When I told a friend last week that I was going to hear Dr. Ruth Westheimer speak, he looked at me quizzically and said, “Dr. Ruth, the sexpert? She’s still around? What’s she doing?”
Like my friend, you might have lost track of the iconic psychotherapist with the distinct accent who talks nonstop about sex. But last week, Dr. Ruth spoke in Princeton at the annual fundraising breakfast for Answer, a national comprehensive sexuality education program at Rutgers University. Answer —which, in full disclosure, I led for many years—has supported comprehensive sexuality education for teens and educators through its teen-to-teen Sex, Etc. magazine and website [http://sexetc.org] and education initiatives.
Only four-feet, seven-inches tall, the diminutive Dr. Ruth is still a towering figure in the field of sexual education and psycho-sexual therapy with her ability to talk openly about every aspect of sexuality to people of every age. Over her lifespan, she has reached millions through a range of media—from radio to the web [http://www.drruth.com]—to help them become more fully functioning and aware sexual people.
I still remember my introduction to Dr. Ruth. It was at my daughter’s 16th birthday party. She had invited about a dozen girlfriends to celebrate. After supper, they settled down in our living room to talk into the early hours of the morning—or so I thought. As I finished putting away the dishes, I realized that the house had become deathly silent. Puzzled, I walked into the living room to find every girl with a transistor radio glued to an ear. As I opened my mouth to ask, “What’s going on?,” my daughter grabbed a piece of paper and wrote in large capital letters, “mom, shhh, we are listening to dr. ruth.”
I decided then and there that if a woman named Dr. Ruth could hold a group of young females in the palm of her hand, I should pay attention to what she had to say about sex.
My daughter is now 44 years old, and I’m paying attention to what Dr. Ruth is saying about sex yet again.
Dr. Ruth advised her audience that “scare tactics” don’t work when it comes to talking about sex with young people. (I wish supporters of abstinence-only-until-marriage education in schools—whose battle cry goes something like, “Don’t have sex—you’ll get pregnant and die,” would listen up.) She advised parents, educators, and other caring adults to use humor whenever possible. For example, she said that young men need to realize that condoms have an expiration date—and so “the one that’s been in the back pocket for four years isn’t going to do the job.”
She counseled parents to be honest with their teens about their beliefs about sexual behavior in their own homes. (I agree—as parents often get tongue tied when such moments arise, and expect their kids to divine their beliefs. Better to discuss the topic before the “friend” arrives with his or her overnight bag.)
“If you parents do not want your children to sleep with their boyfriends or girlfriends in your house, then you need to directly address the issue. …You should give your views and reasons why visiting teens should sleep in separate bedrooms,” Dr. Ruth said.
She added that new technologies and our sexualized culture have made her “more of a square,” which must have pleased many parents in the audience. Before the advent of the Internet and texting, she said she didn’t think parents should open their kids’ diaries. Now she believes they “should know what their kids are doing,” given the reach of the Internet, including social networking.
Citing another example of being “old fashioned,” Dr. Ruth expressed concern about the “half-naked” young women she sees in schools and on the streets. She wishes that parents would help their daughters dress less provocatively. (Yet she didn’t mention the power that the mass media and culture have on young women’s fashion habits and self-image.)
Never shy about controversy, Dr. Ruth mentioned several hot-button issues. She talked about the need for abortion—contraception does fail—and the fact that before its legalization, it was pretty much the choice of only wealthy women. These women were able to fly to places in the world, like Mexico, where it was available. She felt that this was undemocratic.
She spoke about sexual orientation: how more research is needed to explain it, so more people realize its origins and can be more understanding. She said heterosexuals need to show more respect to gays and lesbians. She told us that her apartment looks out on the George Washington Bridge and not a day goes by when she doesn’t think of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after his roommate streamed his private rendezvous with another male in his room online.
Dr. Ruth, as a professional psychosexual therapist, had advice for adults about their sexuality. She advised women to teach their partners how to satisfy them, and spoke about how men can retain their erections (she didn’t mention any drugs) and the secrets of a long and happy sexual life. (Hints: avoid boredom at all costs, leave your everyday problems outside the bedroom door, and don’t make sex the last thing on the agenda.)
Dr. Ruth has published two books that expand on the themes she highlighted: for parents with teens, Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Teens and Sex Today: From Social Networking to Friends with Benefits, and for adults, Dr. Ruth’s Sex After 50: Revving up the Romance, Passion, and Excitement. For those who simply want to get started, there’s also Sex for Dummies, her bestselling guide to a rewarding sex life and a deeper relationship.