"I want to tell you something before I forget,” Dr Ruth Westheimer says at the beginning of our conversation. “Make sure you tell the Jewish Chronicle that every time I come to London, I go to Liverpool Street station and look at the Kindertransport sculpture.”
Frank Meisler’s commemorative statue has particular resonance for the Frankfurt-born, world-renowned sex therapist. She even has a miniature version in the living room of her Washington Heights apartment in New York, where she has lived for over 50 years and from where she is speaking to me on the phone.
Born Karola Ruth Siegel, the only child of a loving, Orthodox, Jewish family, Westheimer was sent by her mother and grandmother to Switzerland on the Kindertransport when she was ten, following her father’s arrest after Kristallnacht.
She is insistent readers know she is grateful to Britain for organising the rescue operation that brought 10,000 Jewish children to safety and says that during her last trip to the capital in June, she also visited Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms. “To pay my respects to him and because he was a great man,” Westheimer emphasises in her distinctive, strong German accent, characterised by her rolled Rs.
She was in the UK to participate in an Oxford Union debate about pornography. “I lost handsomely because the other side had a beautiful, smart sex worker. She was brilliant!” she says, chuckling her mischievous, slightly high-pitched, infectious laugh.
She believes pornography has a place in certain situations, but, “underlined, not for children. For arousal among adults who are having sex with each other. I want it to be called sexually explicit material, rather than pornography which would take the bad connotation out of it.”
Westheimer, aka “the Goddess of Good Sex,” is the subject of director Ryan White’s affectionate documentary, Ask Dr Ruth, which chronicles her extraordinary life and achievements. The film received its European premiere at Sundance London and this month it will be released for digital download and on DVD.
What shines throughout is Westheimer’s irrepressible optimism, energy and innate sense of fun, all the more remarkable from someone who became both an orphan and a child survivor of the Holocaust.
She believes that her remarkably positive attitude stems from having experienced a wonderful early childhood.
“I once did a longitudinal study of the children who left Frankfurt with me and became orphans in Switzerland,” she explains. “I did that study to show the importance of early socialisation. None of them committed suicide, none of them became drug addicts or alcoholics and none of them became depressed. This is because their early years were in a loving family.”
In Ask Dr Ruth, Westheimer is seen leafing through a file containing the weekly letters that her parents wrote to her, each one touchingly preserved in its own plastic sleeve. It was not until after the war that she learnt her father had died in Auschwitz, her mother at an unknown destination.
Aged 17, she left the children’s home in Switzerland and went to Palestine, “to build history,” where she changed her name to Ruth, her middle name. Karola was deemed too German.
She trained as a sniper for the Haganah and also fought against the British before deciding to go and study at the Sorbonne in Paris, at the Institute of Psychology. In the 1950s, using the reparation money she had received from Germany, Westheimer bought a seat on board a ship bound for New York, where she has remained ever since.
Westheimer’s parents’ sacrifice not only saved her, it gave her a sense of responsibility. “I’ve tried to make a dent because I was spared. I didn’t know that my obligation would be to talk about sex from morning till night, and I’ve no regrets!” she says, laughing.
“I also didn’t know that I would become a famous person but,” she stresses, “I’ve had tremendous satisfaction in making that dent in people’s lives, for example warning about sexually transmitted diseases and, especially, fighting the stigma surrounding Aids.”
In the 90s, at the height of the Aids crisis, Dr Ruth asserted that there was no such thing as ‘normal.’ She says her background as a German Jew gave her, “a sensitivity towards people who were discriminated against, such as homosexuals and anyone seen as different and who would have been regarded by the Nazis as not part of humanity.”
Although she knows that the subject of sex is political, she quickly moves the conversation on but not before commenting that there are issues she feels driven to stand up and speak out against. “I say how upset I am when I see children separated from their families at the border; if abortion is becoming illegal again and when I realise that there are not enough funds for family planning.”
She first became aware of the importance of teaching and talking openly about sex and sex education when she worked as a therapist at the organisation, Planned Parenthood. “I realised how much ignorance people had about issues of sexuality and about preventing unintended pregnancies.”
Westheimer rose to fame in the early 1980s, with the launch of her late Sunday night live New York radio show, Sexually Speaking. Did her age and maturity — she was in her fifties at the time — contribute to people listening to what she had to say? “Absolutely. I was not a tall, blond 20-year-old who talks about orgasms. I already had my doctorate.”
A hugely successful media and publishing career followed (she has written approximately 40 books) and it is obvious that she still delights in her life’s work. She has recently been chosen for induction in the Radio Hall of Fame and will be getting an honorary doctorate — she already has a few, she says — from Ben Gurion University in the spring. “Not bad?!”
Westheimer has always used her humour, warmth and frank attitude in her writing and communicating about sex, managing to remove any awkwardness or taboo on the subject. “The Talmud says that a lesson taught with humour is a lesson retained, and that’s certainly true. I couldn’t tell you a joke, but I can use humour,” she says.
"The Talmud also says that you learn from your students, she adds, and it is one of the reasons why, at the age of ninety-one and a half — Westheimer is keen to point out the half, even though technically she still has a few months to go — she still teaches at Hunter and Columbia universities in New York.
These last few months she’s been busy with the film and the publication of two books: a children’s book about diversity and an updated edition of her bestselling guide, Sex for Dummies which includes a new chapter on loneliness, a growing subject for questions sent to her, which worries her. “The issue holds true for young people as well as old,” she says. “I’m also worried about the art of conversation. People are hanging on their phones instead of talking to each other. A good sex life has to be with good communication.”
She explains that in Hebrew, the word for sex, le’da’at, means the same as to know. “It’s a wonderful way of saying that you have to know each other in order to have the best sex that you can have, which means you have to communicate,” she says, matter of factly.
Although a self-confessed private person, she was aware that, having agreed to make the documentary, she would have to talk about her personal life. “I don’t tell anybody with whom I’m sleeping with or how much money I have, but I knew that I would have to talk about getting married three times.” The real marriage, she says, was to her third husband, Fred Westheimer, who died in 1997. “The others were two legalised love affairs.”
Dr Ruth’s approach appears more mainstream than when she started out and she agrees there has been a shift in sexual attitudes since then, particularly concerning women’s sexual needs. “I believe nobody would question the importance of a woman having an orgasm, or a woman just being sexually active — not in order to have a child. Nor would anyone say that you shouldn’t discuss issues of sexuality.”
She has strong opinions concerning the rules of consent. “I do believe — loud and clear — that nobody should have any business being in bed naked, unless they have decided to have sex. This idea that he or she can say at any time, I changed my mind, is a problem.”
Westheimer works incessantly. Pierre Leher, her director of communications comments in the film that she never stops. But how much of her desire to be busy is a survival mechanism? “I think part of it probably is,” she admits. “Some of my professional drive certainly has to do with the fact that I was fortunate, that I’m alive. But I was never too busy to make children and have a marriage of 40 years.”
According to Westheimer, there is a sentence towards the end of eshet chayil which is one of the most sexually arousing a husband can tell his wife.
“That there are many out there who do wonderful things, but you are the very best of them. Tell that to Great Britain,” she chortles playfully, “And say I was laughing when I said it!”
‘Dr Ruth’ will be available for digital download from September 9 and on DVD from September 16.