“OK, so I am old fashioned … call me square.” Dr. Ruth
I grew up listening to Dr. Ruth’s frank talk on late-night radio in New York. Back then no one was talking about topics like masturbation or oral sex, and her straight answers to questions I didn’t yet know how to ask were both encouraging and comforting as I waded through the emergence of my own sexuality during my tumultuous days at Baldwin High School. I was like millions of others who tuned in at midnight to quell our fears about our normality, or lack of it. So I was delighted when I was invited to sponsor her appearance at the tenth anniversary celebration of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University Bloomington. At 88, Dr. Ruth demanded two pillows to sit on to lift her 4’7″ frame, but she was as bold as ever in her comedic reflections on the importance of giving language and knowledge to our sexual selves.
According to Dr. Ruth, the question that never gets old and is shared universally is “Am I sexually normal?”. This question covers our fears about everything from the racy content of our fantasies to how the body responds (or doesn’t respond) to our interest in sex, and everything in between. When it comes to our sexual selves, we are all concerned about what is normal sexual behavior and are afraid of being caught outside of it. To this question, though, Dr. Ruth threw up her hands, declaring that there is no “normal,” and referring to the landmark studies of the Kinsey Institute which showed that the normal range of sexual behavior is so wide and broad as to render the term meaningless.
For sure, though, one of the things that makes for normal sexual behavior, and that made Dr. Ruth a household name, is having the courage to learn about our own sexual pleasure response, and the boldness to both talk about and pursue that pleasure. To this end, masturbation, the most common sexual act on the planet, has always been a favorite topic for Dr. Ruth. But some of Dr. Ruth’s advice on this topic surprised me; when asked a question by a woman who said her partner thought she shouldn’t need to masturbate while in a relationship, she said, “Fine, don’t tell him.”
The other piece of advice that Dr. Ruth wove into every response was the idea that sexuality should only exist within the context of relationships. Even when pressed about all of the digital mechanisms that create sexual liaisons or, as we call them now, hookups, she would not discuss the sweeping changes which have in so many ways divorced intimate relationships from sexual behavior. “It worries me, these couples who are holding hands with one hand and looking at their phones with the other.” For her, although there is no “normal” in the realm of sexual behavior itself, certain contexts for sex were easily dismissed as not normal.
Making peace with our sexual selves has been Dr. Ruth’s mission and has guided her life of service. At the event, she talked about herself as an orphaned child survivor of the Holocaust, and shared her girlhood sense of needing to contribute something to life because she was one of the few who had survived. Laughing, she said, “I would have never guessed that it would have been talking about sex my whole life.” Among the more than thirty books on sex that she has written is a children’s book about a turtle, which she wrote for Debby Herbenick’s new daughter. She explained her childhood love of turtles – how they carry their houses on their backs, and are totally protected and self-contained. “But for this little turtle to get anywhere, it has to stick its neck out; it has to show its most vulnerable parts.”
Indeed. Many thanks to Dr. Ruth for all they many ways that she has pushed us all, over the last half century, to stick our necks out for more loving sex.