Dr. Ruth Westheimer Reflects on Life as Sex Educator and Orphan of Holocaust

Alexandra Fosbury ’21, Life & Style Editor

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a world renowned sex therapist and the first person to talk about sex on the radio as well as television, discussed her rise to fame and the impact she has had around the world as the speaker of the 2020 Poitras Gleim speaker.

The lecture, facilitated by Associate Professor of Psychology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Megan Yost, began with Dr. Ruth describing her childhood as an orphan of the Holocaust.

Reflecting on her experiences as a young child in Switzerland, Dr. Ruth described how escaping the Holocaust before it took her family and many other Jews gave her a desire to do something big in life. “I had to do something to justify why I was alive,” she said.

As detailed by the Dickinson College website, Dr. Ruth had an indirect road to sex therapy beginning with her time at the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization, in Israel before she studied psychology in France. After moving to America in 1956, Dr. Ruth continued her education receiving her Master’s degree in Sociology from The New School and later her Doctorate of Education (Ed.D) of the Interdisciplinary Study of the Family from Teachers College, Columbia University. 

After receiving her Ed.D, Dr. Ruth worked for Planned Parenthood which encouraged her to attend the New York Hospital-Cornell University  Medical Center to conduct post-doctorate research on Human Sexuality.

Dr. Ruth credited her time at the Cornell University Medical Center with her deep interest in sex. Eventually, Dr. Ruth received a 15-minute radio program on NBC that aired a quarter past midnight. The radio show began as a pre-recorded program in which Dr. Ruth would answer questions from ordinary people. Years later, Dr. Ruth had produced over 450 television shows on Lifetime and was recognized around the world.

She joked about her experience as a Jewish woman with an accent in New York stating, “What happened to me could have only happened in New York…because they are very kind to people with accents.” She continued, adding that a lot of her success came from just talking to her audience. “I was old fashioned and a square and talked…I didn’t need a dildo to teach.”

Students were also impressed with her perseverance, both as a child and an adult. “I really enjoyed listening to Dr. Ruth talk. The way she depicted her life when she talked about how she survived the Holocaust to coming to the US and striving to get the best education possible truly amazed me,” said Libby Cohen ’21.

Yost continued the conversation by asking Dr. Ruth what is was like to be the face of sex therapy in 1981 when open conversations about sex were not common. “I wasn’t embarrassed to talk because I knew that I was well trained,” she remarked. In addition to talking about sex, Dr. Ruth stated that she was “so pleased to be able to bury the myth [about women].”

Dr. Ruth was not just an ally for women in the 1980s, she also advocated for research during the AIDS crisis, solidifying her position as an influential, progressive woman.

An important aspect of Dr. Ruth’s identity is also her religion, which she referenced multiple times throughout the lecture. Linking her Jewish identity to her career, Dr. Ruth discussed openness, particularly about sex, that Jewish culture had, which allowed her to embrace her career more. “I didn’t waste time to fight any traditions,” she added.

Near the end of the lecture, Dr. Ruth emphasized the importance of education in her success as a sex therapist. According to Dr. Ruth, her boyfriend in the orphanage helped her get an education that was otherwise off limits to women by sneaking her his school books after class. While he was always worried about getting caught, Dr. Ruth would sneak out the window and engross herself in textbooks.  

Dr. Ruth also remarked that in her day-to-day life she often does not discuss politics, she is openly against the lack of funding for Planned Parenthood, the politicization of abortion and the separation of families at the border. As an orphan of the Holocaust, Dr. Ruth felt particularly strong about the separation of families despite it not relating directly to her field of work.

Eve Greenberg ‘21 was particularly impressed with Dr. Ruth’s discussion on politics, particularly the separation of families. “Listening to her speak about her views on politics and how while she usually stays away from them, under this administration she feels the need to speak up was fascinating. I found that connection [between immigration and the Holocaust] to be interesting,” said Greenberg.

To conclude the discussion portion of the lecture, Yost asked Dr. Ruth what is one thing she can become interested in within the last 10 to 15 years? Dr. Ruth responded by stating, “I have become interested in anything that makes people less lonely.” She continued this by discussing the importance of relationships (physical and otherwise) in everyone’s lives and encouraged all attendees of the lecture to have sex that night.

When students had the opportunity to ask questions, the questions centered around her thoughts on casual sex and hook-ups as well as non-monogamous relationships. To those questions, Dr. Ruth responded, “I’m old fashioned and a square,” continuing by stating she does not agree with either of those choices. She added that she does not believe people should “go easily into sex” as it is a personal experience, and while you do not have to be married to have sex there must be a relationship established. 

The final student question of the evening referenced the Hulu documentary on Dr. Ruth, Ask Dr. Ruth, in which she stated that she was not a feminist. In response, Dr. Ruth said “Things have changed [since I was a child] … I am a little bit more flexible…so now I am a feminist.”

“I loved how she talked about sex at such an old age. She’s really trying to destigmatize the idea of sex and it made me realize we should all talk about it more and on a regular basis,” said Cohen.

Westheimer delivered the 2020 Poitras Gleim lecture on Wed., Feb. 12, speaking to a large audience in ATS at 7:30p.m.