Magazine article The Spectator

Ruth and Consequences

Magazine article The Spectator

Ruth and Consequences

Article excerpt

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 20year-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.

Also dotted around the room are tortoises -- small gold ones and big, fluffy green and orange ones. 'I think of myself as a tortoise.

I've had to carry my house on my back. The tortoise can stay still if it wants, hidden in its shell, but if it wants to move it's got to stick its neck out. I've had to stick my neck out a few times.' But it is her love of sorting out couples' sexual problems rather than television fame that still brings her to this room several days a week from her apartment up in Washington Heights in the far north-west of Manhattan, where she has lived for 41 years. Over those years, she thinks that the Western attitude to sex has improved. 'I'm optimistic. People are more tolerant about things like homosexuality. There are fewer unwanted pregnancies, there's more education, there's more contraception. And I don't just mean single mothers. There are fewer unwanted pregnancies within marriage, too. I think the number of divorces will go down, too, as couples realise that the grass isn't always greener.

'There hasn't been a moral disintegration.

People look at Sex and the City and say that values are falling apart. There's nothing wrong with those programmes. The only thing wrong is, anyone who thinks it's reality is going to be disappointed. There aren't 20 men in this city who will take girls to Paris, buy them jewellery and fancy clothes. The same goes for men who put off being married because of some Hollywood fantasy of endless sex. What happens is that they go to work, they come back from work, and that's it. The great sexual adventures don't happen.' The sexual problems that Dr Ruth deals with have remained much the same through her career: men who have difficulties with erections and premature ejaculation; women who can't have orgasms and suffer from pain during sex. …

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