It’s still early in the day, but Dr. Ruth, who has been giving advice on all matters sexual for the past 44 years — she’s had radio shows and TV talk shows, was a David Letterman and Johnny Carson favorite, has written 46 books, among them the bestselling Sex for Dummies, and become known, at least to the dainties at the Los Angeles Times, as “the high priestess of hanky panky” — has already been up for several hours; taken a bubble bath; slurped coffee; downed a tumbler of OJ; put on a greenish blouse and a pair of slacks, as well as the kind of Merrill sneakers that four months ago she wore to the Sundance Film Festival and that allowed her, as always toweringly tiny at 4-feet-7-inches tall, to exclaim to anyone who would listen, “Child’s size 4, I swear.” She was there to support a new documentary about her extraordinary Holocaust-survivor life, Ask Dr. Ruth, which follows her into her 90th year and turned out to be quite some sensation. And she’s here today to say a few more words about the most basic and troublesome of human activities, without which none of us would exist, which she still has on the brain like no other.
To put it mildly, she’s concerned by much of what she sees, especially when it comes to hookup culture and one-night stands as made easy by internet dating sites like Tinder. Sitting to a dining room table, her squeaky Teutonic voice in fine form, she says, “I am not against people finding people to date on social media. That’s the way it goes now. But one-night stands are stupid, because that person was with somebody else the night before, so we are going to see a rise in syphilis, gonorrhea and AIDS. Also, they just aren’t satisfying. Even if they have the best orgasm in the world, people need and want a person that is there for them, as both a friend and a companion. So loud and clear, I’m against one night stands.”
If this makes her sound like a schoolmarm fuddy-duddy, don’t get her started on certain aspects of consent in the age of the #MeToo movement.
“A woman has no business being in bed naked if she hasn’t made up her mind to have sex, period,” she says, sternly. “Once the penis is aroused, the brain flies out of your head. That comes from the Talmud, from the Jewish tradition, what happens when that member of the male anatomy is aroused. And if people are drunk, they shouldn’t have sex anyway, because they won’t remember it the next day, so what a wasted opportunity, period. And if it’s after one glass of wine or beer, that does not make them drunk. Again, a woman has no business being in bed with a man unless she agrees to have sex.”
You can disagree with Dr. Ruth’s opinion, of course (on prior occasions where she’s expressed these views, some have), but one of the things that makes her so noteworthy is her willingness to speak up in ways that few others would. Back in the 1980s, with her first radio show, Sexually Speaking, and her first big TV talk show, Good Sex with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, she also became one of the first to publicly utter words and phrases like “erectile dysfunction,” “vagina,” “penis,” “premature ejaculation,” and “size doesn’t matter;” to extol the virtues of masturbation; to tell women that they’re responsible for their own orgasms; to come down on the progressive side of anything having to do with abortion, gay rights and HIV/AIDS; and to jolt David Letterman out of his interviewer’s seat after telling him about the caller who said his girl liked to stack onion rings on his erect penis.
“He left the stage,” she recalls chirpily, “but every time I was on after that, before the commercial break, they put a plate of onion rings on the screen.”
These days, there’s really no need for someone like Dr. Ruth or those that followed in her footsteps, like Dr. Drew Pinsky and his MTV show Lovelines, given that almost all aspects of human sexuality can be explored ad nauseam with a simple Google search or a few ill-advised postings on Facebook, but all that time spent on the internet, and on cell phones, can lead to its own problems, which she plans to discuss at length in the forthcoming 4th edition of Sex for Dummies.
“There will be a chapter for the millennials about loneliness, because they are experiencing a tremendous amount of loneliness. Because of cell phones, the art of conversation is getting lost. Because they’re on Facebook, people have the illusion of being connected to the world, but it’s just an impression of being connected, when basically you are connected to nobody. It leads to loneliness. And it’s very, very sad.”
For as open and voluble as she is about sex and relationships, Dr. Ruth is surprisingly closed off about the more intimate aspects of her own life. The Ask Dr. Ruth documentary (in theaters May 3rd and debuting on Hulu on June 1st) tells the story of how her parents were killed during the Holocaust but not before shipping their 10-year-old daughter off to an orphanage in Switzerland, after which she found her way to Palestine; joined a kibbutz; trained as a sharpshooter with a Jewish resistance group; nearly had her feet blown off by a cannon shell; headed to Paris, to study psychology at the Sorbonne, from there to New York in 1956 and a doctoral degree from Columbia Teachers College, a research position at Planned Parenthood and a serendipitous appearance on a local radio station that led to many more.
The documentary also takes a nice, breezy look at her three marriages, the final one being to a New York engineer named Fred Westheimer, which lasted 36 years, until his death in 1997. Throughout, Dr. Ruth is her usual upbeat self and very rarely succumbs to introspection, much less the dropping of tears over some of her life’s tragedies or the handing over of revelations about her own sexual past. She’s very good at keeping her private life private, displaying a talent for pulling the bedsheets up to her neck that she is happy to demonstrate again today.
Does she ever suffer from loneliness?
“Next questions, next question.”
Does she have a boyfriend?
Let’s hear a good sex joke.
“I don’t do sex jokes. I don’t mind you people doing jokes, but don’t try them out on me. I’m old fashioned and a square, most of the time I don’t get it. If I get it, I get it hours later.”
Was she surprised by the Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland and the allegations in it?
“Next question. I never talk about anything Hollywood or about politics. I will talk about how concerned I am about funding for Planned Parenthood, and how very sad it makes me when I see anything about children being separated from their parents.”
The documentary never mentions the age at which she lost her virginity. Her call?
“Next question. My decision. The director got only what I wanted him to have. Believe me.”
She can be tough like that but the way she does it, you hardly mind. In 1983, in the National Review, D. Keith Mano wrote, “Her voice jars me like insulin shock … damn sound could decoy geese down … piping, preening, erratic kettle noise … no way you could fantasize any sort of tryst with [her]: I’d rather try seducing an empty Danskin.” But these days, it has mellowed a bit. Plus, it in itself partly explains her success: A sex kitten’s voice, along with a sex kitten’s body, would have faded from view long ago, too commonplace, too much an invitation to leer and dismiss, while Dr. Ruth was middle-aged from the start and entirely more trustworthy because of it. “I was an older woman,” she once said. “I wasn’t up there in a short skirt and decolletage.”
So, she’s still in constant demand and always busy. She teaches a seminar at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College entitled “The Changing Image of the Family in the Media,” which might also explain why her favorite TV show is Modern Family. She’s also lecturing at Hunter College, on the history of sex education. And in the spring, she’s off to Oxford, for her second Oxford Union Debate. Last time the topic was abortion and family planning. She won. This time, it’s going to be about pornography.
“I don’t know if I’m debating for or against, it doesn’t matter, I’m going,” she says. “And I know I’m going to win again.” Meanwhile, she’s got her Twitter feed, with 92,000 followers, and her YouTube channel, with 8,000 subscribers. This weekend, she’s flying to Duke University, in North Carolina, for a discussion with students after a viewing of Ask Dr. Ruth. She has a new book out, Crocodile, You’re Beautiful!, about diversity, for kindergarten-age children. In a week or two, she’ll be holding hands with Al Roker during a visit to the Today show. And tonight, she’s going to synagogue, to a memorial for former New York City parks commissioner Henry Stern, who once gave her the animal name of the Lion of Judah.
“It’s tonight at seven,” she says. “And if you were here, I would take you.”
That’s another thing about Dr. Ruth. She’s kind of a flirt. If a stranger asks her what her first thought was this morning, she’ll say, almost breathlessly, “Of course, you.” It’s part of her charm. And it is indeed a very tantalizing idea, attending a memorial service with the Lion of Judah, and probably feeling free to ask any sex-educational questions that should arise along the way, because even surrounded by death, life must wobble on, as she knows better than most. In brief, the date would have no choice but to be far more engaging than a tryst with an empty Danskin, even one of the fishnet variety, alluring as they’re known to be.