A recently released 100-minute-long film follows the astonishing life story of the woman who revolutionized Americans’ approach to sex education and became a cultural icon. Prior to the early 1980s, sex and sexual matters were not frequently discussed in public in the United States and most certainly not in the mass media – a reticence rooted perhaps in America’s Puritan heritage.
Dr. Ruth Wertheimer – a psychosexual therapist- was the first to identify American men and women’s deep need become more educated about and improve their understanding of human sexuality.
“Sexually Speaking”, Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s late Sunday night call-in program, aired in 1980 on a New York radio station, and was the first to deal openly and frankly with sexual issues that troubled her listeners and participants.
During the 15-minute episodes in which she responded to questions, she unabashedly used the words once considered taboo on the radio waves, such as penis, vagina, clitoris, male and female orgasm and more. Participants called in with questions about anything and everything that bothered them in their sex life. Issues such as masturbation, erectile dysfunction and sex toys were aired in public and directly answered in a way that was both novel and refreshingly down-to-earth.
The common notion that “what takes place between the sheets stays between the sheets” abruptly expired. This was none other than “a revolution in progress while killing what has been considered at that time politically correct in terms of language and attitude”.
Still vivid and active, Ruth Westheimer recently celebrated two major events: her 91st birthday and the release of the feature-length documentary film about her life story, titled “Ask Dr. Ruth”.
Carola Ruth Siegel (later known as Dr. Ruth) was born in Wiesenfeld, Germany on June 4, 1928 as the only child of a Jewish Orthodox family. In 1939, at the age of 11, she was sent a Jewish orphanage, by her parents, who feared the future under the Nazi regime.
The last time she saw her parents they were standing on the platform waving goodbye to her as the train began to move; they would later perish in the Holocaust.
In 1945, at the age of 17, shortly after the end of World War II, Ruth Siegel packed her belongings and left the orphanage for Palestine, then under control of the British Mandate and settled on a kibbutz (a Zionist collective farming settlement). Soon after she joined the forces fighting for an independent Jewish state. Trained as a sniper, she was badly wounded during the battle for Jerusalem.
Five years after immigrating to Israel, she was packing her bags again. Her next stop was the University of Paris (Sorbonne), where she studied psychology and earned her BA degree.
The long journey that had begun in Germany in 1939 and led her to Switzerland, Israel and then Paris would reach its final destination in New York, in 1956. Upon arrival, she settled in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, were she lives to this day. In New York she earned an M.A degree in sociology from The New School. and later an Ed.D degree from Columbia University.
Dr. Ruth was right. Americans were eager at that time to become better informed about
human sexuality. The fast-growing number of listeners and callers to her
hugely successful radio program leaves no doubt in the matter. It was not long
before “Sexually Speaking” became the top-rated radio program in the New York area. The
high ratings led NBC RADIO to authorize its nation-wide syndication.
The show expanded to thirty minutes in length, then to sixty minutes and finally to two hours.
Dr. Ruth’s career continued to blossom. Only four years after her first radio program aired, she began to host shows on television. Her first thirty-minute program called “The Dr. Ruth Show” was soon extended to sixty minutes in length. Eventually a thirty-minute format was syndicated by multiple television broadcasters.
It was not long before Dr. Ruth – Americas’ sex guru – became a household name. Her smiling face
appeared on television screens everywhere and her unmistakable accent could be heard on millions of radio devices. Over the years Dr. Ruth also published no fewer than 45 books, some in collaboration with relevant colleagues. Among them are:
1983-Guide to Good Sex (Sexual problems and suggested solutions).
1986-Guide for Married Lovers (A guidebook to sexual fulfillment and good sexual health).
1987-All in a Lifetime (An Autobiography: from the escape from Germany to fulfillment in America).
1991-DR. Ruth’s Guide to Erotic and Sensuous Pleasure
1993-The Art of Arousal (Presenting and commenting on 120 most engaging erotic paintings, drawings,
prints and sculptures).
1994- Dr. Ruth’s Encyclopedia of Sex
1995-Sex for Dummies (the guide to a rewarding sex life and deeper relationships)
2001-Romance for Dummies (How to keep the romance in relationships)
2011-Sexually Speaking (What women need to know about sexual health)
2008-Teens and Sex Today (A sex guide for teens)
2009-Crocodile You Are Beautiful (Everyone has a different body which has its own strength)
2018-Stay or Go (Rules for real relations).
How did Dr. Ruth Westheimer come to be crowned as America’s sex guru? What was her recipe or formula? As I see it, it rested on two foundations: reliability and professionalism. Each of these aspects has several ingredients.
Her reliability derived from an outstanding charm, inseparable from her look – a diminutive, grandmotherly, non-threatening appearance — her chirpy voice, smile and unique accent (a mixture of German-Swiss- Hebrew and French). In addition, she made effective use of humor as a tool for defusing anxiety.
The last but not least ingredient of Dr. Ruth’s foundation of reliability was her educational approach towards couples’ relationships. Along with the liberal sex advice and practical recommendations, she educated toward responsibility about sexual transmitted diseases, safe sex and good relationships between couples (“sex therapy is possible only where there are good relationships; if they are not good, I send them to a lawyer”).
Her professional credibility rested on her academic degree which she announced at the
beginning of every shows and eventually became an integral part of her brand: Dr. Ruth.
This was followed by forthright, emphatic advice such as a physician might give: (“if you are always waiting for orgasm you won’t enjoy the rest of the lovemaking”).
IN TIME DR. RUTH BECAME A MEGA BRAND.
As expected, the recent release of Ryan White’s feature-length documentary “Ask Dr. Ruth” has created quite a buzz. It is a tribute to the amazing life story of an 11-year-old Holocaust survivor who became Americas’ most famous sex therapist. It traces all the stations she passed throughout her life’s journey.
The film starts at the moment she watches her parents wave goodbye from the platform as she escapes the Nazi threat and heads toward a Jewish orphanage in Switzerland. It continues to reveal her philosophy about sex and sex education and how she cultivated her unique status.
Some early events in Dr. Ruths’ life are reconstructed through animation. Although regarded by some critics as amateurish they do create a sense of the events as witnessed through the eyes of a young girl.
Overall, “ASK DR, RUTH” is an honest and sensitive documentary that opens a window onto the unparalleled and amazing life story of the revolutionary American sex therapist and cultural icon.