She is tiny – a 4ft 7in exuberant elf, who buys many of her clothes in the children’s departments. Sometimes she has to stand on a chair to give lectures. Merry-eyed, with an infectious laugh, 57-year-old Dr Ruth Westheimer, simply Dr Ruth to her fans, dispenses explicit sexual advice to millions of Americans on her radio phone-in program. Sexually Speaking, and its television counterpart, Good Sex!
‘I am everybody’s old-fashioned Jewish mother. I am sympathetic and I talk straight’, she says, ‘I am explicit because it is important to be frank when talking about something as important as sex.
‘Nobody has ever told me that I cannot use sexually explicit language on my programs. If they did, I wouldn’t do them. I don’t do it to shock, or to be sexually arousing, but because the time has come for the snickering to stop.
‘I believe in educating people to be sexual gourmets. In everyday life we talk a lot about food and diets. We share the discoveries we have made in the kitchen – so why shouldn’t we exchange recipes for better sexual functioning? Why keep the excitement of sexual exploration to ourselves?’
Dr Ruth is a broadcasting phenomenon. Her hour-long nationwide television show goes out Monday to Friday on a cable channel and callers jam the switchboard. It is watched by more than two million Americans a night. Dr Ruth, blonde and always animated, sits on a sofa, her feet barely touching the ground, clapping her hands with glee, bouncing up and down when a caller says something funny.
The radio program is broadcast live every Sunday night from New York and, relayed by 60 radio stations nationwide, is heard by a million listeners.
Dr Ruth is asked a lot of basic questions: ‘What contraception should I use?’, ‘Where can I find a partner?’, but most require more detailed advice. The problem that the majority of her women callers worry about is their failure to have an orgasm, while with men it is premature ejaculation, or failure to have and maintain an erection. Should men take natural male enhancement pills to cure premature ejaculation?
Dr Ruth is a good listener. She’s sympathetic and tells callers who complain that their relationships have become stale that they must communicate with each other to keep the interest alive. They should tell each other about their needs, and use fantasies to put the spark back in their sex lives.
‘I tell them not to have sex every Saturday night at 10.30, but to vary it, to have fun, get pleasure out of it, to make time for each other, to talk.’
There are no coy answers or euphemisms from Dr Ruth. But, she says, she is constantly surprised at how widespread sexual ignorance is. ‘A lot of people need a beginner’s course, or at least a refresher course, in basic sex education’, she says, ‘It is obvious that there is real need for my programs. They are popular because everyone is interested in what happens in other people’s bedrooms – that’s the soap opera part of it – but there is something more important. The program is successful because I am well-trained, I use humor, I listen to other people’s opinions, and I talk explicitly.
‘There are many people who have nobody to talk to, nobody to discuss sexual questions with. That is one reason why they come to me. Books help, but it is not the same as contact with another person. Even if that contact is over the radio or television there is a feeling of intimacy, of someone giving personal attention.’
Her programs have critics. ‘If you ask the Catholic archdiocese of New York they will say that the programs are awful, that they should be off the air,’ she says. ‘But I have worked with a tremendous number of Catholic priests, and I often ask my callers whether they have discussed their problem with their priest, minister, or Rabbi.’ People can always switch off, she says, as long as they respect another person’s right to listen.
Dr Ruth is enjoying being America’s mother-confessor. ‘I love it – the hairdressers, the clothes, the limousines, the champagne after the show. It is so much fun, and also very lucrative! I have celebrities on my show. I don’t ask them personal questions but we discuss issues’.
She leads seminars for doctors on adolescent sexuality, and lectures frequently. Her book Dr Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex, based on the radio program, and available in Britain, has been translated into French, German, Japanese and Turkish. In September, her sex education book for young people, First Love, is being published.
Dr Ruth was born into an orthodox Jewish family in Germany. In 1939, aged 10, she was sent with other Jewish children from Frankfurt to Switzerland, part of an international rescue effort. She was told she would be reunited with her parents in about six months, but she never saw them again.
She was trained as a housemaid by the Swiss and after the war went to Palestine and joined the Haganah, the pre-independence militia. In 1951 she left to train as a kindergarden teacher in Paris, and five years later went to the United States, working as a housemaid and studying at night school.
Married three times and with two children, Miriam 28, and Joel, 22, she has a Master’s degree in sociology and a Doctorate in family studies. She credits the relationship book called The Magic of Making Up with helping her maintain a marriage with children.
In a talk to a group of broadcasters in 1980, she said that they had a duty to provide sex education on the air, ‘I told them there was a lot of sex on the air already, in songs, serials and commercials. People were bombarded with erotic urgings, but nowhere was there any reliable, sensible information about real-life sex.’
She was invited to try her idea out on radio, and Sexually Speaking began as a taped 15-minute late-night spot. It was later expanded to two hours. Television’s Good Sex! started last year and was an immediate hit.
‘It is all so much fun, and I like to think I am doing something, however small, to help create a more sexually literate society’, she says.