These days, people praise podcasts such as Guys We Fucked and How Cum? for helping women demand pleasure and gain agency in their sex lives through a lighthearted, no-nonsense approach. But this is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, when sex was a much more taboo subject, German-born sex therapist Ruth Westheimer worked to make the US less puritanical, chastising people who still used the word “frigid” and encouraging couples to experiment with sex toys. Over the decades, “Dr. Ruth” has authored more than 40 books, hosted a radio show and seven TV shows, and made countless guest appearances in various films and talk shows. The new documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, directed by Ryan White, surveys Westheimer’s life as she is about to turn 90.
Westheimer credits her diminutive, grandmotherly appearance for her success, her non-threatening nature encouraging people to be more forthcoming on matters of sex. The film gradually unveils the methodology underlying her eagerness, which one might initially mistake for “quirkiness.” One key is her famous German accent. The assertion that “size has nothing to do with the sexual satisfaction of a woman” or the instruction “let him insert the penis into the vagina … from behind, so that the clitoris is exposed, so that either you or he can stimulate it all the way to orgasm” sound endearing and not prurient when you hear her say them. White portrays Westheimer as sprightly even in advanced age, always eager to embark on new projects. “I would like to retire, but she won’t,” says her longtime communications manager.
Born to an Orthodox Jewish family, a young Ruth escaped the Nazis through the Kindertransport and spent World War II in a Swiss orphanage. Her parents died in a concentration camp. After the war, she fought as a scout and sniper under the Haganah in Palestine, completed her studies in Paris, and eventually settled in New York in the ‘50s. She married three times. The first two were, in her words, “legalized love affairs,” while she deems her third husband, Fred Westheimer, her true love. She obtained a PhD at 42, and would study under pioneering sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan for her postdoctoral research. Working at Planned Parenthood sparked her interest in educating people about sex. A talk with a local broadcaster about contraception led to her getting her own 15-minute TV segment (scheduled close to midnight), and her popularity took off from there.
The movie connects Westheimer’s biography both to her philosophy toward sex and how she cultivated her famous persona. She attributes her openness around sexuality to the fact that in Hebrew, there is a verb, la’daat, which denotes both knowledge and sexual intercourse. She used her public platform to destigmatize AIDS because she had experienced firsthand what it was like to be an outcast. Her personal drive is explained (perhaps in an overly simplistic manner) as her way of coping with trauma. Westheimer says that as a German Jew, she has trouble shedding tears (her children comment that the only time they’ve seen her do so was after their father died). In this light, her prolific work and cheerful image take on a bittersweet edge.
Though clumsy in parts (animated segments depicting events of the ‘30s and ‘40s look amateurish), Ask Dr. Ruth is not cheesy. White respects Westheimer’s influence over how Americans talk about sex in public forums. She helped pave the way for our current era of sex positivity. But for all its merits, this climate has its own shortcomings (such as pressuring people to perform like professionals). It’s always been Dr. Ruth’s mission to strip sex of its cultural baggage, and that’s a message people still need to hear.
Ask Dr. Ruth is now playing in select theaters. It will be available on Hulu starting June 1.