The iconic 90-year-old sex therapist tells her incredible life story in a new documentary. Speaking to Stylist, she promises she won’t be slowing down any time soon.
With a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and scores of positive reviews, Ask Dr Ruth is one of 2019’s most popular documentaries. Telling the story of Dr Ruth Westheimer, the 90-year-old German-American sex therapist and icon of sex positivity, it also delves deep into her childhood escape from Germany during the height of World War 2. Here, Stylist interviews the inspiring nonagenarian.
When it comes to sex, it’s good to be tenacious – and it’s good to be generous and kind.
All of these words also describe Dr Ruth Westheimer, the 4’7” nonagenarian (90 and a half at the time of writing) sex therapist and star of the upcoming documentary, Ask Dr Ruth. Spending even a moment in her presence – let alone over an hour between a Q&A and our one-on-one interview at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in California– you’re immediately struck by her vibrancy and inquisitive, playful nature.
In a day that began with the nonstop charisma train that is talking to George Clooney, Dr Ruth was the one that charmed the press the most. The woman known as the grandmother of sexual liberation’s open frankness and inquisitive nature radiates delight and joy wherever she goes.
Even with a long-running, iconic career in radio and television (in addition to the teaching she still does to this day), Dr Ruth, as she is affectionately known, has not been one to be too open about her personal life. As she put it to us, Dr Ruth learned “through my training for a Master’s in Sociology – and this is very clear – that you don’t talk about your own life.”
For as open and honest as she is about sex, talking about her personal experiences wasn’t part of the program. Even when the documentary came into play, it was still a challenge. As Dr Ruth recalled: “Very often in the film, in the taping, I said [to director Ryan White], ‘next question.’”
But Dr Ruth is also a Holocaust survivor, something few knew about her until now. When she was only 11-years-old and known as Karola Ruth Siegel, her mother and grandmother – her father was taken in the wake of Kristallnacht – managed to get her passage from Frankfurt to Switzerland on kindertransport, part of the rescue efforts that took place in the months leading up to WWII which took Jewish kids via train out of the path of war. And though she’s ever the optimist in the face of strife, the price of the Holocaust – it took the lives of everyone in her family – was high for Dr Ruth, and she refuses to let that sort of worldwide tragedy go ignored.
“The Holocaust deniers should listen to my story and know that there was a Holocaust,” Dr Ruth explained matter-of-factly. “And those people who have Holocaust fatigue – who say don’t talk about it anymore, it was so long ago – they have to know that we have to talk about it. Not every day, and not constantly, but we have to make sure that the next generation knows about it.”
There are lessons to be learned from history, she noted, which makes sense coming from a still-active teacher, teaching two courses in New York City, her home: one at Hunter College, and the other at Columbia University’s Teachers College (their graduate school for education).
“In the Talmud, in the Jewish tradition, it says that a teacher learns from their students, and that’s certainly true of me,” she noted. “Every teacher learns from their students, from the interaction and the questions.”
Throughout the roughly one hour and forty minute documentary Ask Dr Ruth, the viewer is given the full context for this person known almost exclusively for sex. And its greatest success is in being able to capture Dr Ruth’s essence and unbridled joy: it is the air of the film and what makes it particularly gripping to watch. Given the trauma she faced as a child, plus the criticism for her choice of career, the anti-semitism and sexism and ageism, people often ask her how and why she’s able to maintain such a positive, playful attitude.
It’s something for which she takes no personal credit.
“The first 10 years of my life, I was in a loving family; lived with a father, mother, and a grandmother with nothing else to do but take care of me,” she explained.
“And I did a longitudinal study of the children who went to Switzerland with me, who became orphans, and it was very clear that none of them committed suicide, none of them became drug addicts. And it’s because in the early years of their childhood, they were in a loving family. So I want to make sure that everybody understands about that, how [foundationally] important it is to be in a relationship within a family, for the rest of your life.”
She went on, adding that, “Even becoming an orphan, [those bonds] helped to make that possible. The children in the orphanage became like brothers and sisters, they reconstituted the family.”
And the family she has now continues to bring joy to Dr Ruth’s life – but also to push her, too. At a particular moment during the film, Dr Ruth’s granddaughter asks her if she’s a feminist. To which Dr Ruth quickly and decisively says no. It’s a shocking moment considering the accolades she’s seen bestowing upon Gloria Steinem earlier in the film. But then there’s a turn.
“My daughter, Miriam, actually rescues that situation by saying, ‘well you are not a radical feminist.’ And so I agreed with that,” Dr Ruth explained. “We talked for a bit about the stigma surrounding feminism in its earlier stages and what younger women want people to take away from the movement.”
Now, Dr Ruth is happy to declare it, the roll of her Rs turning into giggles at the end, “I’m a feminist – I want equal pay for equal work, I certainly am for all those things – but I’m not for burning bras.” (She just happens to really like her bras.)
And that’s the appeal of Dr Ruth in a nutshell. She’s on the front lines of progressive issues, talking about masturbation and gay sex and the importance of clitoral stimulation before most of you reading this were even born… but she’s not exactly aggressive about it.
Her small stature, bouncy German accent, and age have certainly helped to widen her notoriety, but Dr Ruth thinks it’s about more than that. “It’s because I’m not judgmental, and they know that I don’t mind if I say, ‘I don’t know, this is not my expertise, you have to see a gynecologist, or you have to see a urologist,’ or some other specialty, a specialist. And people know that, so they trust me with that. And I have never speculated or given answers that I didn’t know about.”
When asked what her next great endeavor is, Dr Ruth is frank: fixing the sex lives of young people, especially millennials. She’s deeply concerned about the sex lives of young people, afraid that phones and computers have taken the place of actual intimacy. “I’ll tell you what’s happened, these days there’s no conversation! People have lost the art of conversation because they are all the time on their phone, and it’s difficult for them to keep a conversation. So it’s even more difficult to keep a conversation on sex.”
And she’s not wrong: young people are having less sex, and social anxiety is clearly on the rise. So, naturally, Dr Ruth thinks having good sex can change that—it all just starts with a chat.
“We have to change that, we have to speak up! And you journalists have to help to say, ‘people, make sure that you talk to each other!’ So they’re not sitting on the phone all the time. The world does not go under if you are not opening that phone.” At this point, Dr Ruth poo-poos my own phone, placed semi-precariously on my leg to catch our conversation.
For as much as she was a part of the sexual revolution, Dr Ruth doesn’t necessarily want the same treatment as her peers. When asked if she would ever like to see her story get the Masters of Sex or Kinsey dramatised biographical retelling, she scoffs and immediately says no thank you. “I’d rather do a documentary which would be on Hulu! Did you hear, Hulu? I just wanted to know that you heard it.”
Truth is what Dr Ruth is always after, and it only comes from taking a chance and asserting yourself and your wants and needs—be it in the bedroom or the boardroom.
“People have to take the courage to stick their neck out,” she explains. “I did a children’s book about turtles, that a turtle, if it stays in one place, it’s safe, nothing can happen to the turtle. But if the turtle wants to move, it has to stick its neck out. It could get hurt, but it doesn’t move unless it sticks its neck out.”
Ask Dr Ruth streams on Hulu in the US now. The documentary has its European premiere at Sundance Film Festival: London on Sunday 2 June at Picturehouse Central, London, W1. Tickets are available here.