Talking about sex in the public arena used to be taboo. Dr. Ruth Westheimer changed that, and the new documentary, “Ask Dr. Ruth,” pays tribute to this spirited game-changer. Now 90 years old, the diminutive sex therapist — she’s 4 feet, 7 inches tall — remains a dynamo. Director Ryan White tracks her life and impact, including her wildly successful call-in radio talk show, “Sexually Speaking,” her six TV shows, and her three dozen–plus books. The story of her life fascinates.
Born outside of Frankfurt, Germany, she still speaks with a heavy German accent. She was raised an only child in an Orthodox Jewish family. After her father, a notions wholesaler, was arrested by the Nazis following Kristallnacht, she was sent to a Swiss orphanage as part of the rescue effort Kindertransport. Like the other refugee children there, she had to do all the work.
Other tragedies followed. She never saw her parents again; they were killed in the Holocaust. After emigrating to Palestine at the end of WWII, she was trained as a sniper, although she never shot anyone. Her feet were severely injured in a bomb attack during the Israeli War of Independence, one foot almost blown off, but she eventually recovered well enough to walk normally.
Ruth’s father had instilled in his daughter a love of education. In 1950, she moved to Paris with her first husband to earn her high school diploma through a Sorbonne program, and then studied psychology there. After she and her second husband moved to New York, more degrees followed, including a master’s in sociology from the New School and a doctorate in education from Columbia University Teachers College. After her second marriage ended, she became a single parent for her daughter Miriam.
Ruth’s professional career started at Planned Parenthood, where she trained family planning counselors. Postgraduate work with Helen Singer Kaplan, a pioneer in sex therapy, inspired Ruth to dedicate herself to working as a sex therapist. The places where she has taught include Lehman College, Brooklyn College, Adelphi University, Columbia University, and West Point.
After she began her radio show, “Sexually Speaking,” in 1980, she became a media sensation. No one had spoken as frankly about sex as she did in the ’80s, and the show was so popular it went from 15 minutes to an hour, then two hours. It became syndicated nationally, and lasted 10 years. TV shows and appearances, lectures, books, and even commercials were next. In an example of how controversial Ruth was at the time, she was subjected to an attempted citizen’s arrest at one of her lectures.
Dr. Ruth — she initiated the practice of using a first name professionally — was an early crusader for abortion rights, gay rights, and AIDS research. Normal, she says, is her least favorite word. Whatever people do in the privacy of their bedroom, kitchen, or elsewhere, is nobody else’s business, according to Dr. Ruth.
As interesting as the outline of her life may be, spending time with Dr. Ruth and hearing her talk about her life, as is the case in “Ask Dr. Ruth,” is even more so. Her liveliness, which her daughter suggests may be a survival mechanism, is compelling to watch in action. “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent,” she says. For good reason, she has been called the Ruth Bader Ginsberg of sex.
Information and tickets for “Ask Dr. Ruth” and other Film Center screenings are available at mvfilmsociety.com.