and extracurricular activity might be a little different, but basically the knowledge about issues of sexuality is not different. We, in this country, have the best knowledge. We have the best scientifically validated data. So, Europe with this air of superiority, I don’t think that that’s true in this area. True that the attitude about certain things might be less Victorian, or less Puritanical, or less steeped in that Puritanical background, but everybody can profit from more knowledge.

HEFFNER: Dr. Ruth, thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

WESTHEIMER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another 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.