To be a telephone screener at The Dr. Ruth Show circa 1985 was to engage in a war of attrition. During every taping of the one-hour program airing on Lifetime, more than 3000 people would attempt to call in hoping to speak to Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a sex therapist who stood a diminutive 4 feet, 7 inches tall but loomed large in popular culture.
Reaching Westheimer was a long shot: Fewer than six calls would actually get on the air. Those who did manage to speak with her would be treated to a barrage of advice on everything from contraception to intercourse while inside of a moving car. (“You could have a serious accident!” she admonished.)
In an era that still had strict guardrails around what could and couldn’t be discussed on television and radio, Dr. Ruth’s disarming approach—to talk about sex not for titillation but for education—became a sensation across virtually all kinds of media, from TV to books to board games. But not everyone appreciated such open communication about sex. Nor did everyone realize that the charming therapist was once trained as a sniper and could strip a rifle and deploy a grenade just as readily as she dispensed advice.
Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany in 1928, Westheimer saw the last of her father when she was just 10 years old and a sweeping war was imminent: He was escorted away by the Gestapo as she watched. Shortly after—and to keep her safe—Westheimer’s family sent her away to Switzerland. She never saw her parents again and learned only later that they had died during the Holocaust.
From there, Westheimer immigrated to Palestine and joined the Haganah, the precursor to the Israeli Defense Force, where she was trained as a scout and sniper. Though she claimed she never killed anyone, the experience later led to rumors that she had.
She hadn’t, but Westheimer was wounded in an explosion in 1948, when she was a student. “For a short period of time, I served in the Haganah,” she said in 2015. “In 1948, on my 20th birthday, I got badly wounded by a shell exploding near me, killing the girl next to me and some others, but I never killed anyone as a sniper. I don’t know why they picked me to become a sniper. They must have found out that I could put five bullets in the red target circle.”
Some time in Paris was followed by a move to New York, where she earned a doctorate in education from Teachers College at Columbia University, with post-doctoral research into human sexuality. Westheimer worked in private practice as well as at Planned Parenthood, which sparked an interest in sex education. Then, in 1980, she got an offer to host a radio show at a New York station, WYNY-FM.
“There was a law in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey that any radio program had to have a
component of community affairs,” Westheimer said in 2016. “So a letter came to Cornell University
Medical Center, where I was training to be a sex therapist. Would one of us address the meeting of community affairs managers? Nobody wanted to, because there was no money attached, but I said, ‘I’ll go.’ Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would turn into a program.”
Sexually Speaking was a call-in show that invited listeners to have discussions they might not have felt comfortable having in person, or with their names and identities involved.
Following the hedonistic ’60 and ‘70s, America was entering a new phase of sexual hesitancy. HIV and AIDs were in the news but poorly understood; “free love” was over. Westheimer could contextualize questions and respond in a manner that, with her clipped German accent, led some to dub her “Grandma Freud.” (Sigmund Freud, however, was Austrian.) She advocated for relationships but didn’t ignore that sex was, for some, transient. She busted myths about pregnancy, diseases, and masturbation—all topics, that, if handled with more prurient context, might earn a broadcaster a fine. (In 1992, for example, radio personality Howard Stern’s discussion of sexual topics forced three stations to each pay a $6000 Federal Communications Commission penalty. The FCC later heaped fines on Stern: $1.7 million in 1995 and $1.75 million in 2004, respectively.)
Still, WYNY didn’t take many chances with the show. For one, it was only 15 minutes long. For another, it aired after midnight, which would minimize the possibility of minors listening in. The radio show eventually expanded to two hours and aired on 78 stations to better reflect Westheimer’s growing popularity. When the station offered a Dr. Ruth t-shirt, it got 3500 orders.
“She can seemingly say things on the air that no one else can these days, even on Sunday nights, when men of the cloth are preaching hellfire and brimstone up and down the radio dial,”The New York Times wrote of the Dr. Ruth phenomenon in 1985. “This could be because she is short and sweet and takes her subject seriously.”
Westheimer’s height was a popular focus of profiles. “Munchkin of sex boogies through life” was one headline. Referring to her as “elfin” or “elfin-like” was almost a prerequisite.
But her profile loomed large, and television soon came calling. Good Sex! With Dr. Ruth Westheimer premiered on Lifetime, a fledging cable network, in August 1984. It was soon retitled The Dr. Ruth Show to better reflect the therapist’s name recognition. In addition to taking calls, she would chat with stars (Burt Reynolds, Joan Rivers, Cyndi Lauper). The show drew 1.5 million to 2 million viewers nightly, making it Lifetime’s most successful show. For many, it was the first time they had heard phrases like erectile dysfunction or vagina on television.
But Westheimer was quick to dispel any notions she was actually treating people over the air. “What I do on the air is not therapy,” she said of her media ventures. “I try to educate, give the same advice a well-meaning aunt would give.”
The Dr. Ruth persona stretched far beyond broadcasting. Her success led to countless books doling out sex advice. There was a board game, Dr. Ruth’s Game of Good Sex, that Westheimer compared to Trivial Pursuit. She appeared in commercials for LifeStyles condoms, which made some sense, and Smith-Corona typewriters, which didn’t. But Westheimer’s enthusiasm was infectious, and her spirited persona made for an effective spokesperson.
She also kept her private practice, seeing patients 15 hours a week. “That’s how I know what’s going on out there,” she said. “I’m not just a starlet who is being told ‘read this’ and ‘do that.’”
But not everyone was won over. In 1985, someone attempted to make a citizen’s arrest of her during a university lecture owing to offense over her frank sex talk. And in 1986, Anchorage Daily News dropped her sex advice column, citing her “style of provocation.”
Of her critics, Westheimer had a succinct response. “I tell them, ‘I respect your opinion [but change] your dial.’”
The march of Dr. Ruth shows trailed off in the 1990s along with the board games and shirts. Now 95, Westheimer is demure about her success, saying that “someday this will be over and someone else will be big.” Decades later, sex advice personalities have come and gone, but no one has been bigger than Dr. Ruth.