Ruth Westheimer

Dr. Ruth Goes to College

VTR Date: December 7, 2000



Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Title: “Dr. Ruth Goes To College”
VTR: 12/7/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I’ll admit that I’ve always been somewhat at a loss for words as I sit down to write my program introduction whenever, like today, The Open Mind’s guest is none other than Dr. Ruth. Yes, Dr. Ruth Westheimer herself. For what do I know about her line of work, though she certainly has spent a professional lifetime teaching millions and millions of us all about sex, perhaps more than we ever thought we wanted to know.

But now, together with Pierre Lehu, my dear friend has written “Dr. Ruth’s Guide to College Life, The Savvy Students’ Handbook”. And here, at least, my interest is thoroughly aroused. For I am a college professor, though such an ancient one I know I have a lot to re-learn.

So I’ll begin today by asking Dr. Ruth whether students’ response to her Guide has indicated that standards and attitudes have actually changed on the campus as much as many of us assume. Ruth?

WESTHEIMER: Alright. First of all, it hasn’t changed. But, Richard Heffner, when you say that word … aroused …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

WESTHEIMER: … [laughter] … I have to laugh. I know we’re not talking only about sex in this book. But we’re also talking about sex. So let me say one thing. The questions all over these many years that I’ve been talking on college campuses … the questions from the students have not changed. I tell you what has changed … the vocabulary. Because they … the issues are the same … loneliness and finding a partner and making this big decision of “yes, to engage in sexual activity or not”. All of these issues have not changed. But when people talk about it, because of you … television people. And a little bit because of people …


WESTHEIMER: … like me. The vocabulary has changed.

HEFFNER: I don’t know what you mean by that.

WESTHEIMER: What I mean is there is much more explicitness in the questions.


WESTHEIMER: However, the reason I did this book, and it’s selling like hot pancakes … [laughter] … see I’m blushing … almost 16,000 or something like that … is that I want to be able to say, “Look, sex is one part of the relationship. That’s why I talked about it. I have to also pay some attention to other issues”. And when you look at me like this quizzical … I’ll tell you what the other issues are. Roommates, for example. It’s very important for young people to know when to get help, when they cannot solve a problem themselves. If a roommate brings in a member of the other sex or same sex … for the whole night. And the other one cannot sleep and cannot rest … these are very serious issues. There are serious issues in terms of drugs and alcohol. There are issues in terms of loneliness, in terms of pressure “come with us, we are going to the party, there’s going to be a lot of liquor”. And who’s going to say “no”, I’m going to stay alone in a room. So I thought it would be very important for me to say, “Look, people, let’s look at the total picture of what it means for this fantastic four years … to go away from home … to be one your own …to have to make your own decisions.

HEFFNER: Do you think kids … and I mean kids … know any more today before they make this venture about what they’re in for?

WESTHEIMER: Yes. But you know what, Richard, they still don’t know enough about contraception. Because when they do get drunk and have that first sexual experience, even if it’s with a boyfriend, they get … she gets pregnant because they still do not have it in their mind that they have to be protected. And then I’m terribly worried about sexually transmitted diseases. I’m worried because we don’t talk enough about AIDS any more.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that interesting.


HEFFNER: … That we don’t do it any more.


HEFFNER: … we used to.

WESTHEIMER: We used to. Every single time we used to put it on radio or television somebody talked about it. And now, it’s as if it doesn’t exist. I was a few days ago at Rockefeller University, here in New York. And I was really very pleased that here were a group of scientists and serious educators talking about sexually transmitted diseases … AIDS. They talked about gonnerreha, and we still have to keep teaching about that. We have to say, “if you make that decision to be sexually active, you are taking a risk and you have to know what risk you are taking”. So young people think nothing will happen to them.

HEFFNER: That’s always been the case.

WESTHEIMER: That’s the nature of young people. They think it will happen to somebody. But it’s not so. So I thought that because maybe they would llisten to this little grandmother like me … 4’7″ who has talked so openly about issues of sex, that they might listen to me about not doing anything that they would later regret.

HEFFNER: Ruth, I want to ask you a question, a very serious question and I, I don’t want you to take it the wrong way.




HEFFNER: Okay! Do you think, do you find now that the students are saying ‘this is old hat” and “we don’t really need to listen, we’re not that involved in Dr. Ruth”.

WESTHEIMER: You know what’s interesting. You would think so. Because you would say they know already what I’m talking about.


WESTHEIMER: It’s now almost 20 years that I’ve been talking about that. I don’t know why, but I get to the colleges and there are 2,000 students and I get these applauses that are still ringing in my ear. So there is something … on a serious note … there is something in the message that I give which is not moralizing, which is giving respect to different religion, to different sexual preference, but at the same time that message that is, I think steeped in some morality. The morality even “don’t do anything bad for yourself”, that’s why I still go to these colleges, and I love it. I learn from them. Because I learn from the questions. But you see I have a certain philosophy. There is a college that invited me not too long ago for their orientation weekend. A famous college. And I said, “No”. Why? Because they wanted me to talk to the parents and to the youngsters at the same time. I would never do that.

HEFFNER: Why is that?

WESTHEIMER: Becuase I don’t want a father to sit there and to say “I have difficulties performing the sexual act …


WESTHEIMER: … or a mother to say she’s having difficulty have sexual satisfaction. You see with you I’m so careful how I use my words and I don’t want a youngster … a young woman or a young lady to ask me a question about sexual activity and then the parent is going to say, “You know, I didn’t know that you’re sexually active”. So I said, I will only attend that meeting if you can arrange for me to talk to the parents alone, or to the youngsters alone. So maybe that’s what comes through when I talk about issues for young people, so that they don’t say yet … I’m 72 … they don’t say yet “enough already, we have heard her”. But you know what, Richard, I also tell parents, I tell youngsters what to do when parents call every night. And I tell them what to do when parents never call.

HEFFNER: Tell us what to when parents call every night and when they never call.

WESTHEIMER: One, to put an answering machine one, because that’s very upsetting to parents.

HEFFNER: You mean the kids do?

WESTHEIMER: Yes. Because even if they are there, they don’t want to talk every night … what did you do today. I say to them, set up a schedule. Tell at home or the grandparents that such and such a day between two hours of their day, please call so that we can chat and we don’t play telephone tag. I think E-mail is helpful. Becuase then you have control over when to look at it and when to answer.

HEFFNER: So. Ruth, are you using E-mail yet?

WESTHEIMER: Ssssh, don’t tell anybody.

HEFFNER: Not yet?

WESTHEIMER: I’m still not computer literate. But I have people around me like Pierre, who did this book with me, who are brilliant. All I have to do is talk, then I go dancing or skiing or hiking and they sit at their computers and put it on pieces of paper.

HEFFNER: But the impersonally is what you think enables us to transcend these emotional concerns … parents and children.

WESTHEIMER: True. But for me personally, if you ask me personally, I want to get you one the phone. I don’t want to write you and E-mail …
HEFFNER: You know why, Ruth, because a year ago that’s what I was saying and then Alexander, my grandson got me to get on the computer and to use E-mail and now I use it constantly. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that you would, too.

WESTHEIMER: You’re right. It will happen. It will absolutely happen …


WESTHEIMER: … because our youngsters … so it has a tremendous advantage because your grandson Alexander now knows when he types something in, he will get an answer from you.

HEFFNER: Right. Precisely. Okay, let me, let me move a little from this to ask you what I really was aiming at. Do you anticipate a change in the nature of American … of mature, older Americans on the basis of what you see on the campuses, on the basis of the kids who are reading your “Guide To College Life” …


HEFFNER: … Dr. Ruth’s Guide …


HEFFNER: … how are we changing?


HEFFNER: How are we changing?

WESTHEIMER: I tell you what we’re changing. We are much more sexually literate. We still have a lot, everybody, to learn about relationships, about making sure that the sexual literacy doesn’t sit some place in a vacuum, but is in a relationship. And I’m a tremendous optimist. There are less women who don’t have sexual satisfaction. You see with you I don’t say the word “orgasm”, with everybody else I do.

HEFFNER: Because I won’t allow it …huh … right.

WESTHEIMER: So, there are less people who have difficulties, less me who have difficulties with their ability to have an erection, and not just because of Viagra. But because they know better, they know that testosterone level is highest in the morning. So they know not to engage in sex in the evening. We are, in this respect, much more knowledgeable. And I believe that we have an effect on the relationship. On the other hand … you know, we Jews, there’s always “on the other hand” …

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Right.

WESTHEIMER: … the expectations are much higher.

HEFFNER: Tell me about that.

WESTHEIMER: In the olden days a grandmother would say, “Okay, that’s the way … let’s not even try it” …

HEFFNER: It’s over.

WESTHEIMER: It’s over. Maybe a little touch, and maybe a little backrub, but that’s it. That’s not so these days. Everybody, from college kids and I talk about that, to older people … to people who have to start a new relationship … have more expectations these days, and that has to do with television and with … that we know more. So we do want to get out of life more satisfaction. On the whole, that is. Not just sexually.

HEFFNER: You know, I remember when I read Plato’s “Republic”, as freshman college student and I was so taken by the Old Man in “The Republic”, who spoke about or wrote about being freed from the passions of youth. And you’re saying …


HEFFNER: … thanks to Dr. Ruth …

WESTHEIMER: No such thing.

HEFFNER: … we’re not going to be free.

WESTHEIMER: No. If you know limitations, if you know … you have that twinkle in the eye like you have until the age of 99. So, Plato, or whoever … you know, whoever agrees with him … means that they had a very lousy sexual life all that time, because otherwise they would never say that. But I wanted to say one more thing to you. You know, colege kids also have to be prepared that when they come home, that maybe their room has been taken over. It’s a big shock. Suddenly that room that was their’s is a study, with a computer or whatever in there. So, I would like just to make sure that everybody has this tremendous joi d’verer, zest for life, but with reality, but with knowing that certain things cannot be changed. Plato was wrong, but other things can be changed.

HEFFNER: Why, by the way, when I talk about The Old and the Republic you say “99″. What’s the limit?

WESTHEIMER: I’m just saying 99 not to say 100.

HEFFNER: Alright. Okay, okay.

WESTHEIMER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Ruth, this business is so interesting to me. You talk about when they come home and they find that the room has become a parent’s study or used for some other purpose. I hear that story so often, because I gather it does stem from the fact that children do come home? What about that? Kids seem to be coming home and staying home, or going out for the job and then coming home. What is that doing to family relationships?

WESTHEIMER: You see, some rules have to be set up. Now, if a youngster does comes home because the rent is cheap, then they have also certain obligations. To be of help in that household. Even if the relationship is a good one, then certain rules can be set up. I tell you what I hear out there … a young woman who says, “Can I bring a friend home?” And then they say “Yes” and then her room is made up in her old bedroom and the friend’s room is made up in the guest room, and she says “you must be kidding. You know we sleep with each other on campus”. The holiday might be ruined. There might be tremendous problems. The parent has a obligation to say, “Honey in my house, these are the rules”. Now sometimes youngsters come back home because the rents are too high, because it’s too difficult to live alone. So there have to be certain rules that have to be set up. I don’t want parents to applaud when their youngsters never come home again. You know there has to be a little bit of give-and-take.

HEFFNER: Is that really a problem, kids who feel somewhat put out because in fact the parent is indicating … you know, we’re living our life now …


HEFFNER: … you’re gone.

WESTHEIMER: Yes. You know, who ever writes these books about “empty nest syndrome” …


WESTHEIMER: That’s not so. For most people it is … it’s really like a double edge … one the one hand, yes, I did my share, I sent them away to college and now I can do my own life. Taking courses, whatever it is, horse back riding, it doesn’t matter what it is. So it’s not that most people sit there. We only hear about the depressed … the people who are depressed … who are saying “oh my gosh, what’s going to happen, I have no more children at home”. It’s those people who have some inner resource, who can say “now it’s the time for me to learn something new. To engage in a new endeavor”.

HEFFNER: Of course, there is that wonderful old joke about when does life begin? And the priest gives his anwer and the rabbi says, “when the dog dies and the kids go off to college”.

WESTHEIMER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: But you’re saying tha frequently …

WESTHEIMER: I think it’s a … it has to be the best way, ideally, is to say “wonderful. Now they’re away, we helped them as much as we can, tuition-wise, and they also have to work at something. But it’s wonderful to visit. But let’s set up certain, certain rules”.

HEFFNER: What are the college kids who you write about, most concerned about? Is it the sex question or are there many others?

WESTHEIMER: I don’t think … I don’t think it’s just the sex question. I think it’s more an interpersonal relationship question. To find people that they really can relate to. To find people who they can count on. To find people who are really friends, not just using each other, because one is prettiest so the other one goes along because this is a way of meeting. So I think we have to do more preparing youngsters in high school for that time when they’re going to be on their own. To have that kind of sense of themselves. So I don’t think it’s just sex. If it were only sex, then we wouldn’t have the problems with drugs, with alcohol and we wouldn’t have problems with loneliness. When I go to college campuses, I, of course, see the ones that are committed and like it there because they are part of student government. They come and greet you when you come and when you visit. I don’t see the ones that don’t come out, only go to classes.

HEFFNER: Ruth, you mentioned drugs a couple of times. Is that problem still as serious? Is it getting more so?

WESTHEIMER: I cannot say without having scientifically validated data of a study … I cannot say if it’s more or less. But I certainly know that there are too many people, in my way of thinking, who rely instead of on a good relatiohship, on dancing, on a good meal, rely on popping those pills to make them feel better. And I think it’s very sad. And I don’t think we are talking eough about that.

HEFFNER: So we’re not talking enought about AIDS.



WESTHEIMER: … other sexually transmitted …

HEFFNER: … sexually transmitted diseases. We’re not talking enough about drugs. What’s the responsibility of the colleges themselves in this regard.

WESTHEIMER: I think that there is an absolute obligation. And if I were a little dictator …

HEFFNER: You are, Ruth, you are.

WESTHEIMER: I would say you have an obligation in the dormitories to have discussions about these issues.

HEFFNER: Don’t they?

WESTHEIMER: They say, ‘we have it available, whoever is willing to come”. But you know, Richard, who is willing to come. Not the ones who need it most. So I would say there’s an obligation on the master of a building … in the fraternities and the sororities, there’s an obligation to say, “here you are on your own …”, not senstivitiy training, not to pry, not to say, “what are your experiences?”. But to say, “these are the services available, make sure you have each other.”

HEFFNER: You know I have a … we just have a few minutes left. I have a question that may seem very strange to you, but it’s very important to me. As you do to the colleges, what is your sense of the educational level of the students you see as compared to 10, 15 years ago. How much do they know? Do they know less? Are they better educated, less well-educated?

WESTHEIMER: Very difficult to say for me. If I watched some of the television programs that college … students at colleges are being …


WESTHEIMER: … asked about history … they should read your book on the history of the United States. On the other hand I think that there are issues, for example, about computers and about other aspects that maybe they know more. I don’t know how much they know about geography. If you say, you know “where is a certain country”, I fear these days that they know less and less about World War II. When I say something … that I was an orphan at the age of 10, very often I get a blank stare. That scares me. I’m … it’s not so long ago, it’s only 50 years ago. But that scares me because I believe we have an obligation, that there are certain things … it’s not just about the issue of World War II, it’s the issue of other aspects in terms of life where, I think we have to make more of an effort of … that our students should be better rounded so that they are better companions at the dinner table.

HEFFNER: Well, this is what I was wondering about. I was thinking about the phrase “dumbing down” and whether you’ve become aware of that. Though the kids may be wonderful and nice and lovely and decent, whether there is this “dumbing down” process.

WESTHEIMER: I don’t want to call it that way because that would make everybody like dummies. I don’t want to say that …


WESTHEIMER: … but …but I think that serious people like you and others have to sit around tables and say, “what can we do?” to use those four whole years, such luxury of giving four years without real worries, to use them better.

HEFFNER: That’s a lovely picture, too, because of course there are financial pressures and the like. But there are four years for development that you … kinds of years that you’re never going to have again.

WESTHEIMER: Never, and only people like myself, who never had that, really can realize what luxury that is. But, so we have to talk more about this. It’s good that you asked that question.

HEFFNER: Well, it, it, occurs to me that … or I see that look in the eyes of my students when I mention Franklin D. Roosevelt. Who was Franklin D. Roosevelt? Or when I mention the Holocaust, or when I mention anything that really needs to be known if we are to make changes in the world in which we live. But, Dr. Ruth, I, I … you know, I always appreciate it when you come here. Not only, I think, do I learn something about myself, but it’s so important that these youngsters you write in “Dr. Ruth’s Guide To College Life” have some sense of what you’ve experienced in you life.

WESTHEIMER: And, and I do say a little. Not, not a whole lot because I want to concentrate on the “here and now”, but it is based suddenly on my experience and on my now thinking, like for example, “look at that, make the most out of those four years”.

HEFFNER: Thank you.

WESTHEIMER: And find a partner.

HEFFNER: And thank you, Dr. Ruth.

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 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.