For the second issue of Garage Magazine, I did something I never thought I’d have to do: I listened, with a straight face, mind you, to a woman in her 80s so things like “premature ejaculation” and “kinky.” The things that I do for the sake of investigative journalism. But Dr. Ruth, to me, is a cult icon, and I jumped at the chance to speak to her about her non-traditional life. From Israeli sniper to television phenomenon to the world’s best known and foremost sex therapist, she has seen and said some amazing things. Read our conversation here:
Derek Blasberg: Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
Dr. Ruth: I was born near Frankfurt on June 4, 1928, and I grew up in Frankfurt. I left Germany in 1939, with a group of children who were being sent to a children’s home in Switzerland. Later it became an orphanage. I was an only child, and there was no one else. My family was all caught by World War II.
DB: Do you ever speak about that time, that loss?
DR: Not often. I was in Switzerland from the age of ten and a half to sixteen and a half, when I went to Palestine. I lived on a kibbutz, which is a collective farm, and then I worked in the underground movement [for independence from Britain] as a sniper. So watch out! I can still put five bullets in a little red circle. And I know how to throw hand grenades too. But I’ve never killed anybody. I was badly wounded in a conflict early on, and had difficulty walking for a while. But there was a brilliant German-Jewish surgeon at the Odessa hospital in Jerusalem, and after I met him I could dance again. I could dance the whole night!
DB: Yes, I heard you like to dance.
DR: I do. I just danced with Wyclef Jean last Saturday. I still have moves!
DB: I read that when you were 13, a friend gave you bad advice when it came to menstruation, and that ignited a passion for education on taboo topics.
DR: She gave me scary advice, and scare techniques never work. That was when I decided, I’m going to give good advice. I went to Paris in 1951 and I ran a kindergarten while studying psychology at the Sorbonne. Then I came to the US in 1956, to check out an uncle – I had no family left except an uncle who lived in San Francisco, and I wanted to see if he was as short as me! I got a master’s degree in sociology, and then a doctorate [in education], in the interdisciplinary study of the family. With those degrees, I started teaching how to teach sex education. In 1967 I needed a job, so I got a position at the New York City branch of Planned Parenthood. I thought those people were crazy! All they do is talk about sex! They don’t talk about the weather, they only talk about sex. And here I am, talking about sex from morning till night.
DB: When did you become Dr. Ruth, the public figure?
DR: In 1981 I started a 15-minute program at a quarter past midnight on NBC radio called Sexually Speaking. Look what happened from that! I did the radio program for 10 years, and then I did 450 episodes of my TV show. I’ve written more than 30 books; I have one coming out next month on what women need to ask their gynecologists. I still go on television talk shows, and I have a YouTube account and I’m on Twitter. I am very connected, you see. I’m 83 years old, and I’m booked for the whole next year, talking about sex!
DB: Do you think your age and appearance are part of your charm?
DR: It’s a combination of my appearance, my way of speaking, and my knowledge. The timing was right, and I had the guts and the chutzpah to talk about things that no one else would talk about.
DB: Were you ever concerned about being too provocative with your topics?
DR: I keep a collection of turtles and I’ll tell you why: if a turtle stays in one place, it stays safe. Nobody can harm it when it’s in its shell. But if a turtle wants to make a move, it needs to stick its neck out. A turtle can only move forward if it takes a risk. I identify with that.
DB: Were you ever attacked for talking about sex?
DR: I was very fortunate. I didn’t have a demonstration in front of NBC or anything. But I was already 50, and people could hear how serious I was. And I used humor in my conversations. In the Jewish tradition, it is said, “A lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained.”
DB: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to people most often?
DR: It’s a combination of relationship questions and specific sexual questions, like premature ejaculation, erectile difficulties, or women who cannot have orgasms. The most important aspect in a relationship, be it gay or heterosexual, is the relationship itself. If sex is engaged every week on the same day at the same hour and in the same position, then it’s very boring, and the relationship will go to sleep.
DB: Can a relationship stay together without sex?
DR: Not really.
DB: Sex is that important?
DR: Yes. Boredom is the biggest danger in everything in life.
DB: What would you tell a couple if they’re bored and no longer having sex?
DR: I would first see each one alone to find out what the story is. It’s not only a question of sex. Have they lived separate lives? Is there another issue? Do they hate each other? If I decide I can’t help them, I send them to a divorce lawyer.
DB: Let’s talk about taboos. Is there anything now that is still considered restricted?
DR: Sex educators need to know their limitations. If a couple walks in the door and they are engaged in sadomasochism, I send them to another therapist or a psychiatrist. Even though I’m fine with anything two consenting adults do together in the privacy of their own bedroom, or living room, or on their kitchen floor, the therapist has to be able to visualize what people do. I cannot visualize bondage and all that. A therapist also has to know that if someone is depressed, sex therapy won’t work. You have to send them to a psychiatrist for medication.
DB: So before you can treat someone, they have to be healthy in mind?
DR: Absolutely. If walking by a schoolyard full of children arouses a man, it’s not a sex therapy issue. I send him to a psychiatrist.
DB: Have you ever been asked a question that stumped you?
DR: The only one I can think of was a question about bestiality. I told the person I didn’t have an answer because I’m not a veterinarian.
DB: When you talk about sexuality, are you speaking from your own experience?
DR: Next question.
DB: Wow, that must be a sensitive issue.
DR: Let me tell you something: you will never see my children or my late husband on television or in pictures when I’m working. I’ve kept my professional life totally separate from my private life, and that’s because I talk so openly about sex.
DB: Is it difficult to keep them separate?
DR: Perhaps, but I’ve done it very successfully.
DB: Is there anyone that you wouldn’t speak to about sex? Would you talk to Prince Edward, whom I see in a picture with you on your desk, about sexual psychosis over dinner at Buckingham Palace?
DR: Yes, of course! Prince Edward I would talk to. But I would never treat anyone who is a friend of mine, or a family member. There’s a very fine line between those you can talk to about sex and those you cannot.
DB: Have you ever tired of talking about sex? Have you ever woken up one day and said, “I really don’t want to say the word ‘penis’ today?”
DR: When that happens I will stop. But don’t hold your breath.
Portrait by Douglas Friedman
For more from Garage, check out the magazine’s website
Swim time, baby!
I was a little late to the beach game this summer, but I made up for this weekend when I crammed Sunset Beach, Southampton, a garden dinner party and a couple of spin classes (which are basically the social cocktail party in that neck of the woods) into 36 hours of sunny Long Island fun.
Traffic? What traffic? The Standard Hotel offers a fabulous sea plane service that takes off on the East River and lands, literally, right outside Sunset Beach on Shelter Island. But don’t worry, Andre isn’t on every flight
Stuart Parr has this insane former Marine cruiser, and took us out for a spin
My hostess for the weekend: The lovely and amazing Hilary Rhoda. (FYI: I took spin classes with this lady, which was a real challenge for my self esteem.)
The happy couple: Andre and Annabelle Dexter-Jones on Stuart’s boat
On Friday night, Andre hosted a Harry Wintson dinner. After dinner, The Virgins, one of my favorite New York bands, performed
Cesar found a Birkin he could get into. Literally.
Nate, Marjorie, Christian, Cesar and Hilary cruising the town of Southampton
On Saturday night, Lauren Santo Domingo hosted the greatest garden party of all time. I love a good table-scaping
The newest Hamptons power couple: Marjorie Gubelmann and Nate Berkus. The lunch they hosted earlier that day was full of cheeseburgers, gossip and Cinnabuns, which are basically my three favorite things. (Fun fact: Did you know that Nate was an executive producer of The Help?)
Me and my fashion wifey, Lauren, after her lovely dinner party