A casual dial twirler who alights on New York City’s WYNY most Sunday nights is in for a shock. “Uh, hi,” a phone-in caller is saying. “My girlfriend and I just broke up over something stupid. If she eats a crunchy peanut butter sandwich she gets very horny. But there are certain things I don’t think are right. If I go to bed with someone, I don’t want to go to bed with her and peanut butter…”
The consoling reply comes in a heavy Teutonic accent that sounds like Molly Goldberg imitating Henry Kissinger. “Look, I understand,” Dr. Ruth Westheimer says reassuringly. “If both people would like to go to bed with peanut butter, I would say that as long as you use contraceptives, that’s all right. The moment only one person likes peanut butter and the other doesn’t, then you have to take a stand.”
The improbable hostess of one of the nation’s most unusual radio call-in programs—Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s Sexually Speaking—is once again dispensing her unique advice. It mixes blunt talk (words like “orgasm” pop up more frequently than commercials) and common sense (“Go to the movies instead,” she recently advised a man with a sexually insatiable girlfriend). Every Sunday night at 10 o’clock the tiny (4’7″), graying, 53-year-old Westheimer counsels an audience of more than 85,000 listeners on how to improve their sex lives, often signing off with a cheery “Have good sex!” After just six months with her hour-long show on the NBC-owned FM station in Manhattan, Dr. Ruth (as her grateful fans call her) has attracted top ratings in her time slot and a passionate following. To test audience reaction back in September, WYNY briefly offered free Dr. Ruth T-shirts that read “Sex on Sundays? You Bet!” and received 3,500 orders.
“I love it, I love it,” Westheimer giggles. “I love all the attention. Who would have thought two years ago I’d be going to Saks to have my hair done? Who would have thought that I’d ever get $55,000 for a book contract [from Warner Books]? When I came to this country, I was earning 750 an hour as a cleaning woman.”
Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany, she was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish home until 1939 when, fearing Nazi pogroms, her parents sent her to an orphanage in Switzerland. She never saw them again but believes they died in a concentration camp in Eastern Europe. At 16, she emigrated to Israel, where she dropped her German first name. She joined a kibbutz north of Haifa and turned into a fervent Zionist, determined to apply herself to picking olives and tomatoes. Instead, she drifted into academe after she was wounded, on her 20th birthday, in a shelling that almost cost her her legs. Equipped with a lot of chutzpah and certificates entitling her to be a kindergarten teacher and a housemaid, she returned to Europe in 1951 and took courses in psychology from the Sorbonne. She came to this country in 1956 without a high school diploma. Three years later she got her master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City.
In 1967, while she was training Planned Parenthood staff members, her interest in human sexuality was piqued. “People would ask me questions about sex, and I realized I didn’t know enough to answer,” she says. To compensate, she trained as a sex therapist at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.
To some, Dr. Ruth sounds like a libertine who thinks that anything goes as long as it’s not dangerous and is practiced by consenting adults. But she leavens her comments with a dose of conventional morality. She is adamant about spreading birth control information, and some sexual behavior gets an automatic veto from Dr. Ruth: pedophilia (child molesting), incest and sado-masochism.
Averaging 600 calls per show, Dr. Ruth is obviously not turning off her audience. The station recently gave her the use of a silver Cadillac, and producers have been calling about syndication deals. So far Dr. Ruth is taking her acclaim in good humor—as does third husband Fred Westheimer, an engineer at ITT. “There is an underlying current of jealousy from some people,” he admits. “They say, ‘You’re so lucky being married to a sex therapist.’ I just remind them that the shoemaker’s children always go barefoot.”