Today is the birthday of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, born (as Karola Ruth Siegel) in 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany. She became one of the most recognizable commentators on TV and radio talking about good sex.
At the age of 10, she was sent to Switzerland as protection from the Nazis; her parents were killed in the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz. After the war Westheimer decided to emigrate to Palestine, where, at 17, she “first had sexual intercourse on a starry night, in a haystack without contraception.” She later told the New York Times, “I am not happy about that, but I know much better now and so does everyone who listens to my radio program.”
Although only 4’7″ in stature, Westheimer joined the Haganah during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, was wounded in action, and it was several months before she was able to walk again.
In 1950, she moved to France, where she studied and then taught psychology at the University of Paris. In 1956, she immigrated to the United States, settling in Washington Heights, Manhattan, where she still lives.
Westheimer earned a master’s degree in sociology from The New School and an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University. She completed post-doctoral work in human sexuality. Her books on human sexuality, include Dr. Ruth’s Encyclopedia of Sex and Sex for Dummies.
In 1980, WYNY-FM, NBC Radio’s New York City owned-and-operated station, started featuring “Dr. Ruth” on Sexually Speaking, her own 15-minute talk show at midnight on Sunday nights. People would mail in their questions and Dr. Ruth would begin her response saying, “I have a letter from a listener who asks…,” in a voice that sounded like a “cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse,” as The Wall Street Journal would describe her.
After two months the show expanded to an hour and went live, with Westheimer taking phone calls with a 7-second digital delay. Within a year Westheimer had a larger audience on Sunday night at midnight on this struggling station than many New York stations had in morning drive-time. She became known for being candid and funny, but respectful, and for her tag phrase, “Get some.”
In less than two years, Dr. Ruth became a household name and was being heard on radio stations across the country. Her pioneering TV show, also called Sexually Speaking, first aired in 1982, and has been nationally syndicated, as has her radio show. She also appeared on many talk shows such as David Letterman.
Westheimer’s popularity expanded into PBS Television children’s shows and an episode of the TV show Quantum Leap. Knowing that “sex sells,” marketers have used her in commercials: For the Honda Prelude, she appeared in 1993, ending with “My advice to you is, ‘Get a Prelude.'”
The January 2009 55th anniversary issue of Playboy features Westheimer as #13 in the list of the 55 most important people in sex from the past 55 years. In October 2013, the biographical play Becoming Dr. Ruth opened off Broadway, starring Debra Jo Rupp. It has since been staged in other theaters.
America is still in many ways captive to attitudes of embarrassment and shame, and crippling ignorance, about sexuality. Statistics on teenage pregnancy, incidence of sexually transmitted disease, and knowledge of the reproductive system, for example, all compare unfavorably with other advanced countries. Anyone tuning in on congressional debate about abortion and reproduction can appreciate how manipulative and uninformed so many politicians can be when passing the laws that will affect not only millions of Americans, but populations around the world impacted by backward U.S. policies on birth control and sexual education.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer does not shy away from controversy or difficult subjects. “There will never be a day,” she has said, “when there is no such thing as prostitution. Quote me: I would like to see prostitution legalized.” She has made a career out of demystifying sex with both rationality and humor, opening her audience’s minds to nonjudgmental enjoyment, with responsibility and equality.
Happy birthday, Dr. Ruth!
Adapted from Wikipedia and other sources.
Photo: Dr. Westheimer | Wikipedia (CC)