About two minutes after Dr. Ruth Westheimer walks into Refinery29’s office, she asks me to tell her about the company. Is Refinery29 a newspaper? A magazine? “It’s a website for millennial and Gen Z women women,” I tell her. “Gen what? Write that down for me.” So our interview begins with me writing down “Gen Z = ages 22 and under” in my notebook, tearing out the page, and handing it to her.
At age 91 and a half — and yes, she counts the half — Dr. Ruth is working as hard as she ever has. Next year will mark 40 years since her first radio show, Sexually Speaking, kicked off her media career as a sex educator, though her work in human sexuality began earlier. (Her first gig was as a researcher at Planned Parenthood in the 1960s.) Today, she’s promoting her latest book, the fourth edition of Sex For Dummies, and she also talks up the documentary about her life, Ask Dr. Ruth, which premiered earlier this year.
For the past half-century, Dr. Ruth has worked to de-stigmatize sex by talking about it candidly and openly, stressing the importance of pleasure, and emphasizing that there is no one “normal.” She was an early advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and abortion access. But today, she’s aware that some of her views seem old-fashioned — particularly her views on consent. Earlier this year, the Guardian ran an interview with her under the headline, “Dr. Ruth: 'Nobody has any business being naked in bed if they haven’t decided to have sex.” Dr. Ruth is aware that millennials and Gen Z might think she’s “old-fashioned and a square,” as she describes herself. But she’s ready to share her advice with us, even if we only listen to half of it.
This is the fourth edition of Sex With Dummies since it was first published in 1995. Why did it need another update?
The publishers came to me, and without thinking twice, I immediately said yes. I thought, it’s been a couple of years since Sex For Dummies came out, and the millennials, and now I see Gen Z, could use some good advice.
I’m particularly interested in talking to young people because my concern is that the art of conversation is getting lost. Everybody is on their phones. Even when they go on a date, the phone is right there. The other thing I’m very concerned about is that they don’t take the issue of sexually transmitted diseases seriously, especially since people are now having sex with more partners.
I’m very happy with [publisher] Wiley. They’re giving me [publicist] Amy and a car to publicize the book. Write that down: Amy and a car! Once you do a book, you can’t just sit back and think it will get publicity by itself.
You can tell the Generation Z — but you don’t say the word generation?
You can, but people usually shorten it.
Tell them that I hope the next generation of young people will be better lovers, that they will learn good sexual behavior, that they will learn about responsibility, and that they will know how important it is to have a relationship.
You say you want to make sure that millennials and Gen Z know how to date instead of being on our phones all the time. What advice do you have for us?
I do know that the reality of life is that the phone is there. But when you go out for a Coke or a cup of coffee, make sure the phone is off. I’m not saying throw it away, or even leave it at home. Once you’re finished with your cup of coffee, you might want to look to see if somebody called you. What is that thing called when somebody waits on the phone and it doesn’t ring, the new term?
People like me don’t know what ghosting is, but we do know what is it to not have a friend. In the the movie Ask Dr. Ruth, it shows in animation how with my very first boyfriend in the orphanage, we held hands. I would like to tell young people to make sure that you find somebody in order not to be lonely, so you have someone you can tell your worries.
I love how in Sex For Dummies you suggest people bring a book on a date as a conversation starter. Should they bring this book?
Absolutely. It will certainly break the awkwardness of what to talk about. They can even choose to talk about how I’m old-fashioned and a square, that I don't want you to be in bed naked or even heavy petting unless you're already in a relationship. Bringing each other to orgasm without sex, in my way of thinking, is a no-no unless you’re in a relationship. Old-fashioned Dr. Ruth says, take it seriously.
Is there anything you think millennials and Gen Z are doing better than previous generations when it comes to dating and sex?
No, not that I can think of. But I would say they are fortunate that more information is available, because years ago there were very few books on sex education and sexual behavior. For example, I don’t think anybody in that generation doesn’t know that boys have nocturnal emissions. But years ago, that wasn’t so. A mother would sometimes tell her son, “What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you go to the bathroom? Why did you urinate in bed?” He didn’t urinate in bed, he had a wet dream.
Like you said, young people now have so much more access to information about sex. But how can they tell whether the information they read online is accurate?
That’s why there should be sex education in schools, and that has to be done by people who are knowledgeable so the information is correct.
It should be a requirement across the board. If boys and girls are separate, like in a Catholic school or a yeshiva, they shouldn’t get together just for sex education. But if boys and girls usually have classes together, then they should have sex education together. The teacher should say, “We are going to talk about a topic, and everyone can laugh about it, but I am going to give you the correct information. I am going to show you what a condom looks like, I am going to show you what other contraceptives are like.” Be careful not to do it in an arousing way, but if you can use good humor, then use it. In the Talmud, it says that a lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained.
What does teaching sex with good humor look like?
There’s a cartoon that shows the president of this great country of ours with the president of North Korea, and me in the middle. The caption says, “Size does not matter.” That’s a perfect way of talking about good sex with good humor.