Dr. Ruth on Sex, Humor and Happiness Ruth Westheimer was over 50 when she began her career advising in a very public way — on the most private of matters. For Dr. Ruth, now 78, the key to a happy life is healthy sex. Sexuality education, as she calls it, is serious stuff, but must be taught with some humor, she says.
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Dr. Ruth on Sex, Humor and Happiness

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Dr. Ruth on Sex, Humor and Happiness

Dr. Ruth on Sex, Humor and Happiness

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We heard from Hugh Hefner yesterday in our occasional series The Long View. Today we turn to another sex guru who needs no introduction.

Dr. RUTH WESTHEIMER (Sex Therapist): Sexually speaking, you're on the air.

Unidentified Man: Ruth, I'm calling from New York.


Unidentified Man: I'm 26 and I'm presently involved…

MONTAGNE: Dr. Ruth Westheimer is now 78 years old. She was over 50 when she began her career advising in a very public way on the most private of matters. On radio and then TV, Dr. Ruth became a celebrity with wacky charm that belied a tragic past. In her autobiography, she remembers the day she saw her mother and grandmother for the last time. She was boarding a special train for Jewish children escaping the Nazis. All of her family would eventually perish in the Holocaust. She went on to earn a doctorate of education focusing on the family. And for Dr. Ruth, one key to a happy life is healthy sex.

Dr. WESTHEIMER: I certainly believe in the need for sexuality education. I do believe that it has to be taught based on scientifically validated data. And it has to be taught with some kind of humor. Not jokes. I couldn't tell you a joke, Renee, but I can use humor to make sure that students will remember what I'm talking about.

MONTAGNE: You begin your autobiography with something that's amusing in its way, a line where you begin: Considering that I was to become famous as an advocate of contraception, it's somewhat ironic that my parents didn't use it precisely at the point when they should have. You were being quite open about the fact that your parents had a shotgun wedding.

Dr. WESTHEIMER: I had a big smile on my face when I looked at that autobiography because in those days, this was 1928, in a German-Jewish orthodox household, unheard of, but my father did the honorable thing, he married my mother. And I purposely did write about that because why should I wait until one of you journalists or researchers are going to find that out. It's easy to find out. They can go - German's keep who has very good records, I'm saying with some kind of ironic smile. The other reason I did that is, as I just mentioned, I had a very dramatic, rude awakening, coming from a very sheltered orthodox Jewish household in Frankfurt am Main. And having been sent with a kindertransport to Switzerland, otherwise I wouldn't be alive and I wouldn't be talking to you.

MONTAGNE: When - in fact, after you lost your family in the Holocaust and after the war, you were able to make your way to what was then Palestine.

Dr. WESTHEIMER: Right. I certainly did. I went on a kibbutz for two years. I then realized I have to study. I have to learn something. I went to Jerusalem. And like all of us, we were all trained in some kind of a paramilitary group and I was in the Haganah. That was the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces. And for some strange reason - I'm only 4'7" - I am a very good marksman. I am a very good sniper, and I can put five bullets into that red circle and I know how to throw hand grenades. I was badly wounded on my birthday, June 4th, 1948, right after Israel was declared a country, from the shrapnel of a cannonball that killed some right next to me in the girls' residence. Anyway, I was very fortunate there was a brilliant surgeon, and he fixed my feet so well that I can ski. I still ski. And I can dance the whole night if I find a partner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: You know, when you sat down to do a radio show on the subject of sex - now, we're talking about 1981 - the sexual revolution had already happened. But on the other hand, you became so famous, not because you were shocking people so much as because you were so natural about sex.

Dr. WESTHEIMER: That's a very good way of putting it. I think the combination of my already having been an older woman, my being very well trained, that and my accent, and the combination of my believing in what I'm doing, and I took every question very seriously, even when I knew on radio, let's say, that a question came from some college group who had Dr. Ruth parties on Sunday nights, even when I knew that that question was in jest, I answered it seriously because I thought there might be somebody in Vancouver, Canada or someplace in Mississippi who has that question.

MONTAGNE: Have you seen attitudes towards sex and sexuality change very dramatically over the years?

Dr. WESTHEIMER: The problems are still the same. I still get people asking about premature ejaculation, about inability to obtain or maintain an erection. And when I looked back now with a long view that you talk about - here it's 2007 - there is tremendous change in the country. We certainly have less unintended pregnancies. And we have less women who haven't heard the message that a woman has to take the responsibility for her orgasms. Even the best lover can't bring a woman to orgasm if she doesn't teach him what she needs. You know, there are many other people who are talking about issues of sex. But in the very beginning I made it so clear, here is something that is given to us, make the best of it.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Ruth, we heard from Hugh Hefner, who drew a bright line for himself from what he called his parents' Puritanism and his wanting to be open about sex. Do you think your embrace of sex as a healthy thing began with - in your childhood?

Dr. WESTHEIMER: No, I have to laugh. You know why?


Dr. WESTHEIMER: I have a tremendous advantage over Hugh Hefner. In the Jewish tradition - and I did a book called "Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition" - sex has never been a sin. I know all about the Puritanism that he talks about, that the Puritan mother tells her daughter at the night after the wedding ceremony lie back and think of England. In the Jewish tradition, sex within marriage, within marriage, NPR - listen carefully - has never been considered a sin, but a good deed. I also come from a background where the Jewish tradition, it says a lesson taught with human is a lesson retained.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Ruth, thank you very much for joining us.

Dr. WESTHEIMER: Thank you for a very good interview, Renee. I want to meet you.


Dr. WESTHEIMER: Bye. Dr. Ruth Westheimer spoke to us from her apartment in Manhattan. These days she's off the air, but keeping busy lecturing weekly at both Princeton and Yale.

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