Ruth K. Westheimer, known affectionately as “Dr. Ruth,” survived the Holocaust as a German Orthodox Jew, and an exploding shell when she took part in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Since then, she has studied psychology in France and earned a Doctorate of Education from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. But rather than talk about all that, she’s more interested in getting you laid.
While in her 30s, a job at Planned Parenthood piqued an interest in human sexuality. Two decades and several teaching gigs later, Westheimer emerged as a cultural icon in her 50s for her 15-minute late-night radio segments on sex. An hour-long live radio show followed, as well as a TV show and a string of books, most notably, “Sex for Dummies.”
Westheimer is still making dirty jokes and answering difficult questions. But these days, it’s through Twitter and YouTube. Her latest book “Myths of Love: Echoes of Greek and Roman Mythology in the Modern Romantic Imagination,” co-authored with Jerome E. Singerman, gives ancient myths a modern pychosexual analysis. She The People spoke with Westheimer before her appearance at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival on Saturday.
There are people who believe that women cannot age in the public eye without reinventing themselves in some way. At 86 years old, have you ever felt a need or desire to reinvent yourself?
No. I’m talking about a subject matter that reinvents itself so I never had the need to reinvent. We do have, in this country, the best data available. So we can educate, we can make people talk about sex. I can help people as a sex therapist. And that constantly reinvents itself because of the subject matter.
My new book with Jerome E. Singerman is called “Myths of Love,” which is something different. We talk about myths of love — he chooses the myths and I give my interpretation.
For example, the cover shows Bacchus, the god of wine and a young woman interested in him. He doesn’t even look at her; he looks up to the sky. My interpretation is that he’s praying to have an erection. In the Jewish tradition, a lesson taught is humor. So I don’t tell any jokes but I can use humor to talk to anyone.
Two nights ago, in the rain, I went to Rutgers and I told the organizers that they could just have the attendees form a little circle. But 500 people of all ages showed up. It was wonderful. It made me smile that at 86, I can get 500 people to come to a lecture.
What’s your favorite myth in “Myths of Love” and how does it relate to today?
The myth of Leda and the swan because it has a happy ending. The swan creates a very sensual picture. In my way of thinking, the swan is transformed into a prince, Leda is going to have a good lover and then they get married. I’m old fashioned and a square so I want them to get married and have children.
And how does that particular myth relate to today?
They used to say that women do not get sexually aroused by reading sexually explicit literature or looking at sexually explicit pictures or movies. If you remember “Fifty Shades of Grey,” it’s not literature or required reading, but it’s very interesting. Like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Women do get aroused when they’re not occupied by washing dishes or doing chores with their mother-in-law.
Adults are holding off getting married and young people seem to desire the immediacy of quick relationships. Has this changed the way you give advice?
Not really because I don’t want people to be lonely. I hope that at the end that they will find a partner who shares their life. There’s no question that women can protect themselves but at the end, I want them to be married and raise children.
You became well known for dishing out frank sex advice in the ‘80s. How has the national discussion on sexuality changed in the age of social media and oversharing?
I’m not against it. That’s the way of modern communication. But I’m very worried that people are losing their ability to have a conversation because everybody is sexting. I’m not against using it when it’s necessary but I don’t want people to lose their interest in good conversation and their the ability to have a connection. You see a couple holding hands and in their other hand, they have their phone out, texting. If they can use the Internet to enhance their lives and make a relationship, I’m all for it.
You say to use technology “when necessary.” What does that mean?
When people don’t go to concerts or to parties. Rather than be isolated, I’d rather that they use it. But use it with caution. I’d rather take people out to lunch and see if it leads to a relationship. At least you see with whom you are talking. Just keep it safe. On the Internet, people can lie.
Have you ever sent a sext?
No, I don’t know how to type!
In your earlier years, you had a job with Planned Parenthood and you recently were the guest of honor at its 50th anniversary gala. What do you have to say about abortion in this country?
I’m very sad because I don’t want people to have an unintended pregnancy. If they do, I need abortion to be in the public health area and not a political issue. It makes me very sad that women have a need. But when there is an unintended pregnancy, there will always be a need for abortion and it ought to be legal.
You still go back and visit Israel, even during times of conflict. What is that like for you?
[When I go back,] I’m surprised that we get as much done as we do. In 1948, I was trained to be a sniper. I was very good but I didn’t kill anybody. I was wounded and hurt in my legs. That was before the Haganah. Now, I have hope that there will be a solution. There should be peace. In Hebrew, the word for peace is Shalom.
Would you consider yourself a feminist?
I don’t really consider myself a feminist in that sense but I believe in equal pay for equal work.
What does the word mean to you?
It’s a word for younger people who are out there demonstrating. I have seen the debate about equal pay for equal work and we have to make sure that both men and women are educated about that.
Women were not always encouraged to speak openly about sexuality. As a woman who does just that, did you ever experience sexism?
I was very naughty. When I started the radio show, which I did for ten years every Sunday night, I was already history. I was well-trained. I already had my doctorate. I never had any problems because everybody knows I’m old fashioned and a square but think that people should have good relationships and should be sexually literate.
But no, I did not have problems being a woman speaking about sex. I used to say, “Whoever doesn’t like it should just switch the station.” I never said that you had to listen to me.
There are so many different chapters in your life. You trained as a scout and sniper with the Israeli nationalist movement, you taught psychology, you’re a published author. You’ve also had a family. With all your experience, do you have anything to add to the “Can women have it all?” debate?
I do believe that women can have it all. With an exclamation mark! I do believe that they can have a family. They have to know that husbands have to participate. She can’t have it all alone. She has to have a partner.