August 23, 2018

Dr. Ruth Westheimer Paved the Way to American Sexual Knowledge

As of 2018, sex is fairly ubiquitous in the U.S. media, but for decades, the environment was much more of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" when it came to any form of sex in the United States.  In spite of humanity's continued perpetuation in the U.S. (proof that people were, in fact, having sex), open discussion of sex was still considered evil, at least when it came to conversations, or even having knowledge of sex.

But before 1980, open discussion of human sexuality or anything related to it, were seldom if ever done in public in the U.S., except perhaps for when discussing zoning requirements (usually restrictions) for pornographic movie theaters, or maybe a debate about public school funding for sex education.  That was at least part of the reason that the incidence of teenage pregnancies, subsequently abortions, and later HIV/AIDS infections were all so prevalent in the U.S. at the time, because too many people really did not know any better.  Ignorance was NOT bliss.

The late 1960's brought with it the era of Baby Boomer-led feminism (aided by the introduction of the first female birth control pill).  Although the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment had stalled by the mid-to-late-1970's (and failed to secure the necessary state votes to amend the U.S. Constitution), there was nevertheless a newfound awareness of female sexuality in U.S. society.  A vibrant publishing industry led the way with books including "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and "The Joy of Sex" (catch my post on that at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2017/02/joy-of-sex-our-bodies-ourselves-became.html for more) as well as various magazines, including Playboy whose nude centerfolds first premiered in 1952, but were aided by the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. California that dramatically narrowed and simplified the definition of obscenity, which resulted in a new, nationwide subscriber base for the publication and dramatically fewer obscenity prosecutions nationwide.  Beyond that, events such as the Stonewall riots also happened in 1969, ushering in a new era of LGBT visibility and demands for Constitutionally-protected legal rights which gained steam in the 1970's which were non-existent when the group remained closeted and invisible.

But times were rapidly changing; with new attitudes and perspectives upending decades of religious dogma that had infiltrated U.S. laws from communities to the country as a whole.  We can attribute at least some of it to the massive Baby Boomer demographic cohort.  Along with them, Boomers helped introduce the U.S. to women's liberation, widespread birth control, gay rights and a host of other issues that were previously never even acknowledged.  The stage was set for more a honest dialogue about human sexuality.

In 1980, WYNY (a now-defunct radio station) was a struggling New York City Adult Contemporary station which had recently gone through a makeover in an attempt to build an audience.  Part of this rebuild was adding specialized talk shows to the evening and weekend hours.  In September of 1980, WYNY launched a 15-minute pre-recorded segment that aired on Sunday nights after midnight.  The segment was called "Sexually Speaking" and it featured a unique host who was a German immigrant who had lived in Switzerland, Israel, and France before immigrating to the U.S. in 1956.  One year later, it became a live show, and it was so successful that the station expanded it to a one-hour show airing at 10:00 PM on which Dr. Ruth Westheimer (or Dr. Ruth, as she became known) answered call-in questions from listeners.

Below is a recording of Dr. Ruth Westheimer's original New York radio broadcast from 97.1 FM on WYNY recorded in June 1982.  The recording is below, or you can listen by visiting https://youtu.be/Oy3-WNv3AI0:



Dr. Ruth, who is a psychosexual therapist who helped to pioneer the field of media psychology with her original radio program, "Sexually Speaking".  As noted, she was born in Germany in 1928, but she was sent to a children’s home in Switzerland at the age of ten which became an orphanage for most of the German Jewish students who had been sent there to escape the Holocaust.  At age 17, she went to Israel where she fought for that country's independence as a member of the Haganah, the Jewish freedom fighters.  She then moved to Paris where she studied at the Sorbonne and taught kindergarten.  She immigrated to the U.S. in 1956 where she obtained her Masters Degree in Sociology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School of Social Research.  In 1970, she received a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D.) in the Interdisciplinary Study of the Family from Columbia University Teacher's College.

Although Dr. Ruth did not have a classic radio voice, she certainly had the expertise, the candor, and a disarming personality that made her an overnight radio star (she was already a medical doctor, so she really did not need radio as many other radio hosts do).  In a truthful, direct, and entertaining way, she truthfully answered blunt and honest questions about sex and sexuality that WYNY listeners called in (see some of the New York Times archived coverage from the mid-1980's at https://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/04/style/a-voice-of-sexual-literacy.html and https://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/01/magazine/merchandising-dr-ruth.html for more).

Within a year after the fifteen-minute midnight program began in New York, "Sexually Speaking" had become so popular that it was expanded into a daily, one-hour live call-in show.  National syndication followed soon thereafter, and then the U.S. was introduced to the charming, irrepressible, and transparent Dr. Ruth.  A very nice article can be found at Interview magazine at https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/dr-ruth-westheimer-westheimer-cecile-richards-april-issue-2018-interview which covers her evolution as one of the country's (and indeed, the world's) foremost sex therapists from her early work in the U.S. working at Planned Parenthood, to her latter day celebrity.

Dr. Ruth's celebrity status eventually landed her a national TV show (some archives of her old TV show can be found at ShoutFactoryTV http://www.shoutfactorytv.com/series/dr-ruth in which she speaks with Burt Reynolds, Joan Rivers, Richard Simmons to name a few of Hollywood's celebrities the diminutive celebrity sex therapist has gotten to know over the years.

Dr. Ruth also helped pave the way for a somewhat similar program that originally ran on Canadian television known as the Sunday Night Sex Show (which was branded as Talk Sex with Sue Johanson in the U.S.) with host Sue Johanson, who was also an older talk show host who was a Registered Nurse (rather than an MD, as was the case with Dr. Ruth).  The latter show lasted until 2008, but it was carried on U.S. cable television.  On May 11, 2008, the last live episode of Talk Sex was broadcast. After 174 episodes of the phenomenally successful show host, then at the age of 76, decided to hang up her dildos and depart from television.  But she still maintains a website at http://www.talksexwithsue.com/ even though she is now retired.

Regardless of their similarities. the original Dr. Ruth herself has never disappeared.

Far from it.

But perhaps Dr. Ruth has established older women as experts in the field, whereas men dominate in most other areas.  Indeed, she seems to revel in her role as celebrity sex therapist to the masses.

Today, Dr. Ruth still maintains a very active presence as a frequent guest on daytime television in traditional media, and in the online world, with a YouTube show at https://www.youtube.com/user/drruth and she also maintains a very active presence on Twitter as well at @AskDrRuth on Twitter.  Her goal was always to educate Americans about sex, because she believes that education can solve many issues that can become problems without an open dialogue.  Her early years on the radio revealed that many women and men alike had questions about sex, sometimes easy-to-answer, but often lacked a viable outlet to address those very basic questions.

An introduction to Dr. Ruth's YouTube Channel can be found at https://youtu.be/holCQf1GxZU or seen below.


Below are several links, both historical and current, giving a sampling of the tiny woman's huge presence on the topic of American sexual literacy over the years.  At age 89, Dr. Ruth shows no signs of slowing down.  Many Americans remain eternally grateful this height-challenged (indeed, Dr. Ruth Westheimer's height is just 4'7") fan favorite has left an indelible mark not only on sexual literacy, but popular culture as well.

https://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/04/style/a-voice-of-sexual-literacy.html

http://www.shoutfactorytv.com/series/dr-ruth

https://www.npr.org/2013/04/05/168488453/dr-ruth-lets-talk-about-sex

https://www.wnyc.org/people/ruth-westheimer/

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