Dr. Ruth on satisfaction, joie de vivre and why she'd rather not hear about your orgasms: "I do not approve of people talking about their sex lives"

The famed sexologist tells Salon about her new book, "The Doctor Is In," and why she considers herself "a square"

Published May 31, 2015 10:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Evan Agostini)
(AP/Evan Agostini)

Dr. Ruth is a woman who needs no introduction. She’s Dr. Ruth. Hell, you’re probably smirking just reading her name, thinking of that tiny older woman shouting about sex in her inimitable German accent. There is a reason she’s still a pop culture icon more than three decades after her radio show, “Sexually Speaking,” premiered.

But I am going to tell you a little about why I found myself dialing Dr. Ruth Westheimer's home phone number earlier this week, waiting “on hold” while I listened to her explain loudly to someone else (ostensibly into a different handset) that she had to answer my questions. Dr. Ruth had just arrived back in New York after taking an overnight flight from Israel, where she addressed scores of teenagers and attorneys about -- what else? -- sex. She explained that after our call, she’d be on her way to “a big dinner” for the Museum of Jewish Heritage, of which she’s a board member.

This is just a snapshot of average activity for Dr. Ruth, who turns 87 this year. Here’s what else she’s got planned for 2015: writing a children’s book about turtles, which she says has a happy ending; working on another book about a group in Israel; and attending press events, including a massive signing at Book Expo America, for a third book, “The Doctor Is In,” which comes out in June.

Talking to me about “The Doctor Is In” was, as you might’ve guessed, one of Dr. Ruth’s press events, but she didn’t stay too focused on the text. (In fact, she scolded me for the first question I asked, which pertained specifically to the book, but was admittedly a total softball; she urged me to try again with something that would “actually be interesting” to her.)

Instead, Dr. Ruth and I talked about how the philosophy she details in “The Doctor Is In” -- which focuses on how the famed sexologist has maintained her joie de vivre despite such trying events as losing her family in the Holocaust, or being injured during her time as a sniper in the Israeli War for Independence -- plays out in her daily life. Naturally, we also talked about her views on sex and sexuality, as well as her thoughts on social media, personal privacy and the importance of taking risks for the sake of joy. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I’m part of a generation where talking about sex openly -- and especially on the Internet -- is pretty comfortable. Something that you reiterate in one of the middle chapters of the book, which always strikes me as very interesting, is that you identify yourself as being square and old-fashioned --

I am very old-fashioned. I do not approve of people talking about their sex lives, and the reason that I’m still so successful, and just came back from talking to over 100 attorneys in Israel and to young teenagers, is because I’m so old-fashioned. I want them to say, "A friend of mine has a question." I don’t want them to talk about their own sex lives because of many reasons. I speak openly, but I do not approve, in my way of thinking, that people are talking about their personal lives. I know that it is done now, I know that some people do it, but that is not my philosophy.

What pleases me to no end with this book is that it really talks about my philosophy of life -- it talks about why I have that zest for life, and why I’m still very much in demand. When I do a new book I’m going to be on I-don’t-know-how-many television shows, and that pleases me to no end. And it’s interesting. I’m now going to be 87 and it looks as if my way of teaching is working for me. It’s working for those people that are listening to me. What’s very interesting is that the group of 18-year-olds in Israel got the message immediately that I say it doesn’t matter if it’s you or not you. All I want is the information that we have about good sexual function, about relationships — especially about relationships — how important they are to living together, sex lives, that it is all working very well.

In this book, what I did and why I know that it’s going to be successful is exactly that philosophy of life that says you have to teach with humor -- not jokes, but humor, because then everybody who listens to you is going to remember what you said. It’s wonderful for someone like me, going to be 87, the book is coming out.

You talk early on in the book about how this philosophy of life that you just described is comprised of different “ingredients” and that joie de vivre is not about just one thing. It’s not just about relationships and emotions -- but I am curious, given your expertise, how much you think sex does play a role in enjoying life, for the average person?

I think that for people who find a partner -- the partner can be same sex, the partner can be of the other sex, but I believe the issue of the relationship is crucial -- for a good sex life, I think that knowledge, that being sexually literate is important, but I think that being sexually literate alone is not going to make it so that you have to be in a relationship that is satisfying and a relationship that you can rely on your partner. That goes for gay and non-gay.

With regards to sexual literacy, how do you feel about the fact that the Internet and social media have opened up so many opportunities, for young people especially, to become sexually literate in ways that they weren’t before?

Social media is crucial and I’m very worried about it because people are going to forget to have conversations. They’re always going to have some gadget in their hands. For me, pornography is only when it involves violence or children. Anything else, in terms of being sexually literate, I welcome. I do not want people to sit on the computer instead of having relationships. And I’m worried that young people are getting used to having a phone in their hands all the time. However, the good part in terms of being computer-literate is that the message I’ve been talking about for many years about women having to take the responsibility for their sexual satisfaction, they have to teach their partner what they need, and men can learn not to be premature ejaculators by reading books — I’m not the only one who writes books about sex — so certainly people will learn more about arousal, how to please each other, and about sexual activity. But the reason I wrote the book “The Doctor Is In” is specifically to show that sex alone is not going to make the relationship. You have to work at the relationship. I’m so pleased because this Amazon book, what I love about it -- well first of all, the cover is wonderful and then if you take the cover off, the side has the title and my name in gold letters. That’s really neat.

To use some of your language, you talk a lot about giving people permission to have sex and to talk about sex. What do you think we need permission to talk about next?

For me it is only interesting that people should be sexually literate. I don’t speculate about the future. We have enough problems with the present.

You mention the play about your life that came together rather recently --

Yes, “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” It’s now going to be opening in Philadelphia and in all other states, which is wonderful. So Philadelphia I’m going to go to the opening, and I get tremendous pleasure out of seeing myself being portrayed in the theater. It was wonderful in New York and in the Berkshires it was great.

You describe a little in the prologue of the book your initial reluctance --

Because I did an autobiography already. I thought, “Why do that again?” Now I’m very happy because the playwright, Mark St. Germain, and the woman who portrayed me until now in New York and other places, Debra Jo Rupp, did a wonderful job. So I’m very glad that he convinced me that despite the fact that I wrote so many books already, that there is more material about me to talk about.

I’m curious how that played into your decision to write “The Doctor Is In.” You mention that you reveal certain stories about yourself that you haven’t really told before but that have been known to be part of your narrative. I’m curious about how you came to write this specific book and why it’s so important to you.

I did this book specifically to show that sometimes you have to change your mind. Even if you say, “No. I don’t want to have something in theater written about me,” to have an open mind. Also, like my philosophy of life, you have to take a risk. Like the children’s book that I’m doing now, which is going to be about turtles. A turtle is safe if it stays in one place, but if that turtle wants to move it has to take risks -- it has to stick its neck out. So I did a children’s book that shows — it’s going to be called “Leopold,” which means someone who is fearless in Latin -- it shows that even if you are scared of something, like playing soccer, that you have to give it a try. Then of course there is a happy ending. I do like happy endings. The team of soccer players is going to be called “Turtles." They took a risk like I did many years ago with a radio program and 450 television programs. It’s about how you can win by taking a risk. So it’s very nice to be so busy at this stage in life.

By Jenny Kutner

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Becoming Dr. Ruth Books Dr Ruth Editor's Picks Interview Q&a Sex Sexuality Sexually Speaking The Doctor Is In