Before a recent Washington screening of “Ask Dr. Ruth,” a new Hulu documentary about the legendary sex therapist, the projectionist pops his head out of the booth to say: “I used to watch Dr. Ruth all the time in the 1980s, back when things made sense!”
He’s right. It is hard to make sense of relationships today. Singles swipe through prospects’ dating profiles in mere seconds and frequently discard one another without explanation. Young people are abstaining from sex and eschewing relationships more than ever before.
Throughout all this change, sex therapist Ruth Westheimer is a constant. She’s no longer on the air, but she’s still doling out frank sex advice at age 90 and is wondering aloud whether Amazon’s Alexa can find her a boyfriend in the opening moments of “Ask Dr. Ruth.”
The documentary also reveals a lot about how Ruth K. Westheimer became Dr. Ruth. Before she became a sex therapist with a must-listen radio show and numerous talk shows in the 1980s and 1990s, Westheimer was a young girl in Frankfurt, Germany, when the Nazis came to power. Her parents sent her to a Swiss orphanage at age 10, an act that saved her life. Though Westheimer doesn’t like to talk about herself much, she considers the documentary “a grave” for her parents, who died in the Holocaust.
“I think it’s very ironic for someone who’s the most famous relationship therapist in the world that she doesn’t love to talk about herself or her emotions so much,” says Ryan White, the film’s director. Westheimer kept detailed diaries from age 10 until about 25, which White leaned on in making the documentary. “Ask Dr. Ruth” premieres in theaters this weekend and on Hulu June 1.
Westheimer also doesn’t like to talk about sex, unless it’s in a professional setting. So we created such a setup and asked her a few dating questions on the minds of millennials, including why it’s so hard to find and hold onto a relationship. Watch above. The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Lisa Bonos: In the documentary, there’s this sweet moment between you and your teenage boyfriend. Can exes be friends? How many decades have to pass for that to happen?
Dr. Ruth: I certainly am still friends, because he was very important — not just for holding hands and kissing. In those days, girls were not able to go to high school. I was fortunate and grateful that I looked at his books when he came home, and now look what’s happened. … Now I have 35 books of my own.
Bonos: Do you have tips for daters as far as when a relationship has potential and when it’s time to walk away?
Dr. Ruth: It’s time to walk away if someone has a relationship with a married man, and it’s time to walk away when you are being bored, and it’s time to walk away when somebody gets cheated on. Otherwise, other relationship questions very often can be helped by going to a therapist. And for the millennials, I have to say: Don’t always wait until you think that something better comes along. Make sure that you cultivate the relationship and that you are walking around with your head high, saying, “How pleased I am to be in a relationship.”
Bonos: Once you do find that relationship that lasts, how do you keep things new and exciting over decades?
Dr. Ruth: You make sure that you keep time and effort and energy for sex. Now people with children, I advise, once in a while you go to a motel — you don’t have to stay the whole night. You take a babysitter. You check into a motel. You take some champagne. You take some bubble bath. And you are leaving all of your worries — all of your dislike of the mother-in-law, anything in your life — you leave outside. You make a package. You leave it outside the door. And you have a good sexual relationship.
Bonos: That’s good advice. If you’re single, a lot of millennials have trouble finding time away from work in their busy schedules to prioritize relationships.
Dr. Ruth: That’s nonsense. Because in the olden days, people worked in factories for many more hours than people work today with all of the regulations of unions. So this idea that they work more today than at other times — I can’t agree with that at all. If you have a prospect of a relationship, make sure that you cultivate that. And make sure that you take time.