These days, the world is far more open sexually, it can be hard for younger generations to remember a time before sexuality was so happily discussed. But Dr Ruth Westheimer – all 4ft 7 inches of her – exploded onto TV screens in the 1980s, she was a pioneer, for women’s sexuality in particular.
She’s from the same ilk as the likes of Cosmopolitan founder Helen Gurley Brown: a progressive woman who wanted to show the world that sex is to be enjoyed, and women do enjoy it, instead of invoking the ‘lie back and think of England’ mentality.
There is something different about Dr Ruth, though – the sex advice she was offers isn’t scandalous, but instead straight-talking advice on things like sex toys and masturbation and always with the mantra, “there’s no such thing as normal.”
The series follows the sex advice veteran as she approaches her 90th birthday, still working hard with a taxing schedule of lectures at Columbia, a Column in US magazine Time and writing more self-help books.
But this goes deeper than just the impression she makes on culture in the eighties. This film is also an explanation of Westheimer’s childhood: a survivor of the holocaust and orphaned at just aged 10, never to see her family again, helped to shape her progressive views. As a girl, she was not allowed to attend high school, but instead taught herself the syllabus by reading textbooks after lights out in the Swiss orphanage.
And her journey to becoming an authority wasn’t easy either. She moved to Israel where she trained as a sniper, and then to Paris, and was married twice – both ending in divorce. In 1981 she worked the graveyard shift for her Sexually Speaking radio show but her tenacious nature paid off, becoming a national treasure after her successful TV show Ask Dr Ruth hit screens in the late eighties.
But despite critics claiming that she pedalled “filth” to the nation, Westheimer’s candour was a genuinely effective tool for solving intimate issues of those who needed help, whilst promoting the rights of women and shining a light on the Aids crisis (“I don’t waste my time blaming groups. Let’s raise awareness and find a cure. Respect is not debatable.”)
Even though Dr Ruth was progressive for her time – an ally of the LQBTQ community and Planned Parenthood – she doesn’t like to be labelled a feminist. Actually, she doesn’t like to be labelled as anything; the document is clear to state that Westheimer does not hold allegiances to any politic party, for fear of alienating her fanbase.
Whether you’ve heard of Dr Ruth or not, this is a fascinating documentary, and inspiring to see women advocating women’s rights and LGBTQ rights at a time when they weren’t so accepted. And more than once in the documentary she is told that her words have saved a life, proving that she was for more than a salacious, Jerry Springer-style TV host. Her story isn’t just about sex – it’s overcoming adversity, sticking to your guns, and fighting for what you think it right.
Ask Dr Ruth is available for DVD pre-order at Amazon in the UK now.
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