Harry Mount

Sex and Society: Ruth and consequences

One of America’s most celebrated ‘sexologists’ tells Harry Mount that there are some problems she will not advise on

One of America’s most celebrated ‘sexologists’ tells Harry Mount that there are some problems she will not advise on

New York

‘I tell them about pressure, foreplay …I introduce them to a vibrator but I tell them never to get too used to it. The penis can never duplicate the vibrations of a vibrator.’

At 77, Dr Ruth Westheimer has still got the old magic. It remains as odd as ever to be taught orgasm lessons by a 4ft 6in grandmother who speaks with the seductive rolling ‘r’s and the guttural ‘achs’ of Marlene Dietrich. That this grandmother should have been orphaned by the Nazis, put on the last train out of Frankfurt to a Swiss orphanage in 1939, and wound up a crack sniper for the Haganah resistance against British rule in Palestine makes her incarnation as a sex therapist all the more grippingly weird, as well as curiously unsalacious.

‘When I first appeared on radio in 1981, no one objected, not even in the Midwest. It would have been different if I had been a 20-year-old with a short skirt and a décolletage.’

Dr Ruth no longer broadcasts, except for one-offs like a recent Valentine’s Day radio special, but she still lectures at Princeton, Yale and Cornell. Clearly, she likes the fame that grew out of the broadcasting. Her small surgery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is packed with sex-therapy books — The Joy of Gay Sex, I’m OK, You’re My Parents, Your Erroneous [sic] Zones, Guide to Getting It On and the complete Freud. On the wall are her doctorate from the US Board of Sexology and a presentation notice from the Friars Club, declaring her ‘The First Lady of Sexual Communication’. But the surgery is also lined with pictures of her tweaking Burt Reynolds’s moustache and being cuddled by Gérard Depardieu, Barbara Bush, Tom Selleck, Eddie Murphy and Danny DeVito.

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