Dr. Ruth: Sex Sage and Ex-Sniper on Global Sexuality

By Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
June 11, 2003

The first time I talked to Dr. Ruth Westheimer was on the phone. I called her home in New York to explain what National Geographic wanted to know from the world's most famous sex therapist. I had prepared my arguments in case she was reticent: about how we wanted to discuss cultural differences in sex around the world, her work with children's education, her extraordinary life. I need not have bothered.

"Hello, Tom!" The voiced that launched a million nervous giggles came through the receiver and lit up the room. And it was clear in a flash, Dr. Ruth simply wanted to establish a personal relationship before diving into coitus garrulous.

This 4-foot-7-inch-tall (140 centimeters), German born, Jewish grandmother is all about relationships… between men and women, old and young, lovers and friends. As she walks into my studio, she instinctively hugs shoulders, pats hands, and touches the arms of everyone she sees. She fills the space around her with warmth, compassion, intelligence, and caring; and for Dr. Ruth, these qualities are the underpinnings of sex the whole world over.

Tom Foreman: Do you think that people really are the same everywhere—no matter their culture, no matter their religion—that sexually, we're all doing the same things?

Dr. Ruth: You said it very well, Tom—sexually we are doing the same things. That's how babies are made. However, there are some differences in terms of cultural background, in terms of religious backgrounds, in terms of premarital sexual relations, in terms of being able to talk about issues of sexuality. For example, in Israel I did a little survey, about Bedouins who did come to clinics. And the men did say that they have difficulties with their erections—they made that gesture (holding up her finger), but they would never say it.

Tom Foreman: If somebody said, "Sum up the American sexual persona," what would you say?

Dr. Ruth: Look, first of all, we are a country with many different cultures, many different backgrounds. What I have seen in the last 20 years, since I started the radio program, and what I see in my private practice is the change is not about the problems. The problems that people bring to me or that they talk about are the same—of premature ejaculation, of women not being able to have sexual satisfaction. What definitely has changed in this country is the vocabulary—people are more explicit, people are more sexually literate. And I welcome this. There is more of an awareness that sex is not only for procreation; that it certainly is for recreation. Look at the smile on you!

Tom Foreman: My smile is going to get me into trouble. But some years ago, people made a big deal of the notion that Europeans and other people were much freer about sex, and that we were a prudish nation—are we?

Dr. Ruth: No. You see it's true that there are myths that have filtered down throughout the ages. For example, the Victorian mother who told her daughter the night of the wedding, "Lie back and think of England, there is nothing in it for you!" (Laughter) When I compare, and I didn't do a scientifically validated study, but I travel a lot [and] it is not true that we [Americans] are more prudish. What is true is it's a little different—for example, in England you know that there is a magazine that every single day has to have breasts on page three…of a naked woman. We have that in Penthouse and Playboy, but not in a magazine that comes to the house.

Tom Foreman: You have said that you personally are a little bit prudish about some things.

Dr. Ruth: I am very old fashioned, Tom, and a square. (Laughter) I believe in love. I believe in relationships. I believe in people staying together for a lifetime or as long as possible.

Tom Foreman: You say that from the context of having had some marriages that didn't work out.

Continued on Next Page >>


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