A few other details you might not know about Dr. Ruth: At age 10, Westheimer was taken on a kindertransport from Germany to an orphanage in Switzerland. Her family perished in the Holocaust. Later, she trained to be a sniper in the paramilitary organization Haganah. “As a four-foot-seven woman, I would have been turned away by any self-respecting army anywhere else in the world,” she writes, “but I had other qualities that made me a valuable guerrilla.” Among them, “a knack for putting bullets exactly where I want them to go.”
Dr. Ruth — twice divorced and a widow — teaches at Columbia, has a strong presence on social media (85,000 followers @AskDrRuth), and in the summer will publish, with her co-writer, Pierre Lehu, a children’s book, “Leopold,” about a turtle who overcomes its fears. In a phone interview from her office in New York, she talked about her books, her philosophy and (a bit) about her personal life. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How have people’s problems changed since you began offering sex advice in the early 1980s?
People are more knowledgeable. Women in this great country have learned that they must take responsibility for their sexual satisfaction. Even if they love the guy, he can’t guess what she needs. Yet I get a lot of the same questions. Sex is boring. The relationship is not good. People bringing their worries into the bedroom. I say leave the worries outside the bedroom door.
We know that girls menstruate at an earlier age so we have an obligation to give sex education. Children are exposed to so many sexual pictures. Parents have to be an “askable parent” so that a child can ask those questions and get correct information.
Why do you say you’re old-fashioned?
I don’t believe in hooking up. I don’t believe in sex on the first date. I want people to have a relationship before they have sex. I can’t say how long before. Also, you don’t have to share your fantasies. If you have sex with your partner, and the woman thinks about a whole football team in bed with her, that’s okay, but keep your mouth shut about it.
What do you think of E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey”?
I read all three books. I didn’t see the film. It proves my point: Women do get aroused by sexually explicit material. It’s not required reading. I tell people to make sure you turn the page if you read something you don’t like. It’s the same with “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” or “Fear of Flying.”
How has the Internet changed our relationships?
I am worried about the Internet because young people think they can retrieve what they put up — like naked pictures — but you can’t. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. The other thing that worries me: I see couples walking holding hands and in the other they are holding a phone. We are going to lose the ability to have a good conversation.
Questions have been raised about your comments this week on the Diane Rehm Show about when it’s appropriate for a woman to say no to a man. Can you elaborate?
Loud and clear: In the Jewish tradition, it says that if that part of the male anatomy is aroused, the brain flies out of the head. It also says a man doesn’t have enough blood for two heads. What does it mean? If a man and a woman — or two men and two women — are naked in bed together, there is no way that, in the middle, he or she can say, “I changed my mind” and leave. I think people have to take the responsibility that if they are in bed together, they are willing to have some kind of sexual experience. She has no business in bed with him, and he has no business in bed with her if they don’t have an understanding that they will have sex.
You mention in your book that you once thought you were too short to get pregnant. What are some of the myths about sex that continue to plague people?
There are still people who believe in the G-spot. Until we get scientifically validated data that there’s something like a G-spot, we shouldn’t worry about it. And there are plenty of other myths that still need to be buried.
How did you learn about the birds and the bees?
I do remember as a girl in Frankfurt — so I was less than 10 — a girl explained to me she was menstruating. And I do remember a book at my parents’ house, “The Ideal Marriage.” I went up on a ladder to look at that book; they were hiding it. I saw some pictures of people having sex.
People must ask about your sex life. What do you tell them?
You started a line of low-alcohol wine. Why?<
Yes, Vin’d’amour. It wasn’t very successful. It was very sweet. I want people to relax a little, but I don’t want them to be drunk. So, take a drink, relax a little, leave your worries outside your apartment.
What’s your secret to long life?
I don’t know that it’s a secret: good luck. I am fortunate that I can walk fast and that I can walk and talk on the phone at the same time. I skied until the age of 80.
In your book you write, “As far as I’m concerned, I’m still becoming Dr. Ruth.” What more can you be?
I mean I am still very curious to learn. I am still teaching. I taught at Yale and Princeton. I go to lectures. I am not satisfied by standing still. I still want to learn. I go to concerts. It’s very nice to be Dr. Ruth. I am now a widow for more than 16 years. If I could find an interesting older gentleman who can still walk and talk, that would be very nice. I would be very happy.