Let’s Talk About Sex! Capturing the Life of America’s Sex Therapist

 

In 1980, Dr. Ruth Westheimer began her career as America’s sex therapist with her late-night Sunday radio show, “Sexually Speaking”. With her enthusiasm, bluntness and strong German accent, she captivated listeners immediately. But the depth of her life didn’t start there. Dr. Ruth left Nazi Germany when she was 10, cultivating her identity as an “orphan of the Holocaust,” a sniper for the Israel Defense Forces after World War 2, and an academic for 20 years until she earned her PhD at the age of 40 from Columbia University.

 

We had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Ruth and Ryan White, the director who captured her essence in the new Hulu documentary, “Ask Dr. Ruth” (out June 1st!).  In our conversation we asked Dr. Ruth questions ranging from dating apps to sexual stigma in our generation, and we got more than we knew we were prepared for. We asked White about his experience working with her, the challenges, the laughs and everything in between. We have chosen to include all of what was said, so as not to compromise Dr. Ruth’s authentic voice.

 

So we have a question first for you (Dr. Ruth). I think at the end of the night there were some questions about marriage, and being in a relationship; so we’re in college, we’re in our first year in college

Dr. Ruth: What’s your major?

Sarah: I’m a business major.

Callie: Neuroscience.

White: Oh… so why are you writing articles? [laughs]

 

So what is your opinion on dating apps?

 

Dr. Ruth: “So I’m all for dating apps, because I’m very concerned about loneliness, like I said yesterday, and we’re talking about that in the new version of Sex for Dummies that’s coming out; so I’m very, very concerned about that. People have to use it in [a safe] way, never to date in a dark place; to date in a lobby of a hotel; to date in some place that’s public. And also, I’m all for it because that’s what you young people these days use. And if that can combat the loneliness, if that can bring a significant other in your life then by all means to use it - but not to be stupid. Also, not to have unrealistic expectations because on the dating app you can say that you’re 6-feet tall!”

White: “I’m 6-feet tall - you know I met David on a dating app?”

Dr. Ruth: “Yes I know. So I’m all for it if you do it intentionally. All of the things that are happening in terms of the unpleasant experiences is because of people were stupid. But since all of you are on the computer - except in my classroom, not at Teachers College [at Columbia University] where I teach in my fourth year, not at Yale and Princeton, where I taught. Ryan, you forgot to say Yale [in the film you said Princeton but not Yale!”

White: “I didn’t say anything, John Mullins (name correct? 15:44) forgot to say Yale.”

Dr. Ruth: “In any case, in my classroom, students cannot use the computer because I want that relationship and it works ‘cause it’s a seminar; and even people who did not know each other, once, by the third session, they would all talk to each other. And I put their names in front of them, on a nametag. I’m all for people to find some connections and to find some friends.”

 

Ryan, we have a question for you. So we were kind of talking about authenticity. What was the best way which captured Dr. Ruth’s authenticity through film and through art, through your artistic lens?

 

White: “Well, normally, in most of my films, I’ve never been so present in any of my documentaries on screen when you watch the final product. Like you hear me a lot in this film. You feel the presence of the crew, not just me. Like, I think, even in the first scene of the film you (Dr. Ruth) are talking to Rafi in the first scene, our producer, and you’re talking to Rob, the sound man, and you’re talking to David, the cameraman, and you’re asking me if I called my mom. That’s four people you’re addressing in the first scene. That was my editing team. Normally, I don’t like to feel very present in my documentaries and I don’t like to hear filmmakers voices a lot. But my editing team very early on when they were cutting scenes, they were like ‘this film is gonna have to break the fourth wall.’ It is the best way to show who she is because she refuses to [act] - there’s no facade for her. There’s no performing for the camera. It’s real interaction with everyone whether there’s a camera there or not. I think a prime example of that is how you (Dr. Ruth) connect with drivers. Every driver you get, you call them “Mr. Uber” - even if it’s a Lyft!”

Dr. Ruth: “And I get him a ticket to see the film.”

White: “Every driver gets a ticket to see the film, so they don’t have to wait outside.”

Dr. Ruth: “Like last night, and like at Sundance.”

White: “So I think that’s probably the part that was most different from most of my films, and I really do love watching the film back because of that.”

Dr. Ruth: And your editing team was brilliant. Just don’t throw any footage away!

White: We won’t.

 

So here’s a question about authenticity for you, Dr. Ruth. How do you remain your most authentic self throughout your entire life? Is there something every day that helps you be Dr. Ruth?

 

Dr. Ruth: “So even when I had this television program [called Dr. Ruth Westheimer], for 500 television programs or 450 or something, I never played a primadonna. That’s how I also told him [Ryan], ‘Do the film, I won’t be a primadonna.’ And, I really can’t answer that, except that I was already old enough. I was 40 when I got my doctorate. I was already old enough to have my own self, and my identity, and I would never have moved to Hollywood. So even in that scene which you show in the pilot when I played a professor.”

White: “In the sitcom, Dr. Ruth’s House - she was in a sitcom pilot.”

Dr. Ruth: “I played a professor … and I did tell the writer of that play, ‘I will only do it if I can also have a love affair, I am not just going just to be an old woman in Dr. Ruth’s House watching these young people have love affairs!’”

White: “That’s a good point though - I actually just interviewed Tim Gunn who’s on Project Runway as well, and I was like ‘You’re like the male Dr. Ruth because both of you became famous in your mid-50s.’ ‘Cause Tim Gunn, when I was interviewing him, I was like ‘Man you remind me so much of Dr. Ruth and your authenticity. You feel so yourself, and not like you’re putting on a front for the camera at all.’ And he said the same thing you did: you guys became famous when they were in their mid-50s so you had a whole life before that, where you knew who you were before money or fame became a part of your life, which is why I think you’re so grounded. Many reasons, but I think that’s one of them.”

 

Would you say that you’re like perception of Dr. Ruth changed through making the film? Or your perception about relationships, or sex, and everything that she is known for?

 

White: “Yeah, absolutely. ‘Cause I’m 37, so I grew up on Dr. Ruth, but I was young. So, to me, it wasn’t like I was taking her advice, ‘cause I was too young, but she was like - you know, no offense, but like the ‘old lady with the funny accent’ on television when you’re an eight year old in the house, where you know your parents might change the channel when it came on cause they don’t want you listening. So I knew who she was as the cultural figure.

 

So when I was invited to have dinner with her a couple years ago it was more out of just like curiosity, like ‘Oh wow, I’d love to meet that woman,’ you know? I did not know the significance that Dr. Ruth’s career had had on people. In fact, it was that first dinner where a man - I’m gay - a gay man came up to her, he was probably 15 years older than me, came up to talk to you (Dr. Ruth) and just said - which I’ve heard a million times now, but that was the first time I saw it in person - just thanking her, saying like, “Oh, when I was listening on my radio in my bedroom, like on a really low volume so my parents didn’t know and you were talking about gay sex and respecting gay people, it meant so much.” I’ve heard that now dozens if not hundred of times. And not just gay people, obviously, women, you know every demographic.”

 

Dr. Ruth: “And the interesting thing at that time was that Walkman came on the market.”

White: “I wonder if the walkman had part to due with your success because then people could listen secretly.”

Dr. Ruth: “It did because the kids on Sunday nights didn’t have to be told to go to bed. They could be in bed, under the covers with the Walkman and there is no question that the Walkman had a tremendous part in my teaching.”

White: “I didn’t have that in the film, I’m jealous”

Dr. Ruth: “Make sure you put that in the article you have to write. Nobody talks about the Walkman anymore, right?

White: “No, it’s obsolete.”

Dr. Ruth: “I am very grateful to that walkman.”

Dr. Ruth: “And then there’s something else that I did. I went every year to Frankfurt, to the Frankfurt Book Fair. It was very difficult for me to be in Frankfurt but, and I never went near the [...]  station, which you saw in the animation. But every year I came back with a new contract for a new book, so here I’m doing two new books for this year. One is for you people, The Sex for Dummies is coming out in a new edition.”

White: “You just called them dummies.”

Dr. Ruth: “It focuses on relationships, and my concern for relationships and I talk about the art of conversation. Which is a problem because all of you are constantly on your, that phone. And then the other book that is coming out is a children’s book on diversity and it’s called, ‘Crocodile, you are beautiful’, even a crocodile that’s for literature. And part of the film story is in that graphic novel because it talks about my background, about the Nazis taking my father and then it talks about my going to Country Fair with to of my grandchildren and we get measured, they can go on the rude but they say that I’m too short!”

Sarah: “Yeah, I remember I was watching your interview with Jerry Seinfeld and he kind of said that when you get married, you’re on a roller coaster and you don’t know where you’re going. When I saw that in the film, it was interesting.”

That does kind of lead us into another question considering our generation who hasn’t seen you as much as older generations, but we have benefitted from all that you’ve done and we have more freedom to talk about sex. What do you think the biggest stigma facing us is?

 

Dr. Ruth: “The biggest problem?”

Sarah: “Yes.”

Dr. Ruth: “The biggest problem is Sexually Transmitted Disease because some of you don’t tell me your story and some of you have indiscriminate sex with anyone that is available and one night stands so that worries me a lot. It also worries me in older generations because older people think it can’t happen to them and everybody thinks that there is medication is available so what’s the big deal? So they go into syphilis and gonorrhea and AIDS and it worries me and then what worries me is that you lose the art of conversation. Not you journalists or you filmmaker, but the rest of the world has trouble having a good conversation going.”

 

“What is the best piece of advice Dr. Ruth has given you throughout this whole journey?”

 

Dr. Ruth: “Personally, none! I don’t know anything about him and not his new partner, except for that I like him”

White: “So I think the biggest misconception about Dr. Ruth, that I probably had to, was that she was going to be like talking about sex from day to night. Never, never do I hear her talk about sex with anyone, unless it’s in a professional setting. Relationships, you do ask and you did give me very good advice. Because I was single most of the making of the film and in fact, the first dinner when I met you, you were very concerned that I was single. I got a lot of questions about why I thought I was single at this stage in my life.

Dr. Ruth: “Relationship questions, I definitely ask.”

White: “But you were very concerned about, because you saw firsthand at how much I work because I was always with you. You were very concerned that I wasn’t carving out enough time....

Dr. Ruth: “For relationships.”

White: “...once I started dating someone. So he and I talk about that a lot, we say that we need to think about Dr. Ruth’s advice, because we both work very hard, and set aside a couple hours a few nights a week where we aren’t working to spend time together . Otherwise you said it’s not…”

Dr. Ruth: “I have a friend from New York, a good friend, and my best advice to him and his  now-spouse, his now-husband. Oh boy, I can now say it to him, it took me awhile. I said you have to, money is no object for him, you have to come back because the husband is much younger. You have to come back every other weekend to be with him back in New York for a time otherwise the relationship will not work. And you have to make that time, not being on the phone and just being there for each other.”

Sarah: “Being present.”

CI: “Yeah, that is also a big thing that faces our generation.”

Dr. Ruth: “It is a big problem in the generation because you all have this thing called multitasking. Right?”

White: “Yeah, multitasking, you got it right. But you made it sound fancier. Multitasking.”

Dr. Ruth: “Big problem, big big problem because if you are with a significant other, they should have your entire attention and not to other things. And it worries me about what you are missing out there.”

Dr. Ruth: “Okay, will I get the paper? Make sure that you say it is my fourth year teaching at Columbia at Teachers College.”

Sarah: “I’m sure they have a Her Campus there, we will send it along to them.”

Dr. Ruth: “It is a seminar on the changing image of the family in the media. And now I am in my second year and I am doing it again next year at Hunter, with two professors of historians about the history of sex education. I was just told I can do it again next year.”

CI: “Congratulations!”

Dr. Ruth: “Let’s do another film!”

White: “Oh ok, we’ll do a sequel.”

We learned more about laughter, personal growth, and compassion from a 100-minute movie and a 20-minute interview than we have from any other life experience. Here are a few of our major takeaways:

  1. Don’t underestimate the artistry of a face-to-face conversation.

  2. WATCH OUT FOR CHLAMYDIA - safety against sexually transmitted diseases should be a top priority.

  3. As long as you love what you’re doing, you can do it forever

  4. Recognize and remember the contributions others make to your life and success.

  5. Take it all one day at a time - you will have great achievements at every stage of your life.