It is safe to say that the Western world is a more romantic, more erotic and, possibly, even sexier place to live in since Dr. Ruth Westheimer. It is certainly more sexually liberated in the wake of Westheimer’s groundbreaking radio show, Sexually Speaking, which began airing in the early 1980s as a 15-minute taped midnight slot and quickly became an hour-long live show with a sky-high rating.
Westheimer – better known as Dr. Ruth – is now 87 and, judging by the bucketloads of energy that whizzed down the telephone line when we chatted last week, is as irrepressible and zestful as ever. The internationally renowned New York-based media sex therapist is a staunch supporter of this country, and she will be back in Israel later this week to attend the Jewish Film Festival Jerusalem (JFFJ) at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
Her Dr. Ruth Comes to the Cinema spot in the lineup takes place at 1 p.m. on Friday and promises “an enlightening, stimulating, and always entertaining look at cinema and its relationship with sexuality and intimacy in the 20th and 21st century.”
Westheimer is not only a fully qualified psychologist and sex therapist, she has been around long enough to follow the radical changes that have occurred in the way that sex and nudity are portrayed on the silver screen. Back in the day, when the German-born cultural icon was getting her first taste of big-screen entertainment, physical love was portrayed in a far more controlled manner.
“You couldn’t even show a couple in bed together,” she notes in her heavily German-accented English.
“One of the couple had to have their foot down on the floor,” she adds with a chuckle.
As an expert on the subject, and with plenty of cinema- viewing mileage behind her, there can’t be many better qualified than Westheimer to offer insight about the way more explicit Hollywood sex scenes, not to mention pornography on the Internet, have impacted on eroticism, romanticism and sex in real life. She is clearly not a great fan of the unrealistic portrayal of love life.
“The expectations are much higher,” she says. “People think their bedroom has to be like a movie set and, out of these expectations being so high, we also have disappointments. We have more boredom in the bedroom.
Many of the questions I get are about boredom.”
It’s not that Westheimer is dead set against watching pornography, but she says we shouldn’t get carried away with the artificially crafted scenes.
“I don’t have a problem telling couples to watch some sexuality explicit movies in order to get aroused, but I tell them that, afterwards, they should put that aside and use their own imagination.”
That certainly goes for people in middle age and even into their golden years.
“I get a lot of questions, especially from men, about watching sexually explicit material in order to get aroused, and tell them to go ahead.”
Age, says Westheimer, should be no barrier to having a healthy active sex life, and she has the religious evidence to back that up.
“It says specifically in the Jewish tradition – I did a book called Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition – that even after menopause a husband is still obligated to provide sexual satisfaction to his wife. This is very interesting because it shows that sex is not only for procreation, it is also for recreation.”
With her, possibly for want of a better word, intimate knowledge of Israel and Israeli society – she lived here 1945-51 and was a member of the Hagana, and speaks Hebrew fluently – does she think that Israelis in general are comfortable with intimacy, eroticism and sexuality? “I am not saying that but I am saying that we can talk about these issues so openly. I am very Jewish. I am not Orthodox – there is no need to say that – but I was brought up in the Jewish tradition, and sex has never been a sin.
Sex has always been a mitzva, and an obligation between husband and wife.”
Westheimer is not only a frequent visitor to this country, she is also doing her bit to ensure that young Israelis grow up with healthy attitudes to physical love.
“I usually do seminars for the Ministry of Education on sex education,” she notes.
Now well past retirement age Westheimer shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.
“I’d like to plug my latest book, which is called The Doctor Is In: Dr.
Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre,” she presses on. “It is also being translated into Hebrew.” There’s more.
“I also have a new children’s book – which is not on sex, it is about my philosophy of life – which is called Leopold the Turtle.
It’s also in Hebrew and it’s called Leopold Hatzav.”
The kiddies’ tome may not be about the topic for which Westheimer is best known, but it addresses an important aspect of life which, Dr. Ruth feels, also has a bearing on the way we approach life and the world around us in adulthood.
“I have to tell you that the turtle, if it stays in one place, it’s safe. Nothing can happen to that turtle if it stays in its shell. But if the turtle wants to move it has to take a risk – it has to stick its neck out.”
Westheimer did not mean that in a comical sense, but she has clearly got a handle on the ectothermic reptile’s upper body agility.
“It could get hurt, but it doesn’t move unless it takes a risk.”
Westheimer practices what she preaches.
“That’s what I’ve been my entire life,” she says.
She has indeed. She was born in Germany, and escaped the Nazis on a Kindertransport to Switzerland in January 1939. The rest of her family perished in the Holocaust. She made aliya to British Mandate-governed Palestine in 1945 and says she lost her virginity here at the age of 17. It was an unprotected introduction to sexual intercourse, which she later said she regretted. She sustained serious wounds during the War of Independence – because of her diminutive physique, all 1.4 meters of it, she was trained as a scout and a sniper. In 1950 she moved to Paris where she studied and subsequently taught psychology, moving to the States six years later. She gained a master’s degree in psychology and then a PhD in education, in New York, and embarked on a career in sex therapy in the 1970s.
Through all her trials, tribulations, and successes, Westheimer says she has maintained a sunny outlook on life, and sex, even well into her “golden years.”
“In Jerusalem I will be talking about a [German] film called Cloud Nine. It’s about love making, and also a little about an affair, of older people. That was unheard of a few years ago – people over 60 being shown in an actual sexual encounter. We will also talk about that, and the Internet and some of the dangers of the Internet.”
Most of all, Westheimer wants to hear what we have to say on the topic.
“I am looking forward to questions from the floor. I want to hear what people want to know, and what they think.”For more information about the Jewish Film Festival Jerusalem: http://jer-cin.org.il.