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Dr. Ruth: Spunky sex guru turns 95

June 3, 2023

More than just a pop culture icon, Ruth Westheimer is also a Holocaust survivor, trained sniper and bestselling author of books like "Sex for Dummies."

A woman wearing a floral blouse and sporting red framed glasses lifts her hands and smiles for the camera.
Dr. Ruth: Still sprightly at 95Image: mpi04/MediaPunch/picture alliance

"When it comes to sex, the most important 6 inches are the ones between the ears."

"Make up your own events. Like an onion ring tossed onto an erect penis."

"Eating an ice cream cone 'provocatively' in public can send out a message, if you dare."

These are but some of the nuggets of wisdom that German-born American sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has doled out over her 64-year career. 

Known simply as Dr. Ruth, the still sprightly pop culture icon, who turns 95 on June 4, first rose to fame at the age of 52 when she started hosting the radio show "Sexually Speaking" on New York's WYNY-FM in 1980.

A man and a woman are seated on a stage and are in a conversation. On the background behind them is written "Ask Dr Ruth."
'Ask Dr. Ruth' was a 2019 documentary directed by Ryan White (left) seen here with the famous sex therapistImage: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP/picture alliance

During that decadelong radio show, she earned a faithful following — including among women's rights' campaigners and the LGBTQ community — for her unabashed approach and advice on everything from female orgasms and masturbation to contraception and abortion.

Westheimer sealed her status as a specialist who not only knew her stuff but who had the gumption and sensitivity to talk about homosexuality, safe sex and AIDS prevention, all "taboo" topics in the 1980s.

Perhaps part of the allure of this indefatigable nonagenarian as the go-to person for all things sexual is the fact that she seems more like an affable auntie next door rather than a detached therapist, an approach that has earned her nicknames like "Grandma Freud" and the "Sister Wendy of Sexuality."

Standing at 1.4 meters (4 feet 7 inches), her cheeriness and heavily accented voice — which she once described as "a combination of the German, the Hebrew, the Swiss and the French" — has seen her hosting her own television talk show in 1985, called "The Dr. Ruth Show," and appearing in films, commercials, TV game shows and sitcoms as herself. She has hosted a series of Playboy instructional videos called "Making Love," and has authored more than 40 books including the bestselling "Sex for Dummies."

A smiling woman wearing a blue and red top holds up a book with the title "Sex for Dummies."
A 2019 updated version of 'Sex for Dummies' was aimed at millennialsImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

'Hitler lost, and I won'

Yet Dr. Ruth's zest for life belies childhood loss and sadness.

Born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928, in Wiesenfeld, Germany, she lived with her Orthodox Jewish parents in Frankfurt in the 1930s until she turned 10. By then, Hitler had come to power in Nazi Germany.

On January 5, 1939 her mother and paternal grandmother took her to the Frankfurt train station and put her on a train bound for an orphanage in Heiden, Switzerland.

The journey was part of the Kindertransport (children's transport) program, an organized rescue effort that got thousands of Jewish children out of Nazi-controlled territories before the start of World War II. "[They] waved goodbye. And that's the last time I saw them." She would end up being the only survivor; the rest of her family are believed to have perished at Nazi concentration camps.

A group of laughing people - most holding cameras - with an older woman in the forefront with red-rimmed glasses.
She was among the jubilant crowds celebrating Barack Obama's win as first Black American president in 2009Image: Chip Somodevilla/epa/picture alliance

After the war, the 17-year-old Ruth moved to then British-controlled Palestine and became a member of a Jewish underground paramilitary organization, Haganah, where she trained as a sniper and "learned to shoot by imagining Hitler as her target," according to British newspaper The Observer.

In 1950, she moved to Paris to study psychology at the Sorbonne and later pursued a master's degree in sociology at The New School in New York. She financed her tuition by working as a maid, with a starting pay of 75 cents per hour.

Having spent the 1960s teaching and running her own private sex therapy practice, a time during which she also secured US citizenship, she earned her doctorate in 1970 from the Teachers College at Columbia University at the age of 42. Meanwhile, she'd also been married and divorced twice before she married her third husband, engineer and fellow Jewish refugee Manfred Westheimer, in 1961.

Black and white picture of a man and woman sitting beside each other. The man has a book open in his hand. The cover reads "United States of America vs Sex."
In 1986, Dr. Ruth posed for a photo during a meeting with Bob Guccione, publisher of 'Penthouse' magazineImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

Widowed in 1997, the mother of two and grandmother of four told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016: "Looking at my four grandchildren: Hitler lost, and I won."

'God is the ultimate sex therapist'

Among the many books she's authored, there's 1995's "Heavenly Sex: Sexuality and the Jewish Tradition," which she co-authored with Jonathan Mark. In it, she wrote, "The great rabbi Simeon ben-Halafta called the penis the great peacemaker of the home."

Speaking to The New York Times in 1995 about her book, she said, "I come from Nazi Germany. And the one thing I've learned is that you must stand up for what you believe. That's why I wrote this book. I hope that Jews and non-Jews alike, anybody interested in family life and the idea of 'shalom bayit,' or 'peace in the home,' will want to read it."

Westheimer added that she'd long wondered why she could talk so openly and freely about sex. "Now I know. For us Jews, sex was never a sin," she said. She, however, accepted that not everyone will be happy with the conflation between sex and holy books.

The New York Times described "Heavenly Sex" as citing among others explicit passages from the Torah, Talmud and other religious sources "to support the book's thesis that 'God is the ultimate sex therapist' and that the Bible is the 'wisest guide to sex ever written.' Among other things, it cites the Book of Ruth as an encouragement for single women to initiate sex, providing the relationship leads to marriage."

However, as she has often reiterated, Westheimer talks about sex "not to shock but to educate." Perhaps the only question that had her flummoxed was when she was asked about sex with animals, to which she replied: "I'm not a veterinarian."

'Get some' and other salient thoughts

Westheimer is as famous for her tagline "get some" (no guesses what!) as she is for putting sex front and center in public discourse way before "Sex and the City," as she said chirpily in the introductory video on her YouTube channel.

Over the decades, through her trademark combo of sound knowledge, humor and empathy, she has addressed sex-related issues that have made for some pithy quotes. She insists there is no such thing as "normal" sex, striking at bigotry against non-heterosexual partnerships. "Anything two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom, or kitchen floor, is perfectly all right," she said.

Pornography — which she prefers to label as "sexually explicit content" — is also kosher in her books "except when it involves violence or children."

Two women sit at a table that's covered with papers. One of them is speaking into a microphone.
Westheimer (right), seen here with foremost American feminist Gloria Steinem in 1987, has said she talks about sex 'not to shock but to educate'Image: Jim Shea/AP Photo/picture alliance

Some of her opinions, however, may not go down well among some 21st-century audiences when seen through the lens of #MeToo and consent. "This idea that once you are aroused and have already started that you should then ask, 'Can I touch your left breast, or your right breast?' is just nonsense," she said in a 2019 interview with The Observer. "Nobody has any business being in bed, naked — two guys, two women, or a man and a woman — if they haven't decided to have sex."

Last year, in an interview with People, she underscored the importance of sex regardless of age. "Here is [sic] words to live by: 'To make sure not to put sex life on the sideline, even in older years. But to keep it alive'," she said.

In the same interview, she also addressed loneliness and relationship issues that arose after the COVID pandemic. "If you are fortunate enough to be in good health, make sure you thank God or whoever you believe in, for good health," she said. And in advice targeting those hooked on tech and social media: "Close your Zoom, close your cellphone, and engage in sex!"

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Brenda Haas | Porträt
Brenda Haas Writer and editor for DW Culture