Ruth Westheimer

An Extraordinary Woman

VTR Date: November 2, 2012

Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Richard Heffner discuss her life and career.


GUEST: Dr. Ruth Westheimer
AIR DATE: 11/03/2012
VTR: 07/26/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I must tell you that I saw a simply extraordinary BBC documentary the other month…and very much hope that you will be able to see it as well.

One of a BBC series titled “Extraordinary Women” – women who include Indira Ghandi, Amelia Earhart, Grace Kelly, and Madame Chiang Kai Shek among others – this episode was about my guest today … of whom I’m reminded each time I encounter that lovely story of Abraham Lincoln first meeting Abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe in the midst of the Civil War … with the Great Emancipator looking down at the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, saying “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war”.

For even when Ruth Westheimer – our own tiny but peripatetic “Dr. Ruth” – first joined me here at this table nearly three decades ago, she already symbolized a formidable movement in American life, indeed a “sexual revolution” that many believed she much aided and abetted with her books and particularly her radio, television and cable shows about sex, sex, and more sex.

Even this past weekend, when my wife and I went with her to a restaurant near the lovely lake community we all live in, older diners and younger diners alike were agog with Dr. Ruth’s very presence … while in the Berkshires a noted playwright has fashioned out of my guest’s life a very successful one-woman show, “Dr. Ruth, All the Way”, a show that has already wowed its packed audiences, has had its stage life extended, and may well thrust my friend into still another life cycle – from Hitler’s child victim and Swiss “Kindertransport” refugee…to Israeli military sharpshooter…to student, teacher, mother, grandmother, sex therapist and now ALL-media maven. So, Ruth, how does it feel to have touched …

WESTHEIMER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … on still another means …

WESTHEIMER: First of all …

HEFFNER: … of reaching the public.

WESTHEIMER: … first of all … congratulations … I finally taught you to say “sex” with enthusiasm. You did very well.


WESTHEIMER: … (laugh) …

HEFFNER: … what are you saying.

WESTHEIMER: It took, it took some time until you were able to “sex” like that. Now, I’m very grateful … I’m 84 years old … and look what’s happening to me. You just mentioned the BBC film … you mentioned the show “Dr. Ruth, All the Way” … have to tell you a secret … only for you and your viewers … it looks that it’s coming on Broadway. In a small theater … don’t tell anybody yet.

HEFFNER: Not yet.

WESTHEIMER: Not yet. But it looks like it. First there’s another run in the Berkshires, I’ll take you there. And then it will probably come to New York. It makes me laugh because at the age of 84 everybody else is going to sit in a rocking chair. I am involved in … I don’t know how many new endeavors. And at the show, I had to pinch myself because the actress … Deborah Jo Rupp from “The 70’s Show” … a little taller than me … twinkle in her eye … she played me beautifully. I had to pinch myself to say, “Ruth Westheimer you are in the audience … don’t jump up, don’t say a word”. She is doing you.

HEFFNER: You didn’t say a word?

WESTHEIMER: Not a word.

HEFFNER: I don’t believe that.

WESTHEIMER: Until after the show we did a few talk-backs and I wished you had been there because you would have asked some very probing, interesting questions.

HEFFNER: What I heard …


HEFFNER: … what I heard, Ruth was that you said what you have said before but you said it so touchingly that you’re the victor in all of this.

When we talk about “kindertransport”, when we talk about your parents murdered by Hitler …


HEFFNER: … when we talk about the trials and tribulations of your early life … you say, “But I beat Hitler”. What did you mean?

WESTHEIMER: No question. Because you will see in the film … of the BBC film and in the play … you will see four gorgeous grandchildren …

HEFFNER: Oh, I know that.

WESTHEIMER: I know you have grandchildren … mine are the best. All I have to do, Richard, is look at my children, son-in-law, daughter-in-law … I don’t want to forget them. My four grandchildren and I say, “Hitler, you lost”.

But there is something also serious about this. These days, I’m 84 I told you … there are some deniers of the Holocaust. And I am proof that I can stand up to be counted that this horrible happening did happen because I was an orphan at the age of 10 ½.

And it makes me very pleased that things are continuing for me to have that opportunity to shine and to say … never mind all of the talk about sex … it’s one part of my personality and my media endeavor … I’m going to teach this Spring at Columbia University … at Teachers College.

A brand new course, the Family in Film … you’re going to help me … I don’t know if you know that already … the Family as depicted in film, on television and in the media. And it’s going to be a wonderful course.

HEFFNER: Listen, you know, you make much of this being 84 … you’re a kid … I can’t remember when I was 84 …

WESTHEIMER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … but now you look back and you think about those trials and tribulations …


HEFFNER: … I’ve wondered what you think about a point you made when you first came to this country and you said, “These Americans, they’re crazy … all they do is talk about sex … sex, sex, sex, sex, sex” … I don’t know how I’m saying it with the enthusiasm you want or not … what’s happened with us? You’ve watched us …


HEFFNER: … and sex, sex, sex in America … for all these years, what’s happened?

WESTHEIMER: Okay, first of all, when I started I worked for Planned Parenthood of New York City. Abortion was illegal. And even giving out contraception had to be done quietly.

I trained paraprofessionals … we followed 2,000 women and their contraceptive and abortive history. And that’s what I used for my doctoral dissertation.

What has changed is the discussion about contraception from time to time … politicians use it … I stay away from politicians. For me it is clear that contraceptive has to be available and for me, it is clear, that abortion must remain legal. Because otherwise only women with money were able to get an abortion … they flew to Mexico, to Europe. The others went to abortionists and to coat hangers. That would make me very upset. So I don’t deal in politics.

I vote … I’m an American, I vote every year … every opportunity I get. But I don’t do anything in politics. But I have to stand up to be counted that all these people who fight for contraceptive rights and who fight for abortion to remain legal … have my support.

HEFFNER: Ruth, what do you find as you go around the country? And I know that you travel widely, not only here, but abroad. What do you find about contemporary attitudes towards abortion, towards birth control?

WESTHEIMER: You see, I’m very fortunate. They know where I stand …


WESTHEIMER: … because I’m outspoken. So I don’t get any people standing up being against me. I don’t get that. For some reason because I’m older, maybe my accent, maybe they have accepted that this little Dr. Ruth talks about sex so openly. And when you say, “What has changed?”

There are tremendous changes in this country. There are now less women who haven’t heard the message … from television … from people like me … I’m not the only one … women have to take the responsibility for their own sexual satisfaction.

The time that she thought he has to know what to do for her to have orgasms is over. She has to take the responsibility to teach him. And we see across this great country less women who don’t have the ability to have orgasms. You also see less men who are premature ejaculators. Because we talk so much about it. You don’t even have to go to a sex therapist … you can read some books. You can help yourself with some of the sexual dysfunction.

And then for older people … don’t look at me like this … when I say “older people” …

HEFFNER: I’m just wondering what you’re going to say about “older people”.

WESTHEIMER: For older people … very important … not to engage in sex at night when they are tired. Because she will fall asleep and he will not be able to perform. In the mornings the testosterone level is highest … to get up … go to the bathroom, hang the phone off the hook …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

WESTHEIMER: … back into bed.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WESTHEIMER: And put all the thoughts of worry … everybody has worries … put those out of the bedroom … so we have data … Helen Singer Kaplan who trained me was a wonderful mentor and we have a tremendous amount of good data … Kinsey, Masters and Johnson … but now what we need … and we have to shout that from the roof tops of every roof and of every television program … we need more research. We need better ability to educate teachers and parents how to talk to their children, we can’t leave it up to the Internet.

HEFFNER: You mention Kinsey, you mention Masters and Johnson … you realize how long ago it has been …


HEFFNER: … how long it has been since we have had the kinds of studies that they did. Is there anything going on now comparable?

WESTHEIMER: No, because of money. Because somehow no university or no research facility has the ability to have these kind of very, very wonderful studies with actually observed sexual intercourse … measured it and wrote about it. We need a new study. I hope that one of these days it will happen. Because we are the country that have to do it. We can’t say Europe. We can’t say Asia. We can’t say the former Soviet Union. We have to do it.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but Ruth, the, the explanation … money … that just doesn’t hold. We have … whether we, we cry poor or not, we have spent huge sums in various other scientific projects …


HEFFNER: … why haven’t we here?

WESTHEIMER: There is still a reluctance. There is still a little reluctance in terms of saying … maybe what happens between a man and woman or between two women or between two men should remain in the bedroom, should remain between the sheets.

There is a little bit of that reluctance that we have not overcome. But I do believe that the more we know, the happier people are going to be. They are going to be more satisfied, then they will have also more energy to solve the other problems of poverty and other issue of environment that we have in this country.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting, do you think that perhaps Masters and Johnson and the Kinsey researchers … you think those were just freaks, or they got in before the, the rush toward sexuality and they did it on the q/t.

WESTHEIMER: MmmHmm. I don’t think they were freaks, because I’m very grateful to them. I could not do what I’m doing these days without a Kinsey, Masters and Johnson or Helen Singer Kaplan. They gave me the foundation.

So they were not freaks. They were courageous, they were pioneers.

HEFFNER: Oh, by freaks …

WESTHEIMER: They were willing to do something that wasn’t accepted in society.

HEFFNER: By “freaks” I meant “freakish”, it was not accepted in society …

WESTHEIMER: Right. And they …

HEFFNER: … I still am puzzled. After Dr. Ruth has been on the scene all these years, why there are not those scientists who will do the deed that Masters and Johnson did and that Kinsey …

WESTHEIMER: Maybe after your program … who knows.

HEFFNER: Who knows.

WESTHEIMER: There might be somebody who listening to us … and I don’t want to do the studies because I want to communicate the results of studies. I don’t want to sit in a laboratory and I certainly don’t want to watch two people having sex. And … being a widow … I’m going to be jealous. So I certainly don’t want (laugh) to be involved in the studies. But I want to be the person who says we need more data.

HEFFNER: But I do want to ask you this. From your experience in terms of therapist, in terms of a communicator … do you think that the results of those early studies would be replicated today? Do you think we’ve changed so much or changed at all, that we would find that the patterns made public by Masters and Johnson and by Kinsey would no longer be accurate?

WESTHEIMER: That’s a very interesting thought and I think you are right. Because when Lady Chatterley’s Lover … when the book came on the market …


WESTHEIMER: … people were shocked. Then came Fear of Flying by Erica Jong and look what we have today? Today we have 60 Shades of Gray … and I read all three volumes … I want you to know that loud and clear … some people will say it’s awful … and I will say, “turn the page, you don’t have to read it.” Throw the book out, it’s a paperback.

How interesting the young woman that’s in, in the book is over … you know, she’s the age that she can given consent … but it’s very interesting because it proves a point that I have been making for many years. And now I can prove it with that book … not high literature, but a wonderful read.

I have said that women do get sexually aroused by reading erotic literature and by watching sexually explicit movies. People only thought that it’s only men. Not so. And we can prove that. Look at that bestseller of three volumes.

And I make a point of that saying “use it”, you don’t like what happens in that book … go to the next volume. Or you don’t’ like that chapter, go to the next chapter. But it’s very interesting that it’s even going to be translated into Hebrew.

And any place I go, people say “So what about the book 50 Shades of Gray and I can say … they say, “Did you read it?”. I said, “Of course … what do you think, I talk about sex and I’m not reading.”

So it is interesting that there is a change in our culture. Even so we have these discussions, I say to people who say they should not be sexually active before they get married. Stick to it. Catholics. Orthodox Jews, whoever it is, anybody who has those values, don’t let somebody say engage in sex. You stick to your values, but you have to be sexually literate. You have to know what it’s all about.

HEFFNER: Do you think all in all, talking about values, you would say you’re approving more of where we are today, then when you began as the Great Communicator?

WESTHEIMER: No question. I would never have known … AIDS was not on the carpet when I started the radio program and by us all talking, you also … about contracept … about preventing AIDS and about being careful and about remaining with a partner … that certainly has helped.

And I do believe that in general the education of our young people has been … it has helped that we talk so much about it.

Now somebody’s going to say, “But look , what happens, there is some Internet that interferes.” That’s all true. But basically we are better off than we were, no question.

HEFFNER: Indeed, we haven’t spoken about the Internet. It’s been a long time since you’ve been at this table.


HEFFNER: What do you think the relationship is to healthy patterns of sexual activity?

WESTHEIMER: Now … anybody … first of all we have an obligation … I did a book for Teachers College Press about the danger of the Internet.

A parent has an obligation to know what their youngsters are watching on the Internet. Because young people think that they can even gossip or they can put a picture, naked, of themselves and a girlfriend on the Internet and then when that relationship is ending … they can retrieve it. No such thing.

So we have to make sure that everybody knows about the dangers of that kind … never giving your address … children have to know that. Young people have to know that.

On the other hand, people … we can’t say “Don’t look at the Internet” … it is all pervasive. I’m a little bit upset about one thing.

HEFFNER: What’s that?

WESTHEIMER: I see a couple walking down the street, hand-in-hand, but with one hand each one is texting …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WESTHEIMER: … what we will lose, if we don’t watch out is the ability to have a conversation. That part is going to be very sad. People are going to text in those little forms of 145 letters and we have to make sure that people have the ability to, to have that relationship … to look at each other, to smile at each, to touch each other.

I did say at a conference that I … when I want to talk to somebody, I want to touch him and I walked over to President Simon Perez … his Secret Service people were all standing up.

I believe in that. I believe that touching is not necessarily touching. Touching is what you and I are doing right now.

Looking and listening to each other and, and having a conversation. So that part worries me. That’s part of the success of the Internet that worries me. I also see that people are more satisfied to be alone, with that computer, rather than to go out and form relationships.

HEFFNER: Ruth, on that very subject … does that lead you, therefore, to hypothesize further what the effect of the walking hand-in-hand with the other hands texting …


HEFFNER: … will have upon sexual patterns?

WESTHEIMER: Absolutely. Number 1, we have a big problem. Because what is shown on the Internet and in sexually explicit movies … no man can have an erection like it’s shown in the movies. Because people think that he can have an erection like this for an hour. No such thing. You know better.

So, what we do have to say is, “This is television. This is fantasy. These are movies you have to take out of there what fits you and what is right with you.”

Some of the expectations of hanging from a chandelier or, or doing all kind of things in terms of sex … we have to say, “That’s not reality”, that’s in the movies and that’s in the films and … on the Internet. We have to be realistic.

HEFFNER: But I was really thinking about something else. I was thinking of the lack of companionship that the Internet leads to … the one on one and the one being the person himself or herself.

You’ve always talked about the … about sexuality in terms of relationships. Branding relationships this way.

WESTHEIMER: No. Which, which we cannot permit.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “cannot permit”.

WESTHEIMER: We can’t …

HEFFNER: We’re doing it.

WESTHEIMER: Yeah, but we have to talk about it by saying “no way can that interaction with that computer fulfill the needs of companionship and of really having a conversation. And of knowing that that other person is there for you.


WESTHEIMER: … not if the person is the computer.

HEFFNER: Can you know anticipate in any way that we may change and you need to address yourself …


HEFFNER: … about who we’re going to be when we change.

WESTHEIMER: I, I don’t want to accept that. I want to accept differently, I want to say the more we talk about, the more people are going to realize something is missing. If they only interact with a computer. They will go back to wanting to have conversations. They will go back in wanting to have dinner and wanting to learn how to be … I’m an optimist.

HEFFNER: You’re, you’re an old-fashioned lady.

WESTHEIMER: I’m an optimist. I am. I’m not only old fashioned, I’m a square, I’m a stick-in-the mud. I want a man, a woman, two men, two women … I don’t care what, what orientation they have … I want them to be delighted that there’s somebody in their lives that they … that belongs to them. And that cannot be a computer.

HEFFNER: Who would have thought that Ruth Westheimer, Dr. Ruth, my friend … is a square, after all.


HEFFNER: And will not face the future. You’re denying it.

WESTHEIMER: No, I’m not denying it … I’m not going to go on that path of dooms-saying … you know saying “How terrible, how terrible” because then there’s nothing you can do about it.

I’m saying “watch out”. When I teach a course, these students will never forget me. When I teach a course, they will remember what I said about relationships. And when … the other people are not the only one, but what we have to be careful about is not to only get on that track of saying “how terrible, how terrible”. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Yeah, I, I hear what you’re saying and I know you’ll never be a “how terrible, how terrible” a person. But I keep thinking that you have some obligation, may I call it that, to help us think through what does happen, what must happen to us with the impact of these damn devices.

WESTHEIMER: So, here’s, here’s … that’s a very important term that you just used “obligation”. Because from my background which you just talked about, having been an orphan, all of the things that I’ve survived. I have an obligation to make a dent in this world, in order to prove to myself that there must have been a reason why I did not get killed with the other children during the Holocaust.

So there is an obligation to say not only that what has, has happened, but also an obligation to say that I have to make a dent.

And then there’s something interesting. I can prove to you, Richard, that the reason I can be the way I am is because the first ten and a half years of my life I was … I grew up in a loving Orthodox Jewish, but mainly in a loving family. So the early socialization of my life was in a family and very well protected. That’s why I’m an optimist.

HEFFNER: Ruth … and for good reason. Ruth, we’re going to go on and do another program and I want to talk more about that, more about your relationship with Israel, more about this new book of yours relating to the caretakers of Alzheimer victims.

WESTHEIMER: Thank you. Any time.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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