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How Dr. Ruth Brought Radical Sexual Politics Out of the Shadows

Director Ryan White talks to Broadly about his new documentary on Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the legendary educator who took sex out of the bedroom and onto the dinner table.

by Joi Childs
Feb 7 2019, 6:50pm

Photo by Donna Svennevik/ABC via Getty Images

“Don’t just sit there and suffer. Don’t fake it. Don’t be unhappy and frustrated. But do something about it,” Dr. Ruth Westheimer says to television host Richard Heffner in an archived video from 1985. She was, of course, talking about women orgasming in a clip that was included in Ask Dr. Ruth, the documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week. The film is a perfect summation of Westheimer’s resilience throughout her 90 years of life and showcases her beliefs informed by her rough beginnings as a Holocaust survivor.

Born in Germany in 1928, Karola Ruth Siegel was the daughter of working-class Orthodox Jews. She calls herself an “orphan of the Holocaust,” having boarded the Kindertransport to Switzerland and losing communication with her parents a few years later. After WWII, she headed to Palestine and trained to be a sniper, seriously injuring herself but recovering. What followed this was three marriages, two children, a doctorate from Columbia University Teachers College, and postdoc research on human sexuality with Helen Singer Kaplan.

Westheimer became Dr. Ruth after receiving her doctorate in education (1970) and had her first media appearance in 1980. This quickly dived into the Dr. Ruth pop culture takeover of the 80s and 90s with successful books, TV shows (and even a board game), Dr. Ruth became a media icon. Her openness to speak about sex on such public platforms was radical for the time, bringing sex positivity to a large stage.

At the height of Westheimer's career, women were gaining more independence as aggressive additions to the professional workforce, thus dating more liberally, and the country was grappling with the HIV/AIDS crisis. It emboldened her to speak to her audience, active male and female attendees but skewed more female, about topics that were considered “taboo” at the time. Some of the salacious topics she covered on her show were about practicing safe sex, achieving female orgasms, and male premature ejaculation.

Director of the documentary, Ryan White, is a child of the 80s and was well aware of her prominence during the decade when he was approached for this film. “Dr. Ruth was ubiquitous,” he tells Broadly. “She was everywhere, whether it was on television or on radio or parodies or SNL characters playing her. So I knew who she was very well from my childhood and my teenage years. But I didn't know where she was now.”

White got an invite to have dinner with Westheimer and was enamored by her personality. Busy with other projects, he didn't have the bandwidth to do a documentary but Westheimer was persistent. “She would call me every day and say, ‘you know, I'm really interested in doing this.’ So I finally was like, ‘you know what, screw this. I have to carve out the time.’”

When watching this documentary it’s clear that Dr. Ruth on TV and radio is the same Dr. Ruth in real life. “This is not some character that she puts on,” White says. “She really is that kind and empathetic and positive, which is incredible considering what she survived.”

Her painful history as a Holocaust survivor made her empathetic to the battles other marginalized communities were facing. In one of the standout scenes during the documentary, Westheimer spoke about why she was so vocally pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ rights on her television program—when women’s battle for sexual liberation and the AIDS crisis was all over the news. She explained that her experience as a Jewish immigrant shaped her view that all people should be “treated with respect.” And she walked the talk, having worked at Planned Parenthood in Harlem in the 60s as a researcher, using the data on the women she worked with for her doctorate dissertation.

“[She] wasn't someone following the trend of like, ‘I've evolved on the issue of homosexuality.’ Or once abortion became legalized is then on the pro-choice train,” White expressed. “She was at the forefront of both of those things throughout her entire life. I met her friends from her orphanage saying even when she met gay people throughout her life in the 30s, 40s, and 50s she was always accepting of those people and always saying that people should be treated with respect.”

This was an inspiration on the director himself, who is an openly gay man. “I know a lot of my friends that are ten years, 15 years, 20 years older me that are gay, and we have some examples in the film of that, that say, ‘I can't believe you made a film on Dr. Ruth, that woman saved my life.’ And that to me is incredible that I can be a part of, as a gay person in the gay community, getting to tell the story.”

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Despite all of these bold stances, Westheimer has been adamant about not getting into politics. But at the Q&A during Sundance, her tune changed when speaking about refugees being separated at the border. “I don’t do politics,” she said to the audience. “I vote every single year that there’s voting. However, these days, I do stand up to be counted that I’m very, very sad when I see children being separated from their parents. What kind of society are we in that we permit that?”

White reflects on the relevancy of having a documentary centered on a Jewish immigrant during government shutdowns for border security funding. “It's almost sad how relevant it still is today,” he says. “It's almost sad that these issues that have bubbled up throughout her life, whether it's racism, genocide, homophobia, or misogyny, how they still they're still rippling today. And it’s one step forward, two steps back often.”

Westheimer’s journey is “a true immigrant story, a refugee story,” as White notes. That belief is at the core of this documentary and who she is as a sex education practitioner, mother, wife, and sympathizer. Throughout her life, Westheimer has taken her own advice and has not “sat there and suffered;” her life is one of action, always moving forward—even at 90 years old.