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June 2, 2004

Lots of truths from Dr. Ruth

From: Toronto Star, Canada - Jun 2, 2004

Sex therapist tells of escaping Nazis

No taboos for Unique Lives audience


Sex was on everyone's mind last night at Roy Thomson Hall.

But within minutes sex therapist Ruth Westheimer — Dr. Ruth to legions of daytime talk show fans — hushed the crowd with tales of escaping Nazi Germany, fighting in the Israeli underground and exposing the prudish hypocrisy of western society's take on human sexuality.

All this moments after a leaving a sign language interpreter red-faced from gesturing "penis," "orgasm" and "masturbation."

"I don't know if the walls of this hall have ever heard the kind of language we're going to use tonight," said Westheimer, the final speaker in the Unique Lives and Experience lecture series.

She told the sold-out crowd, almost all women, that despite "giant steps" made in promoting sexual awareness since the 1950s, there's still work to be done.

It's a long way from the Victorian attitude that a new bride should "lie back and think about England," Westheimer said. But issues like unintended pregnancies, homosexuality, masturbation and orgasms are still not "fully understood and treated with enough respect."

Standing on stage in front of a giant bedroom set, she praised the early work of Masters and Johnson, called Sigmund Freud "sexually illiterate," and pressed the need for an updated Kinsey report.

A pioneer in promoting sexual awareness to a mainstream crowd, Westheimer, who turns 76 this week, has been a talk show favourite since her groundbreaking radio program Sexually Speaking in the early 1980s. Her frank talk about sex — what Westheimer calls "sexual literacy" — once earned her a People magazine nod as "one of the Most Intriguing People of the Century." She's also been named Mother of the Year and College Lecturer of the Year.

Today, Westheimer teaches at Yale and Princeton in between offering weekly five-hour counselling sessions at her private practice. She has also hit the lecture circuit, having written 30 books for children and adults, many with sexual themes.

Westheimer escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 when, as a 10-year-old child, she was sent to a Swiss orphanage. The Holocaust claimed most of her family. At 16 she went to Israel, then Paris and San Francisco, before settling in New York in the late 1950s. There, she got a masters in sociology and a Ph.D. in education at Columbia University Teacher's College, spending the next seven years studying human sexuality at Cornell with sex therapist Helen Singer-Kaplan. Toronto Star advice columnist Ellie Tesher, who helped moderate last night's talk, called that "an epic journey."

A New Yorker at heart, Westheimer has lived in the same Manhattan apartment for 39 years. Her husband of almost 40 years, Manfred Westheimer, died in 1997.

She plans to spend the rest of the week in Toronto with her son's family. There's a birthday party set for Friday night with over 40 guests. Tonight she'll be signing books at the Chapters book store, 110 Bloor St. W. at 7 p.m.

Unique Lives and Experience, co-sponsored by the Toronto Star, is an international lecture series presenting diverse experiences of prominent women across North America. Recent speakers have included Jane Fonda, Roberta Jamieson and Madeleine Albright.

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