I know not when or why I was first introduced to the famous sex therapist Dr. Ruth, but it was certainly sometime in the mid ’90s when she was everywhere: making guest appearances on television programs, commercials, showing up in the news, on advertisements, et. al. My curiosity was piqued by her grandmotherly demeanor and gnome-like size, and only intensified once I heard the words that came out of her mouth— words I had not understood yet as a elementary school-age kid, but had a sense they were words I was not meant to hear, if you know what I mean.
America owes a great debt to Dr. Ruth, not only for being the first licensed sex therapist to have a public platform to discuss matters of sex openly, but for her enormous efforts to bring awareness to the HIV and AIDS crisis in the mid ’80s when no one else would discuss it, and for providing a more peaceful dialogue about sex and relationships in general. Her blunt use of genital anatomy made her a novelty— a nice, little old lady saying “penis” and “vagina”!— but it only made her more endearing to the world and made taboo knowledge within reach.
The recent Ask Dr. Ruth documentary that just premiered on Hulu explores the full life and background of the vivacious lady, Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer. Behind the delightful smile and cheerful glee that she served the world is a dark, painful childhood as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. Her carefree youth was cut short as she was sent to an orphanage in Switzerland while her parents and grandmother were sent to concentration camps. Despite revisiting her painful history, Dr. Ruth always maintains her upbeat persona, which is a trait she picked up from her father as she saw him smiling up at her at her through the window as he was being arrested by Nazis.
Dr. Ruth’s days are recounted through various digital animation sequences that illustrate her young life. The film goes back and forth between telling her backstory through these scenes and visiting old friends and acquaintances from the orphanage, and her busy schedule today; even at 91 years old, (!!!) the good doctor refuses to retire and instead hustles from lecture to book signing to radio show to public appearance.
I’ve always held an admiration for Dr. Ruth, and this doc only strengthened it even more. From the start, she comes across as a funny, eccentric old lady with the most positive and loving attitude you could imagine (her constantly feeding the director and film crew snacks she has on hand cracked me up), and her passion for her studies is clear. You can tell she can take or leave the celebrity status she’s built up all these years and instead lives to help other people with their sexual health concerns, while reinforcing a joie de vivre that is contagious.
Once you get past the novelty of a little old lady talking about blowjobs and masturbation, you’ll find yourself in awe of this lovable, affable woman who has survived heartbreak, loss and war, and come out of it on the other side with a stronger lust for life— and one of the hottest radio call-in shows of all time. Ask Dr. Ruth is streaming on Hulu.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.