Opening Friday, May 3
Good sex isn’t easy. How do we find it? How do we have it? These were taboo questions forty years ago; these days, they’re slightly less verboten but still evergreen, which makes the armchair guidance of the legendary sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer as essential as ever. A refreshing new documentary reminds us how revolutionary her influence on America’s bedrooms has been. Director Ryan White gives Westheimer the same kind of loving treatment that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers have received in recent years. His heartwarming film follows the spunky, diminutive sex therapist from her years as a single-immigrant mother turned happily-married academic, to the present, where, at the age of ninety, she continues to lead a life of robust public engagement.
Westheimer’s career as a media personality began in 1980 with Sexually Speaking, the WYNY radio that was originally booked to meet community-health-programming standards and buried in a midnight slot. As a trained therapist, though, Dr. Ruth offered something entirely new: a candid, non-judgmental space that normalized a broad range of desires and experiences. Her line stayed open through the AIDS crisis and America’s many sexual panics, as listeners called in with questions about everything from erectile dysfunction to sex toys. Her humor and nonplussed style earned trust—in the footage spliced throughout the doc, callers nervously ask intimate questions, which she gently coaxes along in her thick German accent, “Uh-huh, go on, go on”—and the show became hugely influential; even breaking through the tangled airwaves of television preachers and Christian pop radio that I grew up listening to.
Ask Dr. Ruth also takes an emotional look at Westheimer’s childhood as a German-Jewish refugee and survivor of the Holocaust, in which both of her parents died. She speaks guardedly of this trauma, but does say that it shaped her ambitions and joie de vivre. “From not having parents from the age of ten, I was very much aware of the importance of being touched, of being loved,” she says, later adding, “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.” That dent is joyously clear in Ask Dr. Ruth, as it becomes evident that not only has her voice changed lives, it has saved them.