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Dr. Ruth Westheimer is an icon who has completely transformed the way America talks about sex. If you were around in the ’80s, you likely heard at least a snippet of her radio show and, in the ’90s, saw her on daytime talk shows — using both mediums to dole out advice as a sex therapist and thrilling audiences with her open and honest approach.
Though short in stature — at just 4-foot-7 — the woman known fondly as "Dr. Ruth" has led a very big existence. And in a recent interview with Yahoo Life, she shared how her success started with a harrowing journey: being sent by her parents from her native Germany, when she was just 10, to live in an orphanage in Switzerland with 300 other children, sent through the Kindertransport rescue effort. It was 1938 and World War II was imminent.
“If I had not been sent to Switzerland I would not be alive," she says today, "because so many of the other Jewish children from Germany didn’t make it."
Dr. Ruth’s parents, grandmother and other family members would die in the Holocaust, leaving her an orphan after all. She says that her mother and father gave her life twice — once when she was born, and again when they sent her to Switzerland.
“That’s why I survived, and that’s why I have an obligation to help to make the world a better place," Westheimer says. "I didn’t know that would be through good sex, but that’s what happened in my life."
She has committed herself to teaching the public about their sexual health. After studying psychology at the Sorbonne, earning an M.A. in sociology from the New School and receiving her doctorate in education from Columbia University at 42, she met famed sex therapist Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, and trained with her for nearly seven years.
“It’s no question that my success was not only that I was well trained, not only that I had the wonderful Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan as a mentor. But also that I had the courage to talk about orgasm and clitoris and all the things that I talk about on the air,” she says.
At 52, Dr. Ruth launched her radio show, Sexually Speaking on WYNY radio. By 1983, the program was renamed The Ruth Show and became the top-rated radio show in the nation's largest market. She eventually hosted her own talk show on Lifetime and has authored dozens of best-selling books about sex education, most notably, Sex for Dummies.
When asked about retirement, her response, she says, is always the same: “There is no such thing for me as to retire. And I tell other people not to retire, but to rewire,” she says. “If you don't want to do what you did until now, do something else.”
Dr. Ruth may no longer be a daily fixture on our television, but she's still outspoken about the issues that matter to her. As states like Kentucky and Texas make access to safe and legal abortions more difficult to attain, she warns against restrictions.
“I'm very, very sad if abortion is becoming illegal again, because then only women with money will be able to get an abortion. Sometimes people use a diaphragm, they use a condom, the condom breaks. Sometimes there's a contraceptive failure,” says Westheimer. “And I'm very sad if only women with money, because they can fly to a big city, they can go to Europe and get one, which would be very, very sad.”
She is also still writing books. Her latest — a newly revised edition of The Art of Arousal, featuring erotic art throughout history, will be released on May 3, and the author is excited for readers to see the new art that's been added.
"It shows sex with older people," she says. "I just love this new edition!"
For more inspiring stories, watch the full show supporting Women's History Month.