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Has Dr. Ruth Gone From Sex Pioneer to Angry Bubbe?

The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre By Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer
Amazon Publishing $14.95 206 Pages

In the past, I’ve gotten some good life lessons from my 86-year-old grandmother. They have ranged from “survival doesn’t ask if you’re a swine” (that’s how she explains getting out of Theresienstadt concentration camp alive) to “it’s not enough to make you happy” (that’s what she said about a particularly well-endowed man she treated when she was working as a doctor). Perhaps that’s why I felt compelled to read Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer’s latest book, “The Doctor Is in: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life and Joie de Vivre.” Surely, Dr. Ruth — the 87-year-old sex therapist and media personality — has had her share of impressive and traumatic life experiences and must have some universal truths to share.

“The Doctor Is In” is a chatty, 190-page autobiography sprinkled with life lessons. Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Wiesenfeld, Germany, in 1928, Dr. Ruth survived the Holocaust in a Swiss boarding school, while her parents perished. She moved to Palestine after the war and joined the Haganah, only to become wounded by a shell during the War of Independence. She followed her first husband to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. With her second husband, she came to New York; there she got a divorce, and raised her daughter alone until she met Fred Westheimer, to whom she was married from 1961 until his death in 1997. She worked in public health, studied at the New School, Columbia and Cornell, started her own private practice as a sex therapist, and, in 1981, got her own radio show called “Sexually Speaking.” Numerous TV shows, teaching engagements at Ivy League schools, and 38 books followed.

Dr. Ruth got famous for talking publicly about sexuality; her latest book promises “insights into living life to the fullest, at any age.” I was sold. It’s sometimes challenging for me to find — and pronounce — “joie de vivre,” so I could do with some advice on how to get it. The chapter names are basically inspirational quotes: “Always Move Forward,” “Going After What You Want in Life,” “Take Risks.” I briefly considered translating them into Latin and making them into tattoos. Then I decided to read what she has to say first.

The bottom line of her advice seems to be quite straightforward: It’s best to be in a relationship. First, when it comes to having sex: No experimenting, please. Dr. Ruth likes to emphasize that she’s “old-fashioned and a square,” and offers a vague definition of what that means. “I want people in a relationship to have the best sex possible,” she writes, adding that she is not in favor of “some of these modern sexual practices such as ‘friends with benefits.’” I see. She writes that growing up in an Orthodox home shaped her view on what is acceptable, so although contraception, legal access to abortion and masturbation are fine, one-night stands are too modern. My grandmother, who was married for roughly half a century, offered me more liberal advice when I started university: “Don’t jump into bed with everyone.”

Second, as Dr. Ruth writes, if you find yourself as a single mother, as she did, do all you can to find someone to share the burden of child-raising. Dr. Ruth separated from her second husband when her daughter Miriam was 1 year old. “I knew he had no money and was unlikely to have any soon, so I didn’t expect or ask for support,” she writes, and proceeds to discourage anyone else from the idea of single parenthood. Given that single mothers already face enough stigma and hardship (almost 40% of single-mother families in the United States live in poverty), Dr. Ruth’s judgmental attitude is anything but supportive of this frequently disadvantaged group.

What neatly follows is some advice on how to find a partner, no matter if you’re a single parent or just a lonely single sick of masturbating alone: Don’t obsess about it, but don’t leave it to chance, either. Oh, and, if you’re a single mom, find someone to watch your child while you go off on skiing weekends and parties.

When she turns to the issue of body image, I find myself relieved — at least at first. No danger of single-shaming here, I think. Don’t keep yourself covered up or have sex in the dark, she writes, because the insecurity may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and turn off your partner. Got it. Our bodies exist to please — someone else. Encouraging news, ladies: “Keep in mind that larger thighs may be accompanied by larger breasts, which may be more his focus.” Thanks, Dr. Ruth. Are we at a cattle market?

The book also includes guidance on how to interact with people from different cultures (we have to treat everyone equally, including Germans born after World War II, and the Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel in 1991, a “primitive people” leaving a “backward culture”), some wise words on what she calls “electronic gizmos” such as smartphones (use them to find people, but once you’re with them, put them away), and lots of insight into the struggles of being a celebrity: She jokes about not knowing much about pop culture, and writes that she calls Paul McCartney “the Beatle” because she can’t remember his name. That’s probably the most helpful piece of advice here: Next time Tom Brady asks me to grab coffee, I don’t need to pretend I know anything about the Super Bowl.

While I appreciate and respect Dr. Ruth’s endeavor to make the issue of sexual health less of a shameful subject, I wish she would fully acknowledge that sex doesn’t happen in a social vacuum, and can thus be subject to changing standards. As for life advice, I think I’ll stick with my grandmother for now.

Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s culture fellow.

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