Over the phone from New York City, Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer is an aggressive conversationalist, all the more so with her iconic and throaty Israelified German accent. Each of the sexpert's bold assertions is tempered by a bemused chuckle and followed by a firm albeit delightful, “Next question!” Adorable jokes pepper her advice, a method she tells me is derived from Jewish tradition; the Talmud states, “A lesson learned with humor is a lesson retained.”
In the 1980s — well before we were introduced to Sex and the City — Dr. Ruth demystified female pleasure and agency, normalized sex education and taught “safer sex” without mincing words. From Sexually Speaking on WYNY-FM to The Dr. Ruth Show on the Lifetime network to the internationally syndicated advice column “Ask Dr. Ruth,” the psychosexual therapist has piped her way into bedrooms far and wide. Today, post–50 Shades of Gray, and at 88 no less, she’s still dishing on her website, via Twitter where she has more followers than you, and through the irreverent tutelage of her whopping 41 books on sex, love and life, all while remaining a vocal advocate for sexual health research and education.
In public forums, she doesn’t coddle askers or overly personalize her responses; rather, she taps into a well-practiced life philosophy. Before you’ve asked the question, she has her answer. She’s a lot like my Ashkenazi Jewish grandmother: a no-nonsense, tough cookie who will tell it to you like it is, only she’s encouraging me to masturbate.
In the past, some have balked at Dr. Ruth’s perhaps less-than-woke comments. For example, in this and past interviews, Dr. Ruth presents a narrow view of consent. She also scoffs at relationships that don’t take the shape of traditional monogamy. She concedes that she’s “old-fashioned and a square,” but she’s equally unapologetic, a trait she inherited as a child of the Holocaust turned Israeli paramilitary sniper turned sexual literacy icon.
With an eye toward the future, Dr. Ruth will deliver the keynote address at L.A.’s upcoming Sexual Health Expo, an event that aims to help Angelenos learn the ins and outs (pun intended) of sex and intimacy. True to form, the doctor will host a short Q&A where she encourages the inquisitive to start with “My friend has a question …”
You’ve been in the sexual health field for decades. What has changed the most about how people conduct their sex lives?
In this country, we have the best scientifically validated data of human sexual functioning. There is certainly more awareness and there are fewer people with problems, but we still need more research. We need better ways of educating. For example, there’s no question that women have heard the message that the woman needs to take responsibility for her sexual satisfaction — that she can’t expect even the lover who loves her to know exactly what she needs. And we do know that there are fewer women today who do not have sexual satisfaction, because they’ve heard that message. We also know that today there are fewer men who are premature ejaculators, because we’re talking about it more. It’s not a psychological problem or secretly hating women as was once thought, rather it’s a learning difficulty. So things certainly are better, but we still need more education.
What sex research would you like to see prioritized in the near future?
I would like to see universal sex education. Boys have to know about girls’ menstruation cycles. Girls have to know about nocturnal emission. Boys have to know about it, too, so they don’t get scared. Girls have to know about menstruation because they start menstruating earlier and earlier these days. However, there is no question that we have made tremendous progress in education. There are fewer unintended pregnancies in this country because we talk about contraception, but we still have to educate more. That’s why I think events like the Sexual Health Expo in Los Angeles is a good idea.
How should sex education change or improve?
I would like to get both parents and schools involved. Schools cannot do it by themselves, and some parents have difficulties talking about issues of sex, so I would like to see more courses for teachers and parents so that we have a better sexually literate society.
Are the internet and apps helping or hurting dating, sex and relationships?
I’m all for people using any media in order to not be lonely. I think a dating program like It’s Just Lunch is a great idea. But I want to warn people to be careful with the internet, because some people can say that they are 6 feet tall and look like a movie star — fitting for Los Angeles — but you don’t have any guarantee that people have been honest. Never meet someone for the first time in a secluded area. Meet in the lobby of a hotel or in any other public place.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there. What sex myths would you like to be busted once and for all?
Sigmund Freud said that any woman who doesn’t have a vaginal orgasm is an immature woman. Sigmund Freud was sexually illiterate. He should have taken a course with me, even though he was a genius. There are myths that multiple orgasms are better than one orgasm. Some women have an orgasm and are satisfied. Some need further stimulation in order to be satisfied. There are lots of myths we need to bury. We need more research about the myth of the G spot. I have spoken to women who think they are abnormal because their partner can’t find their G spot.
What’s the most common question you are asked?
People ask me relationship questions and specific sexual questions, and since I’m old-fashioned and a square, I want people to be in relationships and not just hook up.
What is the key to a good relationship?
There are many components. One is you have to really like each other and you really have to make time for each other and to make sure you know what that other person needs.
How do you determine what a partner needs?
You have to make sure that you give each other time to find out. Time is very important, as well as prioritizing the relationship. And when you have dinner with each other, don’t text other people. I’m very worried about people texting all the time. We’re going to lose the ability to have good conversation because people think that they are missing something if they aren’t looking at their phones. … If it’s an emergency, they’ll find you!
What are your thoughts on polyamory?
I’m old-fashioned and a square. Even if people engage in it, it will never work because of jealousy and other problems.
Early in your career you worked at Planned Parenthood. What do you think of the recent political threats to the organization?
I’m not talking about politics because anyone who talks about sex morning till night like me cannot talk about politics. But I believe that Planned Parenthood has to continue. Even if people are careful about contraception, there is always a chance of contraceptive failure. So, in my opinion all people should be able to obtain an abortion if they need one.
What is sex like at 88?
For older people who are fortunate enough to still have a partner, I wrote a book called Sex After 50, with sex tips that hold true for people until the age of 99.
What do you think of sex robots?
Nonsense. I want sex to be between two people. Except if somebody doesn’t have a partner, then I say bring yourself to sexual satisfaction. I have nothing against vibrators, but a vibrator cannot replace another human being. You can use a sex toy to bring you to satisfaction and then go out and find yourself a partner.
I want to ask you about consent ...
I will say, I am old-fashioned and a square. I believe that no two people, heterosexual or homosexual, have any business in bed naked unless they have agreed to have sex. This idea that in the heat of a sexual encounter that they can say “I change my mind” is not realistic.
What about the fact that there is a whole spectrum of sexual activity from kissing to intercourse?
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It holds true for that, too. I don’t want anybody to be involved in anything that they haven’t decided to do.
Societally speaking, do Americans have a healthy relationship with sex?
In this country, as I said before, we have the best scientifically validated data, but we still have things to learn. I’m not saying we are the best and I’m not saying we are not the best. I’m saying let’s learn as much as there is to be taught about.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Sexual Health Expo Los Angeles, California Market Center, 110 E. Ninth St., 13th floor, downtown; Sat.-Sun., Feb. 4-5, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. sexualhealthexpo.com.