Sexpert Westheimer has kept America satisfied for 17 years

By Ann Limpert
Updated August 22, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Dr. Ruth Westheimer: George Lang/Corbis Outline

It was an odd time to be ”getting busy” in the U.S. In 1984, the subject of sex education was still under the covers: Condoms stayed stashed behind drugstore counters and the term safe sex hadn’t even been coined. Luckily, on Aug. 27, 1984, when ”Good Sex! With Dr. Ruth Westheimer” premiered on the fledgling Lifetime network, America got an unlikely guidance counselor in impish sex therapist Dr. Ruth.

Her Teutonic scratch of a voice had already begun to grow on the public. Westheimer’s radio program, ”Sexually Speaking,” launched in New York in 1980, and by 1985 had spread to 45 cities. Her swelling popularity, coupled with munchkin charm, made her a favorite guest on ”The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and ”Late Night With David Letterman,” but it was her new cable chatterfest that made her a bedroom name.

Every weeknight at 10, Westheimer, aided by sidekick Larry Angelo, took phone calls, reenacted therapy sessions, and gabbed with celebs like Henry Winkler, Burt Reyn-olds, and Roseanne Barr. The dirty-grandma shtick worked, and the show nabbed some of Lifetime’s highest ratings during its 450-episode run.

Understandably, the network was initially wary about Westheimer’s approach. Exec producer John Lollos recalls the standards and practices enforcers hovering over him in the studio. Soon their visits waned. Then they stopped. ”I thought that was a great compliment,” says Lollos. ”We were doing it therapeutically and sensibly, not saying penis and vagina just for ratings.”

What Westheimer is most remembered for is her ability to get people to discuss topics ranging from divorce to multiple orgasms. She feels it’s because of her cheek-pinching persona. ”I was an older woman — I wasn’t up there in a short skirt and décolletage.” The only subjects she refused to discuss were medical problems (she holds a doctorate in education and a master’s in sociology, but not an M.D.).

By the time ”You’re on the Air With Dr. Ruth!” went off the air in June 1991 (the show underwent several permutations in its seven-year run), it had succeeded in loosening up the mass media. Dr. Drew Pinsky, cohost of MTV’s ”Loveline,” notes that his program probably couldn’t have happened without the help of Dr. Ruth: ”She set the stage for me to do what I did…. She really broke ground, and I admire that.”

What’s the good doctor up to now? After publishing over 20 books (including ”Power: The Ultimate Aphrodisiac,” out later this year) and shilling for Clairol’s Herbal Essences, Westheimer still practices therapy. ”What makes me laugh,” she says, ”is when I see headlines in papers like move over dr. ruth. I say, ‘Not yet!’ I’m 73…and I’ve never been more busy!” Maybe that’s more than we needed to know.

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