Taking Sexy Back: Encounters with Dr. Ruth

by Rachel Edelman

I first encountered Dr. Ruth in my basement at age sixteen, crowded in with friends after a high school football game. As we lounged on the couch, she gazed directly at us, smiling from behind her desk, and answered her callers’ questions about sex.

When I first saw Dr. Ruth, I thought I must’ve been hallucinating; I was aghast she could be so graphic on Lifetime. But her German accent and high-necked dresses were disarming. Her subject was uncomfortable, but her appearance made it easier. “I was not a young woman sitting on television with a short skirt…I was already 50,” she told PBS’s Makers. Stripped of her own sexuality, she could break through social barriers with humor to offer her expertise.

Dr. Ruth provided supplementary sex ed for many Americans who came of age over the last thirty years. When I discovered her, I was surrounded by friends who giggled but never talked during her show. Others have discovered her on the radio, TV, or YouTube, where she takes questions from ordinary people and uses them to teach about safe sex. Her German accent unwittingly casts her in a Freudian tradition, but Dr. Ruth’s broadcasts provide frank, descriptive advice for prudish but lusty America. She pantomimes sexual acts with props; she’s as excited about cock rings as she is about condoms.

Dr. Ruth created her own brand of clinical yet fun sex advice, one that’s been replicated up by the likes of Dan Savage and others around the country.  She is skilled at broaching touchy subjects and passionate about public health. As a naïve adolescent, she was my teacher, honest and gentle about sex. But I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the discord between Dr. Ruth’s advice and her presentation. Now, she fascinates me because of the delicacy with which she has negotiated her feminism. Would Americans have listened to her if she had been a young woman in a short skirt? Did she desexualize herself for her audience because she knew a sexual woman would be threatening? Or is she simply playing the role of an educator, encouraging women to “take responsibility for [their] sexual satisfaction”?  She calls herself “Dr. Ruth,” not “Dr. Westheimer;” I wonder if it was her calculated choice (although it’s worth mentioning that Dr. Drew did the same a decade later on MTV).

If Dr. Ruth were simply an advice columnist, her identity might not puzzle me. But because she goes, invited, into her audience’s bedrooms, her personal identity seems crucial. So crucial, in fact, that the play Becoming Dr. Ruth has played in various regional theaters, starring Debra Jo Rupp (the mom from That 70's Show). It was only in reading the play’s reviews that I found out Dr. Ruth was an orphan of the Holocaust who then moved to Israel and became a scout and sniper in the army. She emigrated to the U.S. as a single mother; she taught at Cornell Medical School before hitting it big on broadcast. Her life story is inspiring, and her work is inherently feminist. But her physical appearance hearkens back to a demure, maternal image of an older women.

Of course, her public identity is her choice, and I feel like a bad feminist for broaching the issue. Now, instead of watching her on TV, I follow her on Twitter, where I see her sex advice alongside selfies with drag queens. As I read her tweets, I wonder how she can take self out of sex talk. She is an alternative to mainstream (nearly nonexistent) sex ed in America; she was my only real sex ed. Dressed in ruffles and blazers, holding diagrams of genitals, she taught me that sexuality is not something restricted to “sexy” actors and models; sexuality is as basic as humanity.

Rachel Edelman lives in Boulder, CO.