DR. RUTH WESTHEIMER : THE ANATOMY OF ‘GOOD SEX!’ STAR
In the early days of network television, one of the first big stars was Miss Frances and her preschool “Ding Dong School.”
Now, the new world of cable television has produced a star of its own: Dr. Ruth Westheimer and her adult talk show, “Good Sex!”
While times have changed, still, by any measure, Dr. Ruth is a hit. After debuting “Good Sex!” on Lifetime cable last August, she quickly doubled the ratings of the show she replaced and has since doubled her own ratings, being seen weekly by some 2 million viewers. The program, which started as a half hour, was expanded to an hour in January.
She also has a highly rated weekly radio show, “Sexually Speaking,” carried on 52 stations around the country (9 p.m. Sundays on KFI in Los Angeles). And she’s the author of a best-selling book, “Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex,” with a new book for young people, “First Love,” in the works.
Her popularity makes her a sought-after talk show guest, and she’s frequently imitated, satirized and talked about on other shows . . . a fact that bothers her not a whit. After all, she says, imitation is the sincerest form of . . . and she leaves the sentence dangling.
How does she explain her popularity?
“Well, they don’t tune in for arousal,” she said in her high-pitched German accent. “At 4-foot-7 and age 57, I’m not a sex symbol.”
So her success, she believes, comes from the need in our society to know about human sexuality and relationships. “Despite the fact that we can send a man to the moon, we can’t handle relationships,” she says to make her point.
Dr. Ruth feels she has the academic and clinical background to disseminate that needed information. An orphan refugee from Germany, she worked in public health after coming to this country in 1956, and earned degrees from New York’s New School for Social Research, Columbia University and Cornell. Her interest in sex therapy began while working for Planned Parenthood in New York in 1967.
“I’m well trained. I do not talk around issues, I talk in the proper terminology. I’m a little gutsy,” she said. And so she is, filling her conversation with TV reporters here with parts of the anatomy not frequently mentioned in public.
While she feels it’s important to talk openly about sexuality, the key is to do so with respect and reverence to religious, ethical and moral beliefs. “I’ll often suggest to people that they talk to their priest or minister or rabbi or to a social worker. I think that’s one reason I have such little criticism,” she says.
Dr. Ruth doesn’t pretend to be an on-air problem solver. In fact, she emphasizes that she--and other on-air therapists--can’t and shouldn’t attempt to solve the personal problems of those who call in.
“What I do on the air is NOT therapy,” she insists. “I am a therapist and I do have a private practice. But you can’t possibly provide therapy on a TV program. On the air, I try to educate, give the same advice a well-meaning aunt would give,” she says.
She’s offended when people go on programs and supposedly “reveal for the first time” a problem. “The producer knew of that experience beforehand, and that’s why the person is on the show . . . and then the producer told the host. In effect you’re lying to the audience. I do not believe in such activities.”
That’s part of the reason she uses celebrities and not everyday people as guests on “Good Sex!,” which Lifetime now runs twice each night Monday through Friday, at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., and Saturdays at 11 p.m.
“Also, say I ask a painful question of a guest and they honestly reply. But then the program is over and they leave the studio. They’ve opened up a painful subject, but I’ve just said goodby, so who is there to pick up the pieces?
“So I do the show with actors and actresses and they love talking, and it works fine.”
She compared “Good Sex!” to a soap opera, saying viewers can relate to the issues being discussed. “After all,” she said, “what do you see on soap operas? Across America, nothing is more interesting than what happens in people’s bedrooms.
“On my show, people tune in and listen to various problems and suddenly a light goes off and they say, ‘that’s happening to me. Let’s go for help.’ ”
And if that happens, then she’s done what she hopes to do: educate and inform.
While her radio and TV shows are directed at adults, she’s aware that youngsters also tune in. “No one has to tell 14 and 15 year olds to go to bed Sunday nights (when her radio show airs). They’re there under the covers with their radio headphones on, listening,” she said, her eyes twinkling with delight.
“But that’s OK because (1) what they hear is correct information with proper terminology and (2) this kind of program gives parents the opportunity to talk with their children on issues that are important. Sex is a private matter, but after listening or watching the program, it’s an opening to say, ‘Did you hear that?’ and pick up on the subject.”
She pointed out that there are 1.5 million unwanted pregnancies in this country each year, and that’s not only among youngsters from poor socio-economic backgrounds. “It’s the result of ignorance . . . the result of pre-Victorian mothers who tell their daughters on their wedding nights, ‘You’re probably not going to like it, but just lie back and think of England.’
“I also have girls tell me, ‘My girlfriend told me the first night you can’t get pregnant . . . I didn’t think I’d get pregnant if I did it standing up . . . I didn’t enjoy it so I didn’t think I could get pregnant.’
“This is 1985 ignorance,” she said, her voice rising with frustration over such lack of sexual knowledge. “I’m old fashioned and square. I DO believe in relationships. I know one-night stands exist, but good sex functions best with a relationship. And it’s important to remember that sex is not everything. There’s also love, caring, companionship and the raising of children.”
Because of the sexual evolution--not a revolution, she says--in recent years resulting from technical data available from Masters and Johnson and other sex therapists, Dr. Ruth believes programs like hers are now possible.
“We can now talk about every issue of sex without question. It’s important to clarify the myths and talk about it.”
And the more she talks, the more widespread her fame . . . and she’s enjoying every moment of it. “Do I like having a hair dresser coming in to comb my hair at seven in the morning, and wearing all the pretty dresses and traveling first class? Yes, I love it!
“I love doing the shows not only for these reasons, but in order to educate and say to people if there is a problem, get help!”