The accent is unmistakable. When it rings through the penthouse of the California Market Center in downtown L.A., ricocheting off booths selling dildos, lube, strap-ons and fetish toys, it’s all but impossible not to know who is speaking.
“Vimen,” she says, “do not get used to ze vibrations of a vibrator. Because no penis can ever doop-lee-cayt ze vibrator. End wees your finger during masturbation!”
The 88-year-old woman delivering this admonishment stands no more than five feet tall. Her hair is crisply coifed, her shoulders are covered with a sensible cardigan and she dispenses her sex advice with a don’t-take-all-this-so-seriously lilt. She is, of course, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, radio and television star and sexual health expert. Westheimer is here on this February afternoon to deliver the keynote address at the Sexual Health Expo, and will shortly be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for excellence in her field by organizers of the event.
Westheimer began her work in sex education in the 1970s. Her singular delivery—along with her no-nonsense approach to sex, which treated the subject as matter-of-factly as a grocery list—launched her to superstardom in a field that she all but created herself. First appearing in the public domain in 1980 with Sexually Speaking, a radio show that aired on WYNY-FM in New York, Westheimer then starred in her own national television show, Ask Dr. Ruth. She went on to appear on several other eponymous shows and to teach at the country’s most prestigious universities. But more than that, Westheimer became synonymous with frank talk about sex, setting the stage for today’s raging culture wars—wars that she is still determined to fight.
We reached Westheimer on the phone from New York on two occasions. During our first call, she was hunkered down in her apartment to ride out one of 2017’s first snowstorms, occasionally popping out to visit friends down the hall. On our second call, she was being driven to lunch, chatting and pointing out landmarks as she passed them: the location of one of her first jobs, a venue at which she was recently hosted to lecture, a favorite restaurant.
During these conversations, we talked about the intersection of her work and the work done by playboy; the importance of communication between sexual partners; and how questions about sex have changed over the past few decades while at the same time staying, at heart, just the same.
You began your career at Planned Parenthood back in the 1970s. How did that job come about, and what about it made you decide to turn your focus exclusively to sex education?
I really wanted to study medicine, but since I was an orphan and had no money and no high school diploma, I knew I couldn’t. I was working in public health and was out on a government project at the time, and I was offered a research position on a project at Planned Parenthood. I followed 2,000 women and their contraceptive history, and wound up using it for my dissertation at Columbia University. I though that I could be of help to women and their partners, and I was right. I was good at it because I was very explicit, especially for that time, but I was still old-fashioned and respectful of the values of different religions and different people.
My accent helped also. When they opened the radio, they knew it was me.
Who was your biggest influence to get into this kind of work?
Dr. [Helen Singer] Kaplan at Cornell University Medical Center. I worked with her for seven years. She was a pioneer. And she got me to be on television! The radio program started with a letter to her program; somebody wanted to talk about sex education. I went in, and within a week I had a 15-minute radio show on WYNY.
By the way, right now I’m passing by the French Embassy Cultural Division, where I once worked for one dollar an hour. Things have changed for me!
You’ve been doing this for almost five decades now. What do you think has changed and what hasn’t as far as what people want to know about their own sexuality, or the sexuality of their partners?
I don’t think that, basically, there is a tremendous change. People want their partners to be satisfied. What has changed is that there is much more information available and people can have much more varied sexual experience. That certainly has changed. But they have heard the message. They might believe that I’m old-fashioned and a square; I believe in relationships. But they have certainly heard the message that sex is valid, that it should not become boring. They have also heard that the moves have to be varied—especially when it comes to women’s sexuality. I often talk about how important it is to be sexually literate, and how the woman has to take the responsibility for her orgasms. Even the best lover can’t guess what she needs. I also talk about how before the woman’s orgasmic response, there is a moment when nothing happens and very many women give up. They have to know just to continue and they will have sexual satisfaction.
The moves have to be varied—especially when it comes to women’s sexuality.
What about the questions you get; have they changed over the years?
Yes. The questions are more explicit. And this has something to do also with playboy, actually. You know, you had always questions and answers in playboy. And I’m sure that, whether it’s today or 30 years ago, people still have those questions. The difference now, as far as what people ask me, is that they are more explicit in the language. People will say specifically orgasm, ejaculation, erection.
The questions are varied too. They are for men, for women, for gay people, for older people.
You recently spoke at the Sexual Health Expo in Los Angeles. That event seems to be an excellent example of the direction the sex education movement is headed as far as making toys available, normalizing sex and providing options for people across the spectrums of gender and sexuality. Are you happy with that direction?
That’s true, and I’m very happy. That’s why I’m participating—because I think getting participation from a tremendous amount of people of all ages and cultures is the way to go. I don’t care if that also stands for all kinds of products being sold at the events; that is their right. This is how the message of healthy sexuality gets across. The most important point is that you can talk about issues of sexuality and it’s not something to be embarrassed about. Do it in good faith. We have the best scientific and validated data about sexuality that’s available; we have to have places like this to really talk about it.
I also like very much that the questions I was asked at the event had no names. I don’t believe that I would ever do any talk with real people, like what they do on television and reality shows. It exploits people. Once it’s on the air, you can’t retrieve it. I always want people to say, “A friend of mine has a question,” or “I read in a magazine…”
What do you think still has to change when it comes to sex education?
We still have to educate a sexually literate society. We have to do much more in terms of sex education for young people. For example, girls menstruate at an earlier age, so boys and girls need to know about menstruation. They need to know about nocturnal emission so they know they didn’t urinate in bed. We need more sexuality education, talking about relationships and healthy sexuality. I’m doing two new books for young people for Amazon, and I’m giving a lot of lectures.
I also use humor, because in the Talmud it says, “A lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained.” That’s why I’m still up there giving talks. I want people to know that there is nothing wrong with learning about sex, but to engage in sex only when it’s right for them. I want people to have relationships and then have good sex.
Have you ever been made uncomfortable by a question, or is that long gone?
No. I never had a question that made me uncomfortable. Anything that has to do with violence or underage people, I just don’t respond to that. But I don’t really get them, because they know that this is not for me.
Female sexuality is, and has always been, demonized, but I think that male sexuality has been demonized as well, insofar as the idea that it’s always violent, or always bad by virtue of its very existence and nature. Do you agree?
No question. For instance, I don’t mind explicit pictures. There are plenty of young boys who masturbate by looking at them. I tell parents to just ignore it. I’m not saying it’s healthy or not healthy; it’s just normal.
What is your biggest motivation to keep doing the work that you do?
As long as I see a need to speak about issues of sexuality, and as long as I can have such audiences, I am very happy to do that. I am very lucky that, at 88, I am still very busy. And look how interesting it is! Last night I did a talk at the public library in New York City that had to do with literature short stories, and there were 700 people. It was a cold night and a full house. When I talk about sex, people come! [Laughs]
And by the way, I wish playboy all the best, because I think Hefner did us all a tremendous favor with his organization of free speech. Maybe somebody like me could not have done what I did without it.
Read the 1986 Playboy Interview with Dr. Ruth Westheimer on iPlayboy.