The world's most seasoned sexpert talks about her new book, the sex trend that most concerns her, and why she thinks tech is ruining our love lives.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Ruth
As western society becomes increasingly sexually-liberated and willing to have frank discussions about their romantic preferences and peccadilloes, an army of columnists, podcasters, and personalities have emerged to dole out advice to every conceivable sort of person. But these folks all stand on the shoulders of one four-foot, seven-inch giant: Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
America first became familiar with Dr. Ruth in the early '80s, her candid call-in sex therapy sessions catapulting her from New York radio to national TV. Over the following 35 years, the good doctor has become a household name and never stopped working, somehow finding the time to write scores of sex and relationship advice books between all her TV tapings and other media appearances.
Her latest book, Stay or Go, attempts to lay out a framework for evaluating the salvageability of a relationship on rocky shores. I chatted with Dr. Ruth about this and a few other titillating subjects.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: You’ve been giving public advice on sex and relationships for about four
decades now and have written dozens of books during that time. How do you keep
finding new things to write and talk about and avoid rehashing old topics?
Dr. Ruth Westheimer: I’m trying not to write about things that I have already written about because I don’t want to be bored—never mind the reader, it’s for me! But this one here is because I hear so many stories about people who are sitting on the fence. They’re unhappy, maybe they go to therapy, then they stop therapy, they just don’t know if they should end the relationship or not. So I thought that, from lots of advice on my Twitter, let’s get a little book. And I love the book. And I also like working with Amazon, they work very well, and I like that I have something new to say, that I don’t just talk again about sex education, or contraception, or AIDS, or orgasms or erections.
I talk a lot about relationships and, these days, my one concern is about loneliness. Despite all of the dating services, I do hear a lot about loneliness.
What would you say is the most common mistake that people make when they’re weighing out whether or not to stay with someone?
I wouldn’t say there that there’s one common [mistake], but a couple common [ones]. One is fear of being alone. One is [wondering] what will the people around me say? What is my family going to say? What are my friends going to say? So it’s a lot about what are other people going to say if I make the decision to go. Sometimes it’s important to use a therapist to make that decision, and sometimes even after therapy, people have to make that decision by themselves.
How does [the advice in your book] pertain to this kind of grim new reality where Americans are working longer hours for less real wage growth than in previous generations, basically working themselves to the bone just to get by? Can truly healthy relationships exist for an overworked underclass?
You have to really balance your work experience and the demands of the work and the demands of cultivating a relationship. And cultivating a relationship is not just the money that you bring home or gifts for Valentine’s Day. Cultivating a relationship is to make sure that both partners know that you value each other and that you make time for each other, even if you have to sacrifice some television viewing and have to say "I do have to talk to my partner." That holds true for straight or gay relationships. Relationships have to be cultivated.
Also, when you do get a chance to talk to each other, it’s very important to really listen carefully and to watch each other’s gestures and facial expressions in order to know there is something here that I have to pay attention to. I have to pay more attention to the needs of the other partner, of the other person.
Taking a step back to the loneliness aspect you mentioned. Many people reference our social media-connected world as bringing us together while also isolating us. What's your assessment?
I said that what’s going to happen with that younger generation that is addicted—I’m purposely using that word—to those phones so that they don’t even eat dinner without having that mechanical device next to them is going to be a catastrophe. It’s also going to be very bad physically because people are looking down all the time—they’re going to develop neck problems. But more importantly, I don’t have dinner with people—except if it’s a medical doctor who is on call—I do not have dinner with people who are addicted to watching their phones. Nothing is so important. Look, people who really have sick people at home, I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about people who are in situations where there is an emergency. But you and I are talking about people in general. This addiction to that mechanism in their hands is very worrisome, and it has an effect on the relationship. They don’t even look at each other! They cross the street without even pulling their eyes out of that phone.
Do you see any redeeming value to technology's increased role in our love lives?
Absolutely. Look, nobody today would write a love letter that will take two weeks to get there by mail. There are many redeeming factors—for example you can email or text your partner, "I’m really thinking of you right now, let’s have dinner out tonight, we should get a babysitter and have dinner out tonight, without the phones." Or, you can say something like, "I just passed by the theater, and if it’s okay with you I’m going to get us tickets for tomorrow night, text me back if it’s okay." So there are advantages.
How about the new normal of social media connecting us to all of our exes permanently? Can you see it possibly being healthy to maintain ongoing friendships with former lovers?
No, I don’t see that. I think that if there is a break, and if they listened and they didn’t stay, then I think they should make a break. They should give the other person the luxury of starting a new relationship without having all of the past dragging with them. Maybe after some time passes they can become friends. Not often.
Going beyond the communication aspect, it does seem that technology is becoming inextricably intertwined with our love lives. Do you have any concerns about some of the stuff on the horizon, like whether it’s healthy to date someone solely in a virtual reality space, or on the ethics of hiring a sex robot?
I’m now going to be 90 in June, and I don’t want anyone to be in a virtual space. I want them to be in a room, in privacy, to be able to hug, to kiss, to engage in foreplay, to caress, and to have good sex and to learn about giving each other pleasure.
No to sex robots either, then?
No! A sex robot of what?
Robots to have sex with. People are programming them now. The beta prototypes for them are already hitting the market.
You can tell everyone, Justin, you are a fortunate man, because I have never heard about that. But now you are going to be a very unhappy man, I’m against it!
What a couple in a relationship that is good and working can do is try a new sexual position and then tomorrow to call me, or you, so that I learn something new.
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