Ruth Westheimer

Good Sex with Dr. Ruth

VTR Date: September 15, 1985

Guest: Westheimer, Ruth



HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Decades ago when the world was still so much younger and more innocent than the mere passage of these years would warrant, perhaps I was too, I did a daily television program called THE PROBLEMS OF EVERDAY LIVING. It was fun and rewarding to be that much involved in issues so much more personal and intimate than those that usually inform THE OPEN MIND. So that at what is now my proper distance I’m very much impressed with and wonder at anyone like my guest today, though I don’t really think that there is anyone really like her. Particularly I wonder about Dr. Ruth, Ruth Westheimer, just what her unrelenting mass media sharing of intensely personal intimate sexual themes with larger and larger numbers of radio listeners and television viewers tells us about her, about them, and about America today. So that when we discovered that we’re lakeside neighbors, I invited Dr. Ruth here to do my thing, not hers, not to talk about premature ejaculation or contraception, or sexual positions, or oral sex. We all can do that after all with Dr. Ruth’s SEXUALLY SPEAKING radio program and her GOOD SEX television program and her GUIDE TO GOOD SEX book, and now her GOOD SEX game. All of which reminds me that when asked about the sexual revolution when it hit this nation in the 1960s did it shock or offend her. Dr. Ruth said, “I was shocked at first because I come from a rather traditional European background”. At first, I thought my God, these people must be crazy. They don’t talk about politics, literature, nothing. Only about sex. So I want to ask Ruth Westheimer why she wants to add to that craziness, that addiction to sexual talk, talk, talk. Dr. Ruth, that is the question.

WESTHEIMER: Very good, very well said, and very well presented. You know what…

HEFFNER: You didn’t say terrific.

WESTHEIMER: I didn’t say terrific yet. Wait and it might come. But you know what, Richard? It sounded like a poem. It’s really very beautiful the way you said that.

HEFFNER: To you.

WESTHEIMER: To me. Thank you. Why do I add to this…

HEFFNER: What you called craziness…

WESTHEIMER: Correct. I add to that because after my first initial reaction…that what are these people talking about constantly…I realized that there is a tremendous need in our society for this kind of information. You see, Richard, you know that we have data available that is scientifically validated for Kinsey, Masters & Johnson, Helen Singer Kaplan, who trained me, that has never been available before. And while I still am saying, hey, let’s not talk about sex all the time because when I visited you at the lakeside we didn’t talk about sex. At the same time I’m saying, Richard, this kind of information, if we can use the power of the mass media like you have been doing for the last 30 years and I’ve been doing for the last few years in order to educate, in order to tell a woman if she has difficulties with having an orgasm and since you’ve already used some of the language today, I don’t have to worry that you’re going to blush, if she has difficulties with using…with having an orgasm we can say don’t just sit there and suffer. Don’t fake it. Don’t be unhappy and frustrated. But do something about it. Take that aspect of your life, sexual feelings and activity, into your hands by doing something about it if it is not satisfied. If it is not satisfying and pleasurable. For people who will say I don’t want to have an orgasm, I say, wonderful. I hope you have a good meal tonight. But people who do have problems with premature ejaculation or for example older men who might have some difficulties with obtaining or maintaining an erection and very often are unhappy out of ignorance because they don’t know that they need to be physically stimulated, that they are to rub against their wives…or his hand or her hand on his male member on his penis in order to obtain an erection. So very often what has happened…a lot of unhappiness out of ignorance.

HEFFNER: Okay. Now you’ve said it all. There isn’t that much more to say.


HEFFNER: You say not true but you know I’ve listened a lot now to Dr. Ruth and I have the feeling that there is a kind of feeling, I won’t call it a repetition compulsion, but there is a theme and a repetition of a theme and the information you have to convey you do so, so brilliantly. And I think you do so with so much good feeling for the people who listen to you and watch you that they must feel better too. But I wondered at times whether so much talk and so much sexual activity in our media doesn’t perhaps add to the frustrations…add to the concerns of this woman you began to talk about?

WESTHEIMER: What it adds is unreal expectations. If the soap operas tell us that…(inaudible)…healthy couple is having sexual activity every single night, then I have to smile and I have to say look I’m a very mature older woman. I see a lot of people coming into my office and talking to me. It’s not so. But when you do engage in that activity, that is after all given to us, that is free, that is there to be enjoyed, do it so that it is pleasurable for both of you.

HEFFNER: Do you think our society exploits that free gift?

WESTHEIMER: No, because we don’t know, in my opinion, if the good olden days were really so good. We don’t really know of what happened in those bedrooms or lives together. First of all, people lived differently. They had much more difficulty making a living than we do have today in terms of even preparing a meal. So I am not so sure that the good old days were really so good. I do believe that if we put it into the proper perspective by saying sex is not everything in our relationship. There are many other components. There’s a lot of love and caring and trust and other things that happen between two people than that one aspect which I’m carving out by talking about that can be made better. Great. Let’s use that information to enjoy it, to make it more varied, to put into it that spice of life that it ought to be.

HEFFNER: Do we talk about sexuality less than, more than, more publicly than, less than in that area, than people in other parts of the world?

WESTHEIMER: From those countries that I know about we are lucky in this country.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

WESTHEIMER: Because we in one aspect may be a little bit more puritan. We do not have as much nakedness in our newspapers as the Germans, for example. We have this kind of openness about sexuality that permits me to have a program on the air that in many other countries is not possible. For example, in France they do have research about sexual functioning…about sex therapy. But they don’t have the practical application as we have it. So people with problems do not get as much help as we do in this country despite the puritan ethical attitude.

HEFFNER: But then, of course, the question must be if they have less of the talk, talk, talk about sexuality do they have less healthy attitudes toward sexuality than we do?

WESTHEIMER: I’m not going to say less healthy. But I’m saying that probably for those people with some difficulties or for example even in the area of sex education on the one hand with young people or in the area of sexuality and the geriatric person. Maybe they have less talk and therefore also less emphasis on it which might mean that we with all the talk and all the criticism that might be given to this talk…I hear in your question, we are saying in this country we have the ability to help, let’s do it. I’m not saying that everybody in this country should be talking about sex morning, noon, and night. As I told you at your lakeside house, we didn’t talk about it. In my home I don’t talk about it. But I do talk about it when it’s appropriate. And I’m glad that I can talk about matters of sexual concern in this kind of open…explicitly. I think it’s important.

HEFFNER: But you see we…I do want to come back to the question which you’ve dealt with but perhaps a little more definitively. And maybe it’s not possible to do so. Whether in other societies in Western civilization and other countries where there is less of this talk and I really don’t knock it, I had to begin the program some way, Ruth, whether this is not a sign of health but a way of getting at health. Or whether the concern for those twp ends of the spectrum, the very young who are mis-educated and the very old who are mis-educated. Whether we aren’t just emphasizing and reemphasizing sexuality to a fare-thee-well in this country so that there are in a very real sense less healthy attitudes, more pointing to sex than other people. Now my understanding was that others had better, freer, more healthy, and the two don’t always go together, attitudes than we do.

WESTHEIMER: I don’t believe so.



HEFFNER: You’re the expert.

WESTHEIMER: I don’t believe so because if you talk in France about sex, for Frenchmen, who is this big amour, this big lover, to be told that his wife or his partner doesn’t achieve sexual orgasm, doesn’t achieve sexual satisfaction, because he doesn’t give enough time or because he doesn’t caress enough or because he is ignorant because he doesn’t know she has been faking it, is a tremendous shock because the media and the myth is that they are such great lovers. Now I am not saying that there are not great lovers among them, but I’m saying in this country the one thing that I do appreciate here is this openness. Because maybe by hiding it more and maybe by going along with that myth even in Sweden, where sex education has been taught in the schools for many years, this kind of openness by being able to say, honey, something is missing, let’s do something about it. I don’t think that we see that there yet.

HEFFNER: Well you’ve talked about sex education a great deal and you say this is your objective when you say, use contraception, when you say have good sex, and when you try to define what is acceptably good sex. What position does that put you in vis-à-vis the church perhaps? Where there is a concern about public education about sex. That this is a matter to be left strictly to the family.

WESTHEIMER: Richard, you see, I do believe, I as an educator believe, that sex education has to be a combination of the parents, the church or synagogue, and the schools. Not one that should be left out. Now the church…if you listen very carefully you hear very often that I say to a person, young person or older person, could you talk to your priest, could you talk to your minister, can you talk to your rabbi? And then I also say, can you talk to a professional?…in the helping profession in terms of a psychologist or a social worker. I do believe that we have to work on this all of us together. It is not enough to say the church’s doctrine maybe is different in different denominations, for example, than something that I’m saying about contraceptive, for example. Let me give you an example. I went to a church sponsored meeting. We had all of the attendance…all of the attendees were church people from all of the different denominations. The meeting was blessed by the archbishop…the Episcopalian Archbishop. I talked as explicitly and as openly as you and I are talking here right now. I would say to the Catholic Church, let’s sit down together. You people don’t believe in contraception. Let’s sit down together. You don’t believe in abortion. Let’s sit down together and let us talk about more research to find a way to perfect the rhythm method because that’s a method that you people do permit. I am not out to say to anybody it ought to be the way for everybody. It is crucial for somebody who deals with personal relationships and sexuality to remain within the boundaries of that religious and cultural and sometimes socioeconomic background.

HEFFNER: On the other hand, and when I’ve listened to you and watched you and read you, I have been aware of your leaving the program and saying use contraception, use condoms, use diaphragms.

WESTHEIMER: And I say, Richard for those of you who are …(inaudible)…I talk about the Orthodox Jewish couple who does not have any sex before the night of the marriage, and I say clearly, contraception for those of you who don’t want to be parents and where your value and your beliefs permit it. I am not on a bandwagon.

HEFFNER: But I haven’t heard you talk about a Catholic means of contraception.

WESTHEIMER: The rhythm? Yes, that’s a good point, because I just had a meeting yesterday in Dallas with some people from the Catholic tradition, Irish Catholics. Because I have been saying, the reason I don’t mention the rhythm method is because we don’t have a perfected one. And I don’t want somebody to use a method, having heard me talk about it, that is not proven. There is a method in Switzerland. It’s called the Knouse (sp?) method, rhythm method. It’s not perfected yet. And that’s what I would like. I would like people like you, Richard, to get on the air. You have influence. You have a program. Say we need more research find those ways of contraception that fit into different religious beliefs. I also have to say to you, I’m not a theologian. And I’m not a politician. I do believe, me, Ruth Westheimer, as an educator sitting here with you, Richard, talking…I believe the abortion law must remain legal. I know the attitude of different religious groups about abortion. I believe it must remain legal because I remember, maybe you’re too young. I remember that before 1970 only women with money could get an abortion. And the others had to resort…because they could go to Mexico or to Europe. And the others resorted to abortionists and to coat hangers. So when there’s a contraceptive failure I do believe that abortion must remain legal. But I do understand that there are lots of problems with it.

HEFFNER: What does that do to your relationship with the church? That’s a very straight question.

WESTHEIMER: Can I brag a little?

HEFFNER: I wish you would.

WESTHEIMER: Okay. A couple of weeks ago I was in Madison, New Jersey, because a friend of mine, a Catholic priest, who is the head of this cathedral there had a twenty-fifth birthday. A…not birthday, a party because it is 25 years that he has been a priest. And there were all of the most important Catholic dignitaries. The Archbishop of New Jersey, there were many…30 people…and then there was the congregation. And in his talking, Father…(inaudible)…thanked me for being there because I was his professor at Columbia University and a friend of his later on mentioned that I’m there and that this group of Irish and Catholic Catholics…Irish and Italian…applauded. I tell you I still hear that applause in my ears. It made me blush. It made me very happy.

HEFFNER: Did you make them blush?

WESTHEIMER: I wouldn’t talk about these things in a church. You understand what I mean?

HEFFNER: I know what you’re saying.

WESTHEIMER: Your question is very important. It’s the same like as if I talk about the Orthodox Jew. And I think it’s important that we retrain other sex educators and sex therapists like myself like that next generation, that we must train them to be aware of the religious aspects.

HEFFNER: Dr. Ruth, one of the things that I want to ask you, it’s something that I ask frequently of my guests. I don’t know that it’s fair, I don’t know what would happen if someone asked me, in counterpart, what’s the down-side in your estimation of our involvement with advice here and advice there…the kinds of columns, the kinds of radio and television programs…the industry that has built up around the giving of personal advice?

WESTHEIMER: I do believe that if there was not such a need for the columns, the programs like mine, I’m not the only one, then it would be off the air, because the ratings would be down. It’s not a public affairs program any more. It is now depending on the ratings. And they would say, Dr. Westheimer, we like you very much, good-bye.

HEFFNER: But Dr. Westheimer, you…you’re talking about need, and I’m talking about the desirability.

WESTHEIMER: Yes. I do believe that the need, number one, has to be met because everybody’s interested in sex. Why are the soap operas so successful? Because there’s nothing more interesting than what happens in other peoples’ lives. Not just sex, but lives. So I think if we don’t give the information that’s correct…it’s not that people are not going to talk about sex. The children are going to talk about it on the school bus and in the school yard. That’s how they give good information.

HEFFNER: No down-side to this industry that’s grown up?

WESTHEIMER: Yes. The down-side is if anybody like myself would say what I do either on television or on the radio or on paper is therapy. That would be a catastrophe because you cannot do therapy on the air. You can only do therapy in an office like mine at the clinic talking to a person and getting feedback. All I do is to give some advice which a well-meaning aunt could give. But most people these days don’t have well-meaning aunts that have time. Now the down-side would be if…let me give you a good example…If I were to permit the NBC radio network, we are now in…I just picked up a few more stations…70 stations…if I would permit the producers or the big shots to say to me, you, Ruth Westheimer, have two minutes per call, because that will make an interesting program. Because this way a lot of questions will be asked. Then I would say, thank you, gentlemen. I’ve had a good time, and I will not do it. I have to have the freedom to be able to talk with somebody maybe 10 seconds. By just saying go and get help or by listening to somebody a little bit more.

HEFFNER: Ruth, do you think that in this back and forth about therapy, do you think there are very many listeners and viewers who themselves perceive their relationship with you as a therapeutic one?

WESTHEIMER: Richard, that’s the most important question that I’ve been asked ever. I hope not. I hope that I’m a significant other. I hope I make a dent in their lives by saying responsibility, and these things. But also, good sexual functioning within that. I hope that people, and I think I know, people are intelligent enough to take out of those advice-kind of vignettes, to take out of those what they can use and to put the other things aside. And let me tell you something else. Let’s suppose, Richard, you would hear me on the air and you would hear that I’m saying something wrong. I would expect from somebody like you a phone call the next day and to say, Westheimer, you said something wrong. And then I would say it the next week. I would correct it. I t has happened that somebody called and said, you didn’t mention another book on that particular subject. It happens. Therapy can only be done when I have the luxury of more time, number one, and also in the office. That’s why I use only…(inaudible)…

HEFFNER: Your concept of being an important other is a lovely one. It’s really very touching. And I think quite accurate. One of the things that I have noticed, and Jan Waldman is digging up material for us on Ruth Westheimer, interesting thing that I found very little that touched upon what must be some kind of relationship between what you are doing now and the fact that you were a child of the Holocaust. What is that connection?

WESTHEIMER: You see, Richard, I don’t think that there is a connection directly. There is one aspect because in my diaries they were published in Switzerland in book form, not in English. I do talk as a very young person because I was an orphan. And I was in the orphanage with other people, some of them younger than me. I say how important it is for us to be in the helping profession. To help others. But the helping of others, that it went into the sexual area, that was just by chance. That was that I got the opportunity to work for Planned Parenthood and after a while I loved it and I took that opportunity with both hands. I thought that I would be in public health. But the issue if you ask about my background what makes me in the helping profession is an interesting sociological aspect. I did a study and most of the people from that group…because they all survived…they became orphans, their parents were killed in concentration camps…most of them…not all…many of them went into the helping professions.

HEFFNER: I read that piece in the paper that referred to the book you had written. And in some aspects…it had some of the aspects of an Ann Frank who survived. And it was so interesting that they did, so many of them, go into the helping professions. And I wondered if that had anything to do with this wonderful, wonderful feeling of optimism and enthusiasm that you convey. You’re such a wonderfully up-beat person.

WESTHEIMER: I think that I have to be grateful to two very loving parents and a very doting grandmother who lived with us and to my Orthodox Jewish background because there was a tremendous amount of, do the best then somebody up there is going to help you. But you first have to do your best. And no question that…you are a professor so that you do know that if you really love what you are doing that that comes across. And if you would ask me right now is there anything I would rather do than to sit here with Richard and talk about these issues in such a very wonderful, not hurried way, I would say to you no.

HEFFNER: You’re very, very mean though in a sense to talk about not hurrying away because I’m just about ready to get a signal that says, you know, off you go to me. I’m sure they’d all like to see you stay. Indeed, I’m so much impressed for whatever that’s worth, Dr. Ruth, with the kindness that you bring to this important subject area. And I do want to thank you so much for joining me here on THE OPEN MIND.

WESTHEIMER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: I hope you come back.

WESTHEIMER: Of course I will. Anytime you call.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”