sundance 2019

Dr. Ruth, America’s Sex Therapist, Is Gunning for an Oscar

Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, now “90 and a half,” as she puts it, has spent the better part of her life telling America how to have sex. But what she wants to tell us now is that we need to help her get an Oscar. While at Sundance to promote her new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, the world-renowned sex therapist plopped herself atop a pile of pillows (she’s famously tiny), reached across the table, and grabbed my hand tightly. “Tell everybody you talk to that I need an Academy nomination. Let them know, I need it badly. Winning or not is a different story, I don’t have the insights to all of that,” she said in her lilting German accent. “But anybody who votes for an Academy nomination is going to get good sex for the rest of your life.”

Those sorts of charming, warm gestures are all over Ask Dr. Ruth. The film, directed by The Keepers’ Ryan White, traces the long, bittersweet, and ultimately triumphant life of Westheimer, who survived the Holocaust and lost her entire family, then went on to completely transform the way America talked about sex (and particularly women’s sexual pleasure). But what stands out most in Ask Dr. Ruth isn’t necessarily Westheimer’s delightfully frank talk about sexuality, or the unbelievable fact that she’s still writing books and making appearances and teaching even after turning 90. It’s Westheimer’s unflagging optimism and irrepressible lust for, well, everything.

In one scene, walking with a cane through a grassy knoll full of cow dung, Westheimer stops and shrieks with delight: “Look! A cow!” Moments later: “Look! A rainbow!” At several points throughout the movie, Westheimer pauses in the middle of whatever she’s doing and repeatedly asks members of her staff if they are properly fed. “Have you eaten?” she asks her driver, as he walks her into an event. And then again, as she leaves, “Did you eat?”

The film balances these moments of sweetness with shocks of pain: In one scene, Westheimer visits Yad Vashem and learns exactly where and when her parents perished in the Holocaust. What emerges is the portrait of an incredible, brave woman with a gigantic heart, a singular intellect, and the unlikely energy of 120 horses. As she herself puts it in the film, “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.”

By the end of Ask Dr. Ruth, I was a complete mess; according to Westheimer and White, I wasn’t the only one. I caught up with them after the movie’s premiere to talk about Westheimer’s obsession with feeding everyone, the weirdest sex question she’s ever been asked, and what to do when your child walks in on you giving a blowjob.

Dr. Ruth, I loved this movie. I cried so hard.
Westheimer: I love to hear that.

White: I think it was even more emotional at the [last] screening. People were sobbing. You want people to cry?

Westheimer: Yes. I want them to cry. And to laugh.

As a fellow Jewish woman who loves feeding people, I was so into the way you kept asking everyone if they’d eaten yet. What’s that about?
Westheimer: [Laughs] I’ll tell you what. This guy [White] is so tall, simply, I was worried. He’s so tall, he’s so slim. He works very hard. The cameraman, David, works very hard. All I have to do as a Jewish woman is make sure that they eat. And I do, in the film. Did you see?

Westheimer: I have to tell you something important. I’m very happy you cried and laughed. That’s really the purpose of the film. To make sure young people like you, millennials, see what happened; that we can say “never again,” and that I can stand up and say to Holocaust deniers, “You’re wrong, there was a Holocaust.” Not just against Jews, against homosexuals, disabled people, Gypsies. What I’m very pleased about is that I can talk about [it] to younger people who say they have “Holocaust fatigue,” and don’t want anybody to talk about it anymore. So somebody like me, at the age of 90 and a half, can say: Don’t dwell on it, but make sure that you — you young people — belong to those who say it will never happen again.

Absolutely. My favorite part about the film is that exact perspective. Despite what happened to you, you’re such an optimist, and everything — rainbows, cows — delights you. Where does that come from?
Westheimer: First of all, I use a word [in the movie] which I usually don’t use: Cow shit! [laughs]

White: She never uses that word. We didn’t even know you said that, and were watching the raw footage — I’ve never heard her use a swear word. I thought she was gonna kill me when I put it in the film.

Westheimer: Well, there was just so much of it. So, one second [takes a long drink of water]. So, to your question, I believe strongly that my joie de vivre, my zest for life, which you capture beautifully —

White: Hard not to.

Westheimer: It comes from my early childhood. I did a study of the 50 children who left Germany because of the Nazis, went to Switzerland with me, to a children’s home that became an orphanage. When I did that longitudinal study of all of them, I learned: None fell by the wayside. None committed suicide. None became clinically depressed. None didn’t make it in life. Nobody became Dr. Ruth, only me! But it has a reason: early childhood socialization. All of them, me particularly since I’m talking about myself, were in a house full of love, Jewish values. My father told me, “Learn, nobody can take that away from you.”

I was fortunate, and like Ruth Bader [Ginsburg] says in her film, “What happened to me can only happen in America.” I say that. But for me, it could’ve only happened in New York City, because of the fact that New Yorkers are used to different accents. I’m pleased that people like you ask that question. It tells young people: Be careful, make sure you raise children that can have joie de vivre.

When did you decide to make the film?
White: The producer [Rafael Marmor] connected us. I was finishing a series for Netflix called The Keepers, which is about the darkest parts of human sexuality, and Rafi called and said, “Would you like to have dinner with Dr. Ruth?” And I of course said yes, a crazy person would say no. I wasn’t planning to do another documentary, I had another project, but I was in a very dark place coming out of The Keepers. But when I met her, not only was I blown away by the backstory, which I didn’t know about, but by her positivity and optimism. The public persona we all know as Dr. Ruth is Ruth Westheimer is Karola Siegel [Ruth’s childhood name]. There’s not a fake public persona. It was almost selfish, in a way: I knew getting to work with her would bring me and a lot of my team out of that darkness. The pendulum swinging from the most harmful aspects of sexuality to the healthiest way of seeing it. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.

Westheimer: I watched his films. All of them [begins listing them off]. Now guess what? He owes me seven hours of my life. I watched The Keepers and I didn’t stop. In one sitting. I didn’t eat, I didn’t go to the bathroom, I didn’t talk to anybody on the phone. I couldn’t stop watching. So I said, this is the guy I’m going to work with.

You say at the beginning of the film that you’re searching for a boyfriend — did you find one?
Westheimer: Next question [laughs loudly]. Next question!

Okay! You started out in the ’80s with a desire to change the way people talked about female sexuality, which is to say, to have people talk about it at all. Obviously things have changed quite a bit since then. How much do you credit yourself?
Westheimer: That’s an interesting question. I will take a little bit of credit. I’m not going to take the whole credit. However, I made it clear on WYNY, on my show “Sexually Speaking,” that women have to take the responsibility for their sexual satisfaction. It takes away the whole idea of the “stupid lover,” who doesn’t know [what he’s doing]. She has to guide him. I certainly am going to take credit that I was a single mother in a time when this was not a popular position to be in, and I was poor — $1 an hour! Not anymore. The last line in the film is that I don’t talk about how much money I have, and I don’t talk to you about my sex life! [laughs]

On a serious note, in terms of female sexuality, there’s been a tremendous change since my program. We’ve had Masters and Johnson, Kinsey, Helen Singer Kaplan. People don’t know enough about her! A woman pioneer who was regarded as a renegade by the psychiatric population. They did not accept sex therapy as legitimate. I can tell young people: If you find a mentor, and mine happened to be Helen Singer Kaplan, you do not have to be friends with her. Take anything you can take to learn. If you’re friends also, wonderful. But you don’t have to say, this is my best friend. You have to say, this is a woman who I can learn from. That’s what I did.

Will you be my mentor?
Westheimer: I have to do research on you first! But it’s very important for women to be independent, to bring home the bacon. I shouldn’t say bacon, I’m Jewish.

The challah loaf?
Westheimer: Yes, the bread. We have made tremendous progress, but not enough. We have to make sure that everybody knows what their rights are. We have to teach children not to let anybody touch their private parts. We have to teach children it’s perfectly all right to masturbate, but not in public. Your mother could walk in! Only touch yourself in the bedroom or the bathroom! That body is yours. Don’t let anybody touch that. And I have to stand up as a psychosexual therapist — anybody who has been sexually molested, stand up and be counted. Go to see a therapist, do something so that you can live on.

On a lighter note: What’s the most surprising sex question you’ve ever been asked?
Westheimer: I do remember. The onion rings! I talked about it on David Letterman. Somebody called in — a true story! — a guy called and said his girlfriend likes to toss onion rings onto his erect penis. I did what you just did — I giggled.

White: Who doesn’t like that? That’s not weird! [laughs]

Westheimer: Then, whenever I was on his show, before the commercials came on, he showed a plate of onion rings. But my message was: Whatever two consenting adults do in the private of their bedroom, kitchen floor, is perfectly all right.

White: She’s been saying it from the beginning: consent, consent, consent.

What’s the biggest change tonally in the sex questions you got in the beginning of you career versus now?
Westheimer: The biggest change is that I have less women talking about difficulty having an orgasm. They have heard me, and I’m not the only one. You have to learn to give yourself sexual satisfaction, then you can teach him or her. In the olden days, I worked at a clinic for homosexuals, on 83rd and Broadway. There were almost no lesbians coming. Either they didn’t have sexual questions, or didn’t feel [comfortable] coming to a clinic. There were many men with premature ejaculation — easily curable with work at home, not in my office!

White: She didn’t feel educated enough on gay sex, because she’d had so much training in heterosexual sex, she signed up to learn under a gay sex psychologist for two years. Which I think is amazing.

Westheimer: Charles Silverstein. You know what he wrote? The Joy of Gay Sex. I read it and volunteered for the clinic with no pay, because I wanted to learn how I could help. In those days, I sometimes said to gay people: “Don’t talk to your family. If it’s not acceptable to them, it’s nobody’s business.” I had one fellow, I told him to finish high school, go to a large university, there will be other people. I met him at a restaurant in New York later, he was a waiter, and he said, “Before you leave, I have to talk to you.” That happens to me a lot. I am always in a corner talking to somebody. He told me: “You saved my life. You didn’t say confront your parents, you said to make sure to take care of yourself.”

That’s beautiful. A few of my friends actually have some sex questions for you, too.
White: That’s always the line!

Westheimer: I always say, “Say, ‘A friend of mine has a question.’ ”

[Laughs] One of these is from Norway!
Westheimer: Put this down: I never ask Ryan about his sex life.

White: She doesn’t. That’s the biggest misconception of her, that she talks about sex nonstop. You never ask about my sex life, but you barrage me with relationship questions. And now I have a Jewish boyfriend, and she’s thrilled.

Mazel tov!
Westheimer: Mazel tov is right! Put down that I like him. And don’t say his name, but I like him.

Got it. This is from the Midwest: My friend’s 13-year-old son walked in on her giving her husband a blowjob. Would Dr. Ruth know how to help her? It’s a bit awkward with her son.
Westheimer: First of all, whatever happened, happened. From now on, I want you to lock the bedroom door! And I want the child to knock at the bedroom door. Then you have to say to that son, “Honey, the other day, you walked in on us. We had a very good sexual experience” — say that! — “but from now on, please knock at the door.” And have the mother say, “When you are in your room, doing whatever you might do — masturbate, watching a sexually explicit movie — I promise you I will always knock.” You like that?

White: Yeah. It’s very open. Probably difficult for some parents. But would be a healthier society if parents could do that.

Westheimer: “Oh, and do me a favor: Don’t tell everybody in your classroom what you just saw.”

Okay, great. This is from Norway: I read about some world records a while ago, and I wonder if it’s physically possible to have 222 orgasms in one hour? And also if an orgasm really can last 45 seconds? If so, I’m for sure doing something wrong.
Westheimer: You are sexually illiterate! What nonsense! Come down from Norway to New York and talk to me. Next question.

Okay! From the Midwest: What is the longest unconsummated marriage that you’ve ever heard of?
Westheimer: I’ve never heard that, because if it’s a really unconsummated marriage and I hear about it, I’d send to a relationship specialist. I’d not start sex therapy for somebody who doesn’t have sex!

Last one, from the East Coast: What should you do if your sexual partner makes a really silly/ugly face when they orgasm? Do you pretend not to notice or try to be into it?
Westheimer: Fantastic question!

White: I love this. I never got to ask these things.

Westheimer: Many women have to concentrate so hard on being able to have an orgasm.  Of not letting dishwashing or term papers or whatever enter their minds. So they have to make a facial grimace. If you see that, ignore it! Don’t ask any questions. Bravo to you if you manage to give her an orgasm, despite all of her other worries.

White: What if it’s the man’s face? Same rules?

Westheimer: Never say a thing. Where will this piece be?

Vulture, New York Magazine.
Westheimer: Tell them two things, right now. One: I’m a subscriber. For many years, and I still subscribe. And then tell them I want to be nominated for an Academy Award. Thank you.

Dr. Ruth, America’s Sex Therapist, Is Gunning for an Oscar