Talking to Dr. Ruth About Rape, Love, and the Holocaust

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Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Photo: David Bro/Getty Images

Dr. Ruth Westheimer has had a busy week. She turned 87, published her memoir, went on a multimedia blitz to promote the book — and kicked off an internet firestorm about rape. In an interview with radio host Diane Rehm, she argued that a woman may not say “I changed my mind” once she is already naked in bed with a man. “No such thing is possible. In the Talmud, in the Jewish tradition, it says when that part of the male anatomy is aroused and there’s an erection, the brain flies out,” she said. Then she tweeted: “I am 100% against rape. I do say to women if they don’t want to have sex with a man, they should not be naked in bed with him.” And: “That’s risky behavior like crossing street against the light. If a driver hits you, he’s legally in the wrong but you’re in the hospital.”

This controversy is a great shame for many reasons — not least of which is that it’s distracting us from talking about The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre, a book that is half Holocaust memoir, half cheerful self-help guide. In The Doctor Is In, Westheimer writes about being orphaned at age 10 when the rest of her family was killed in the Holocaust; finding solace with a sexy male nurse while recovering from injuries sustained during a bombing in Israel; and losing her virginity atop a pile of hay on a kibbutz. While riding in a car to a book event in New Jersey, the doctor chatted by phone with the Cut about her book, sexual consent, and how being orphaned made her treasure romance.

You started your radio show in the early ‘80s —
Yes, ’81.

What has changed about our sexual culture since then?
Good question. I will tell you what has changed. We do have more data so we have more knowledge. Not enough yet, we still need more, but no question that people are more sexually literate. And the vocabularly has changed. For example, people don’t say, "She’s with child," they say, "She’s pregnant." So there are things that have changed from the time that I talked so explicitly on Sunday nights for ten years, from ten to 12.

Do you think that new vocabulary affects the way people interact with each other?
In the positive way, it works very well because there are less women who haven’t heard the message — and I’m not the only one who says it — of a woman having to take the responsibility for her sexual satisfaction. She can’t just think, Oh he loves me so he has to know what I need. So one part is openness. On the other hand, I’m very worried that in theaters and in movies and even in speech, very often people use four-letter words instead of the real terminology. And that bothers me. I’m old-fashioned and a square, so I want people to use the real terminology and not four-letter words.

Are there any particular four-letter words that bother you?
Yes, one in particular. It starts with f.

What terms do you prefer?
Intercourse. Say something about lovemaking! Say something about intimacy.

You prefer romantic terms.
Yes.

Were you surprised this week, when you saw how people reacted to your comments about sexual consent?
No, but I should have known that in today’s world everything gets publicity immediately. But I’m not surprised, and I’m also not changing my mind. I believe in that very strongly, I’m old-fashioned, I’m a square, I want people to have a good relationship and good sex. And I’m worried about people going to bed drunk, or high, or something. And I do believe that we are going to see more unintended pregnancies because they are not preparing. And more sexually transmitted diseases.

I think it’s because of that law. The Title IX, that gives money to universities. I wish I had been on that committee because I would have spoken up by saying that I don’t believe that people should be in bed naked without having a relationship and without having an understanding of what is going to happen.

So you’re skeptical of casual sex?
Not only skeptical. I think that it might bring about a fantastic orgasm, but I think that in our culture most people would like to have a relationship. And in my way of thinking, the best sex is when they have a relationship. I’m not talking even about marriage. What I’m saying [applies to both] heterosexual and homosexual [relationships]. I believe the best intimate sexual relationship is when they have a kind of a relationship and an understanding.

This battle about consent is so interesting to me because it is, in some ways, testament to your success that today, we take it for granted that it’s okay to say yes to sex. We accept as a matter of course that a woman should be able to take pleasure in sex. The bigger political battle now is about the circumstances surrounding no.  
We know better. We certainly know that Freud was wrong — he should have taken a class with me, because he said any woman who doesn’t have a vaginal orgasm is an immature woman. We know that that’s not so. But at the same time, my core and my beliefs are still very much old-fashioned, in believing that most people — not everybody — but most people want to have a person in their life who smiles when they walk into the room.

And sex is, what, an extension of that?
Absolutely.

In your memoir, when you describe how you discovered sex, you say that the Holocaust prevented you from getting a sex talk from your parents. At the age when most young people discover their identities and sexual identities, you were losing things: your family, your name, your home. Do you think that shaped the role sexuality came to play in your identity?
I don’t think sexuality became part of my identity then. But I do believe that my insistence on relationships, on people wanting to have a significant other, that certainly was shaped by that experience.

Do you remember ever feeling fear in relationships, or fear about sex?
Not fear. I think I was fortunate that even in the children’s home I had a boyfriend. How important it was, as an orphan at the age of 12, to be caressed and to be kissed and to know that there is someone who really deeply cared about me.

The first boy you loved, the one named Putz?
Mm-hmm. I still see him every year in Israel. He’s married. I just saw him three weeks ago in Israel. I still am in touch with the people, about 12 of them, those children who became orphans with me when we went from Nazi Germany to Switzerland. We became like brothers and sisters, a whole group of us.

Was his name really Putz?
Yes, but P-U-T-Z doesn’t mean what it means in English. Don’t use that name.

It didn’t mean penis to you?
No, it did not.

It’s incredible to me that though your life is so extraordinary and different from what many in America experience, your talent is connecting with people, finding common ground with ordinary Americans.
That’s a good point. One of the reasons is that people like me were saved, but 1 million and 500,000 Jewish children were killed during World War II. People like me have to make a dent. In Hebrew there’s a sentence that says, "to repair the world." We have to make a dent in society. Many of the girls who were in the orphanage with me became either nurses or social workers. Though nobody became a sex therapist — I’m the only one who did that! 

What, to you, is sexual liberation?
That he or she can tell each other what they need to be satisfied. That’s what sexual liberation is for me. It’s not just picking up somebody after a party and having sex, but having a relationship but being available and being that they can say it to each other what they need. Or show each other what they need.

Over the years, has your outlook on any particular sexual or romantic issue changed?
Nope. 

You’ve been consistent from day one?
Absolutely.

There are things that have not changed. I’m not saying people should not have sex before marriage. If they both agree, they should do it! But I am saying loud and clear, Don’t fail to respect the sex drive. That sex drive is a strong one. And I don’t believe that you can turn it on and off like a faucet of water. Hey, that sounds good! I haven’t said it that way before. Pierre [Lehu, Dr. Ruth’s longtime collaborator and co-author of The Doctor Is In] has never heard that before and he has already heard everything that I say! Put his name in the review! Pierre is now nodding his head when I say, "Turn off and on like a faucet." Thank God, even at the age of almost 87, I can come up with something that surprises Pierre.

This interview has been edited and condensed.