Sex therapist, child of the Holocaust, former sniper… Dr Ruth Westheimer has lived more than most. Now 90, she’s as busy as ever — and still has strong opinions on pornography and consent
Early this spring, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, famous as a time capsule of American history and culture, reached out to Dr Ruth Westheimer and asked her to donate an object to its vast collection. It’s there that you can find such iconic totems of Americana as the glittery red shoes Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz, or influential TV cook Julia Child’s kitchen, fully reassembled. Soon you will also be able to find the microphone that Westheimer used at WYNY, the New York radio station that helped cement her fame as a frank-talking sex therapist in 1981, in no small part thanks to her unmistakable accent.
“I’m very lucky, because it’s a combination of the German, the Hebrew, the Swiss, the French, and that accent helped because as soon as people heard it they knew it was me,” she says as she directs me around her tiny kitchen, filling the kettle for tea, retrieving a knife to cut a cheesecake. If you find yourself on TV talking about vaginas, penises and clitorises, an accent like Westheimer’s might also feel like a blessing. It’s hard to feel indignant or vexed when the person dishing advice on erectile dysfunction is a 90-year-old Jewish lady with long rolling R’s and a Munchkin giggle.
Humour and charm has long been Westheimer’s reflex for diffusing anxiety and shame. “In the Talmud, it says that a lesson taught with humour is a lesson retained,” she says. “I came from an Orthodox Jewish home so sex for us Jews was never considered a sin.” Has she never felt flummoxed by a question, or found herself blushing? Westheimer thinks for a moment. “The best answer to that is that when someone asked me a question about sex with animals, and I responded: ‘I’m not a veterinarian.’” She peers into a cupboard and frowns. “I want to find some tea, but I don’t find tea,” she muses. Not a problem, I assure her. Whatever is easiest. “Orange juice is easiest,” she says, producing a carton of Tropicana from the fridge.
We are in Manhattan where Westheimer has lived for 55 years in a two-bedroom apartment overlooking the Hudson River. From the window, she points to the other bank — a steep escarpment known as the Palisades. “That used to be for nuns, over there,” she says, indicating a monastery-style building. “And when it snows it’s beautiful.” In the wake of her ascent to fame…