Pillbox

Dr. Ruth talks sex with CMU

First thoughts? The accent is real.

“I used to be a kindergarten teacher,” Dr. Ruth, MOSAIC 2006’s keynote speaker, said, stepping her 4’7” frame up to the podium, “so I know how to do this.”

Part of me really wished she’d already been talking about sex at that point.

In keeping with this year’s Milestones theme, Dr. Ruth Westheimer shared many key moments from her life — from her early childhood in Frankfurt, her adolescence in a Swiss children’s home, and her experience in the predecessor of the Israeli Defense Force. Her first marriage led her to Paris, where she directed a kindergarten and studied psychology at the Sorbonne. She had to pass a placement test because she lacked a high school diploma. Apparently, they only taught the girls home economics at the orphanage. Now, she’s an award-winning author with all kinds of official and honorary doctorates. So it goes.

Before this morning, the most I knew of Ruth Westheimer was my brother’s impersonation the last time our family played Cranium. I knew about the accent. I know that, to some, the concept of sex psychotherapy is a joke. Entering a lecture titled “Soldier, Sex Therapist, & Mother of the Year: Milestones in the Life of Dr. Ruth,” I scoffed about my disinterest in her life and history to some friends. You know, before I learned she’d single-handedly conquered life against all odds.

So, what, I’m superficial, and maybe a little sex-starved. But I wasn’t the only one in that audience who was really just there to hear about orgasms — and Dr. Ruth seemed to know that. She said she had gotten hired at Planned Parenthood and thought, “There’s something wrong with these people — all they ever talk about is sex, not literature or politics.” She quickly changed her mind.

It wasn’t until the latter half of the session that Ruth started talking about the topic we were all waiting for. She described herself as a turtle — you can only move if you stick your neck out, right? But that leaves you vulnerable. She said she was very explicit, but actually “old fashioned and a square.” When her late husband Fred was still alive she never let him sit in on any of her talks, except for that one time she was on 60 Minutes. Fred was wild about Diane Sawyer, who’d asked, “Mr. Westheimer, how is your sex life?” To which Fred had replied, “The shoemaker’s children don’t have any shoes.”

I appreciated Dr. Ruth’s frankness and her unassuming attitude. I mean, it’s not like she was forcing anything on us. She said, “the more we talk, the less we will have problems,” attempting to dispel some common myths about sexuality — one being that American women don’t masturbate. Others being that if you masturbate, your hair falls out, you’ll end up needing glasses, and hair grows on your palms. She complimented the self-control of Carnegie Mellon students at this point, because apparently everyone at Harvard Law looked at their hands when she said that.

Westheimer talked about her experience writing Sex for Dummies and how she hadn’t been interested when they first approached her, saying, “No, I talk to intelligent people” — people who ask questions about how her background as an orthodox Jew has affected her advice to others. She said, clearly, to “do as your values decree.” Each individual has to make decisions about abstinence and his own sexuality for himself.

Still, “sex sells,” and Ruth talked about that too, claiming she’s the first to pick a new sexy headline up off the newsstands, because “God forbid you should know something about sex that I don’t know.” Certainly nobody complained when she assigned us all homework: for women, sit in your car, doing your Kegel exercises (clenching and unclenching the vaginal muscles) at a red light. Then look into the car next to you and wink. Men were instructed to go home, bring themselves to a full erection in front of a mirror and stand there for a while, admiring it. Additional homework involved making a CD of all the important music in your life for your children and grandchildren. Those with partners were told to go home and try a new position.

Westheimer had opened her talk by inviting students to write questions on cards to be answered at the end of her session. She encouraged audience members to fill the first rows, promising them a lifetime of good sex. “I see that Carnegie Mellon listens very carefully when I talk about sex,” she said later, “especially the ones who moved forward. You can call me tomorrow and tell me if it worked.”

I was still sitting in the back.