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.

Dr. Ruth: That's true. So I talk out of experience.

Tom Foreman: Your parents sent you away from the Nazis when you were ten years old and your entire family died at Auschwitz.

Dr. Ruth: That's right. They were all exterminated in concentration camps. And when I went to then Palestine, which became Israel in 1948, and the first fellow who offered to marry me…we loved each other, and we are still good friends—but it wasn't a marriage forever. Then I met a gorgeous looking French guy and I married for one year and have a beautiful daughter, and then that didn't lead to a relationship. However, my late husband who passed away, he was Fred Westheimer. We were married for 37 years, and that was a marriage.

Tom Foreman: You were trained as a sniper?

Dr. Ruth: We were all trained in the forerunner of the Israeli Defense Force, and for some reason that I can't explain I'm a very good sniper. I can put five bullets into this little red circle (makes circle with her fingers). I know how to throw hand grenades. I've never killed anybody. I was badly wounded.

Tom Foreman: There was a bomb that went off in the barracks.

Dr. Ruth: Yes.

Tom Foreman: Many of your friends were wounded as well?

Dr. Ruth: Yes and died. Boy you did your homework.

Tom Foreman: Do you think that some of those experiences of your life made you bolder? Many people comment that the thing that strikes them about you is that you so fiercely walk into any culture and you ask very intimate questions.

Dr. Ruth: I am what you call bold because the one thing that I've learned coming out of Nazi Germany is that I have to stand up and be counted for what I believe. And that's how people are listening to me, because they know it's not a put-on.

Inside Base Camp's Tom Foreman on Work, Guests

Presidents and prisoners; scientists and soldiers; the heroic and the hated—all have sat down with National Geographic Channel Senior Anchor Tom Foreman as he has traveled the globe for the past 25 years. Starting out in small town radio in Alabama, he progressed through local television to join ABC Network News when he was 30. For a decade he covered virtually every major news story for World News Tonight, Nightline, 20/20 and Good Morning America.

Now, as host and managing editor of the Emmy Award-winning Inside Base Camp with Tom Foreman, he brings his years of experience—and dozens of riveting guests—to the National Geographic Channel at 12:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and Sundays at 11:00 a.m.

As the show's name implies, Foreman asks the intimate, revealing questions that cut to core of the passions that drive his guests.

Read an interview with Tom Foreman>>

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