“If two people, gay or straight, are naked in bed, they can’t at one time say, ‘I change my mind,’” says Dr. Ruth Westheimer and then pauses abruptly.
“You have no business—” she instructs me to write this part down, “being naked in bed with anybody if you didn’t agree to have sex. The sexual apparatus is a very strong one.”
This was not what I expected to hear from Dr. Ruth, the famously progressive sex therapist who became a household name when she began offering frank sexual advice on the radio in 1980. The woman who in her long career has covered a range of topics, from safe sex to the erotic use of onion rings, sounded strangely tone-deaf in light of the debate about campus sexual assault.
Moreover, Dr. Ruth seemed unaware of how jarring her advice was when we had this conversation in late May at the BookExpo America (BEA) at the Javits Center in New York City, days before her controversial tweets on the topic, in which she said “I am 100% against rape. I do say to women if they don’t want to have sex with a man, they should not be naked in bed w/him.”
She was attending BEA—a trade show and convention of America’s publishers and independent booksellers—to promote her new book, The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre, a memoir-meets-guidebook for leading a happy life.
The press has jumped on her comments, but Dr. Ruth has not retracted her remarks. She refers to the Talmud passages (with debatable validity, as some Jewish scholars have pointed out) when she is questioned about her stance on sexual consent.
“In the Jewish tradition, it says that if that part of the male anatomy is aroused, the brain flies out of the head,” she tells me. “There’s another saying: There’s not enough blood for two heads in a male body.”
Commentary on the campus sexual-assault epidemic or the complex concepts of consent was absent from Dr. Ruth’s latest literary endeavor.
The Doctor Is In includes some very heavy memories, including Westheimer’s orphaned adolescence in Switzerland as the rest of her family perished during the Holocaust. But primarily it offers lighter fare. Co-written with Pierre A. Lehu, her “minister of communications,” the book is laden with tidbits for how to foster joie de vivre, a zest for life. While charming, this life advice is about as nourishing as the contents of a fortune cookie:
“Believe in something and embrace your passions!”
“To enjoy joie de vivre, you have to be comfortable in your own skin.”
“To have joie de vivre, you not only have to be adaptable, you have to take on the right attitude.”
But if The Doctor Is In is not exactly a groundbreaking read, meeting the adorably salacious octogenarian in person proves far more fascinating.
There’s a reason why I and many others have asked Dr. Ruth her thoughts on sexual assault—the public still clamors for her advice on the most current and controversial topics some 30 years after she earned our trust by delivering graphic sex advice in a grandmotherly tone.
“Never say, ‘My last lover was better at cunnilingus than you.’ Just move his head in such a way that she gets the most stimulation and the most sexual pleasure, ” she instructs me (and all women) when I ask how to talk to a lover who is not great at certain “activities” in the bedroom.
Dr. Ruth talks with me about oral sex with the same ease as our conversation about a Jewish cantor (a liturgical music leader) we both know.
The sterile, makeshift conference room where we talk at the Javits Center is about as inviting as your local DMV, but even in these confines, Dr. Ruth effortlessly espouses her wisdom on sex toys and Carrie Bradshaw.
“I tell women, be careful. Don’t get used to a vibrator because no penis can duplicate the vibrations of a vibrator,” she says, before making a larger truth about relationships: “You have to be realistic in everything you do with a partner and in looking for a partner.”
She makes it very clear in her book and in our interview that sex and love are intertwined. Fantasies are fine in the bedroom, but not outside it.
“Sex and the City? Anything that would be in good taste and might teach people about good sex, no problem,” she says when I ask whether she approves of the depiction of sex on television (she seems to have no knowledge of Girls). “But it’s very unrealistic. How many women do you know are going to be flown by Baryshnikov to Paris for a sexual encounter?”
She is adamantly against “friends with benefits” and one-night stands, a view only somewhat less controversial than her opinions on sexual assault.
“I’m against somebody just using someone for sex, even if it’s great sex, because it’s not going to work in the long run. It might be a great one-night stand, but most people in our culture want someone who will smile when they walk in the room,” she tells me.
She is also a big believer in the influence of communal culture on sexual behavior. I asked her about her experience of losing her virginity as an unmarried teen living on a kibbutz in Israel when it was still a British mandate. Did she feel any guilt or pressure to remain a virgin until marriage?
“No,” she says adamantly and points to my notepad. “Put down that I was very much in love. I smile when I think of that.”
But she quickly adds a caveat: “It would not fit anybody who is a believing Catholic or an observant Jew. I could do that because I lived on a kibbutz.”
At 5-foot-5, I tower over her 4-foot-7 frame, but that’s why it is so endearing that she intermittently clutches my forearm during our interview and exclaims, “Wow! She’s done her homework!” when she sees the way I’ve highlighted and annotated her book.
At the same time, Dr. Ruth is wildly press-savvy. Do not let her bubbe demeanor fool you. She knows exactly how to turn on the charm with media.
Regardless of the topic, she finds a way to reference her “zest for life,” parlaying that into an interjection about The Doctor Is In. At one point, she grabs a hardcover copy of the book and points out the gold lettering on the spine. “It’s in gold! I get such a kick out of it,” she exclaims as she hands me another copy.
She also knows how to censor herself.
I ask her about the Clintons, who she describes in her book as somewhat close acquaintances, relishing in one chapter how Bill called to wish her a happy birthday when he couldn’t make her party in person. I have to ask, is Dr. Ruth behind Hillary 2016?
“Somebody like me who talks about sex from morning to night cannot do anything that has to do with politics,” she tells me.
The same goes when I ask her about Israeli politics, though she is open about her support for the country. “I go back to Israel every year. I am very much a Zionist,” she says.
After all, she did serve as a sniper (yes, you read that right) in the Haganah, a paramilitary unit that helped fight for Israel’s independence.
What she will speak about is how, especially as an orphan of the Holocaust, she is alarmed by the growing anti-Semitism she sees in Europe. The attacks on a Paris kosher market in January are just one example to her of a frightening increase.
“I just dictated an article [about anti-Semitism] in Switzerland some months ago,” she tells me. “I never would have thought that in the country that accepted me [from Nazi Germany] when I was 10, I would have to read about anti-Semitism. That made me very sad.”
Yet, Dr. Ruth never appears to wade in self-pity or get bogged down in depression over her devastating childhood, even though it would be hard to blame her if she did.
The pint-size sex therapist is a great schill for this book about joie de vivre because she is the epitome of it. She blends her talent for sex advice and her salesmanship with an enthusiasm that makes her disarmingly personable, even to a reporter.
Case in point, as I part ways with her, she absolutely insists I come to a party she’s throwing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in honor of her book and her birthday—and she goes straight for the jugular to convince me.
“Who knows who you’re going to meet at the party?” she says upon learning that I am single and gives me a knowing look. “Anybody who buys the book has a chance to find a partner.”