Ruth Westheimer believes that a lesson taught with humor is a lesson learned well.
Tuesday night in Reynolds Theater, more than 550 members of the Duke community laughed their way to learning that talking openly about sex can have many benefits.
With a presence far exceeding her four-foot-seven-inch frame, Westheimer, better known as Dr. Ruth, engaged the audience in a lively discussion about the importance of sexual literacy to personal happiness. Westheimer said fewer unintended pregnancies in America and more women willing to embrace their sexuality are among the many improvements she has seen come out of speaking freely about sex.
The 81-year-old preeminent sexual expert broke the ice by leading the audience in a chant of important sexual terminology. The audience responded well to Westhimer’s frank approach, freely repeating words such as “orgasm,” “erection” and “masturbation” as they warmed up to the topic.
“She is all about being open about your sexuality and that is definitely something that we need to talk about more,” junior Katie Lootens said.
Westhimer started by exposing the many myths that surround the ubiquitous act. Myths that the doctor warned the audience be aware of include women never masturbating, men needing to sleep after sex and the existence of the mysterious G-spot.
Because she said the last real scientific sexual study dates back several years, Westhimer asked the Duke community to become involved in sexual research so that more of these myths can be revealed.
“Real research is very difficult and expensive, but we have no choice,” she said. “There are so many ways to improve our good relationships and our good sex, but we need a new study. It can’t just be a myth or three women sitting on a kitchen table writing about a G-spot. It needs to be a scientific study with all the respect necessary given to the topic.”
Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta joined the talk by reading questions from the audience—ranging from topics like first-time experiences to playing with toys. Moneta said he was impressed by Westhimer’s ability to bring new knowledge in an interesting way to a frequently discussed topic.
“We tend to think of her work in a humorous way,” Moneta said. “But she is a scientist and she has found a humorous way to present science, which makes her engaging.”
But Westhimer’s life has not always been the subject of sex columns and late-night radio shows.
Born in Germany in 1928, Westhimer was sent to Switzerland to escape the Holocaust. By the end of the war, she learned that the struggle had taken her entire family. At the age of 16 she went to Palestine and joined the Haganah, the Israeli freedom fighters, as a sniper before she was seriously wounded by a bomb blast.
Westhimer was hosted by Jewish Life at Duke and The Rubenstein-Silvers Hillel Student Board because of her special connection to Judaism.
“Westhimer appeals to a wide audience of students across campus,” said Duke Hillel President Scott Gorlick, a junior. “Westhimer’s Jewish background was of particular interest to us, especially since she served time in the Haganah. We are very excited to have her reach such a great amount of people throughout the Duke community.”
After moving to the United States in the mid 1950s, Westhimer took a job with Planned Parenthood in Harlem and ultimately made a career out of talking about sex. She has since become one of the most widely known sex experts in the country. She is the author of 35 books, including “Sex for Dummies,” the host of a nationally syndicated TV show and the owner of a sex advice Web site.
In the age of pervasive technology and access to information, Westhimer also commented on how the latest technology has affected personal relationships. Because she often sees couples texting other people or surfing the Internet while together, Westhimer said she is concerned about the negative effects this may have on their love lives.
“It can be a big problem,” Westhimer said. “People have to find a balance between technology and the need to be touched, hugged and related to. I’m not negating technology. When I need to find something it helps me. But I am also very aware of the need for people to continue to relate to each other.”
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