I grew up in the 1980s, so I couldn’t help but know who Dr. Ruth was. Her popularity exploded and she was absolutely everywhere. I heard her on the radio. I saw her in the movies and on talk shows—she was even on MTV. However, I didn’t fully understand or appreciate how revolutionary the work she was doing truly was back then. For a long time, all I really knew was that she was a short woman who talked a lot about this thing called “sex,” something else I didn’t fully understand in the 80s, either.
On my way to the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality conference in Denver last week, a movie called Ask Dr. Ruth showed up as one of my in-flight entertainment options. Given that I was headed to a sex conference, a movie about Dr. Ruth only seemed appropriate to watch. Plus, I was always curious to learn more about this woman I had heard so much about growing up. So I began watching and was enthralled from start to finish.
This documentary chronicles Dr. Ruth’s life and work, providing an intimate and revealing portrait of who she is, and how her life experiences shaped her career.
Her personal story is a big part of the film, and it’s one that contains a lot of tragedy. For example, she was sent away to an orphanage in Switzerland at the age of 10 by her parents. Her family lived in Germany during the Holocaust and they thought the best chance of survival for their daughter was to send her somewhere they knew she would be safe. Sadly, she never had the chance to reunite with her family because they were murdered by the Nazis.
Ask Dr. Ruth also reveals a number of fascinating facts about her life. For instance, she emigrated to Palestine from Switzerland, where she was trained as a sniper. That’s right—before she became America’s favorite sex therapist, Dr. Ruth was a sniper during the Palestine War in the late 1940s (although she says she never killed anyone).
This film does so much more than just dive into Dr. Ruth’s background, though. It also demonstrates how she broke boundaries and got people talking about a subject that wasn’t often discussed in the media (or anywhere else for that matter). For example, this film shows old clips of her from late-night talk shows in which she insisted on making male hosts utter words like “clitoris.” She was simultaneously educating viewers about sexual anatomy, while also normalizing conversations about sex and pleasure.
In addition, her radio show Sexually Speaking was really the first show of its kind where listeners could call in and have their sex questions answered by an expert. Initially a 15-minute late-night show broadcast only in New York, it was eventually expanded to one-hour and broadcast nationwide. Her show paved the way for all of the sexual advice call-in programs that came after, from LovePhones to LoveLine.
Finally, Ask Dr. Ruth also reveals how active and relevant this 90-year-old woman remains in the world of sex education today. She maintains a full schedule of media appearances and teaching, and continues to release new books on sex.
Dr. Ruth is a fascinating figure in the field of sex education and this film does an incredible job of humanizing her, while also highlighting her groundbreaking career and enduring legacy. It’s definitely worth a watch!
For more film and reading suggestions, check out my other recommendations here.
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Image Source: 123RF/Leonard Zhukovsky
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