Meet the Sexperts
Jewish women talk openly and frankly about women's sexual health.
By Rahel Musleah
Never mind the 41 years that separate Ruth Westheimer, 76, and Laura Berman, 35. They share the same passion: sex, frank and unvarnished.
Crinkly-eyed Dr. Ruth, caricatured for her thick European accent and 4'7" frame, has been dispatching advice on vibrators and orgasms for the past 24 years. Stylish, blond Dr. Berman, also a sex educator and therapist, speaks unabashedly of masturbation and sexual dysfunction on Berman & Berman,
the Discovery Channel show she co-hosts with her sister Jennifer, a urologist.
They are part of a chain of Jewish women—psychotherapists, educators and authors—who have pioneered sexual openness, taking groundbreaking strides in championing women's sexual health. They are well-known figures like Erica Jong and Eve Ensler, writers who unzipped their lips and made sexual euphemisms such as "down there" obsolete [see sidebar]. And they are less familiar women like Terese Lasser, a 1950s rebel against medically sanctioned radical mastectomies; Barbara Seaman, whose investigative journalism has warned of the dangers of hormone replacement; Ethel Spector Person, a psychoanalyst who explores the impact of culture on sexuality; and Debbie Roffman, a human-sexuality educator.
How much have these women's Jewish identities fueled their honesty, their ability to break taboos? While each woman's story is distinctive, defying generalization, several women spoke of the Jewish commitment to family and to social justice as influencing forces.
"The reason I can speak so openly is that I am steeped in Jewish tradition. For us Jews, sex was never considered a sin," says Westheimer. Among her 27 books, Heavenly Sex specifically focuses on sex in the Jewish tradition. "We have a philosophy of shalom bayit—peace in the home. That's what really propelled me. The sages knew the importance of sex and gave specific advice. Sex is not everything in a relationship, but it's certainly a large part."
Ethel Spector Person
"What I promote goes hand in hand with Jewish values, the importance of family and relationships, the connection of sexuality and godliness," agrees Berman, who was raised in a Reform home. Human desire can help us understand the longing for God, some rabbis teach; marriage is even called kiddushin
, from the Hebrew root for holiness. "The tricky part," she says, "is figuring out a way to incorporate religious values and still explore sex in an open and honest way."
Though Westheimer and Berman grew up worlds apart, fearlessness wove its way into the lives of both women. On the heels of Kristallnacht, Westheimer, born Karola Ruth Siegel, was sent at age 10 to a Swiss school turned orphanage for Jewish students escaping Nazism. At 16, she moved to Israel (then Palestine), where she trained as a sniper in the Haganah, the Jewish underground. Putting aside her dream of becoming a doctor, she taught kindergarten while studying psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris and came to the United States in 1956. Her first job, in public health, and her later experience researching the contraceptive history of 2,000 patients at Planned Parenthood pointed her toward the field of human sexuality, though her doctorate is in education. At New York HospitalCornell University Medical Center, Dr. Ruth trained with noted sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan, who was "minimally" Jewish, and taught in her program.
After a 1980 speech to a group of broadcasters in which Westheimer advocated for a radio program to combat the burgeoning number of unintended pregnancies, WYNY-FM (NBC) in New York gave her 15 minutes of taped air time Sundays after midnight. A year later, the show was awarded an hour slot at 10 p.m., with live call-in questions. Ten years of "Sexually Speaking" followed, as did 450 television programs, a syndicated column, videos for Playboy and even a board game, Dr. Ruth's Game of Good Sex.
"Despite the Victorian, Puritan American attitude toward sex, we in this country have the best scientifically validated data about sexual function," says Westheimer, referring to researchers that include Alfred Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson. "Somebody like me who can teach and talk had an obligation to bring about some measure of sexual literacy. At the beginning I myself said, Oh gosh, look how explicitly I am talking about erection and orgasm.' But I believed in it so much that I overcame it." Westheimer claims she is still "old-fashioned and a square." Her humor has made her subject palatable to many—again, an outlook she attributes to Jewish tradition, which states that a lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained.
Her late husband, an engineer, was proud of her work, she says. Three of her four grandchildren have read her book Who Am I? Where Did I Come From?, but beyond that, Westheimer says, teaching them about sex is "their parents' business." Today's sexual climate needs balance, she adds. "We have to combine the knowledge we have about male/female sexuality with candles and champagne and walks in the woods." She encourages parents to set boundaries, and rabbis and Jewish educators to learn more about issues of sexuality.
Westheimer credits her escape from Nazi Germany with giving her strength and a "certain amount of chutzpah." Her collection of toy turtles provides an apt analogy: "If a turtle stays in one place, he is very safe. But if he wants to move, he has to stick his neck out. You have to take a risk if you believe in something."
Berman also attributes her feistiness in part to the anti-Semitism she experienced when her family moved from Manhattan to St. Simons Island, Ga.—hardly a Jewish enclave. "My connection to my Jewish identity became strengthened because of the animosity and prejudice I experienced," she says. Jennifer, four years older, says she did not feel much anti-Semitism, but for Laura, being different left an indelible mark. "Embracing that difference made it easier for me to go into a different kind of field. I became brazen and brave. It was futile to assimilate, so instead of being ashamed of who I was, I flaunted it. I've always liked to jump on a soapbox, and that's where the seeds were set."
Her soapbox includes her TV show; the book she co-wrote with her sister, For Women Only: A Revolutionary Guide to Overcoming Sexual Dysfunction and Reclaiming Your Sex Life (Holt); the Berman Center in Chicago, a spa-like comprehensive sexual health facility; and theNetwork for Excellence in Women's Sexual Health that she and Jennifer co-direct.
"I'm not sure if there was something we drank in the water when we were young," Berman jokes. "It's not something our parents encouraged, except that they were very open with us. They were normalizing around our bodies and the topic of sexuality in general."
The sisters arrived at their interest in human sexuality from different directions. Laura's study of anthropology led her to explore how sexuality helps define cultures, and continued throughher therapeutic practice.Her interest in Judaism deepened during her first marriage, to an Orthodox Jew, and a two-year stint in Gibraltar, where, along with having a clinical practice, she advised a rabbi who counseled couples on sexual-treatment protocol and he educated her on Jewish laws about sexuality.
Jennifer followed her father's clinical bent—he is aretired colorectal surgeon—and became one of relatively few female urologists. Intrigued by how the male-oriented field applied to women, she began specializing in women's sexual dysfunction. When the Bermans realized that their combined expertise offered a holistic approach, they pooled their talents at women's sexual health centers in Boston and Los Angeles until Laura remarried and moved to Chicago. Their joint projects are now limited but still include the TV show.
Separately or together, the Bermans remain champions of the mindbody perspective. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 43 percent of women suffer some kind of sexual dysfunction. Though talk therapy still plays a crucial role, there is a new awareness that real medical and physical reasons contribute to dysfunction, says Laura. But solutions to women's sexual problems are more complex than a dose of Viagra, as the sisters have found through their leading roles in clinical pharmacology trials.
Ethel Spector Person, a psychoanalytic theoretician on sex and gender, grew up in the South about three decades before the Bermans, but her upbringing in Louisville, Ky., also molded her views toward sexuality. Unlike other parts of the South, she says, in Louisville, sexuality was generally not as repressive for young people. In addition, Person's black nanny "liberated" her by exposing her to a sensual culture and to the variations in sexual mores between races and classes. "My mother was lovey-dovey, but this was different. There was a freedom of the body. People lived together without being married. I couldn't put it into words then; I just knew it was different."
In college, with "Freud in the air," Person studied psychology and psychoanalysis, which led to an interest in sexual issues. Researching the lives of cross-dressers and transsexuals for a textbook on sex, she found a "natural empathy" toward them. "In Kentucky there was a separation between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Knowing what it is to be a minority, I identified with those who were outsiders—homosexuals, transsexuals. All this was considered as disgraceful then as it is acceptable today."
In her own books, she explores everything from fantasy to power, and especially the "enormous role of culture in sexuality." The civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, gay liberation and women's liberation "forced theorists and analysts to change their minds about Freud as gospel. Our sexuality is in large part determined not just by genetics, early rearing and hormones, but by what is acceptable in culture."
According to journalist Barbara Seaman, Jewish women have long been leaders in sexual health, in "taking their bodies back," in urging equal partnership with doctors and championing informed consent. She tells the story of Terese Lasser, who in 1952 went into the hospital for a routine biopsy of her right breast and, because doctors had found a cancerous lump, woke up with her breast gone. Furious, with her questions about sex and fitness unanswered, she consulted experts around the world and collected the exercises they recommended in "Reach to Recovery," now a program of the American Cancer Society providing practical and emotional support. Most of the authors of the groundbreaking book on women's health, Our Bodies, Ourselves, were Jewish, as were four of the five founders of the National Women's Health Movement, including Seaman herself.
"We'd been oppressed as Jews and were eager to reach out to other minorities and oppressed women," explains Brooklyn-born Seaman. "Most of us were only a generation or two away from the mikvah [ritual bath]. All of us had at least one Orthodox grandmother who experienced the sisterhood of the mikvah. That familiarity with the body and its menstrual cycles made us feel comfortable talking about our own body issues."
Seaman was propelled to activism when her son Noah, born in 1957, almost died as a result of a laxative she was given—one that should never be administered to nursing mothers. "The doctors then were brainwashed by infant-formula companies. I told my doctor I would breast-feed. He said, You wouldn't make a good cow.' He assumed I'd follow him, and I assumed the decision was mine." When her aunt died of endometrial cancer as a result of taking estrogen for hot flashes, and Seaman realized that the Pill also contained estrogen, she was inspired to write her first book, The Doctors' Case Against the Pill.
Her findings—that risks included heart disease, diabetes and stroke—led to congressional hearings in 1970. The New York Times wrote: "Barbara Seaman triggered a revolution, fostering a willingness among women to take issues of health into their own hands." Her daring caused her to be "blacklisted" by magazines that feature advertisements from drug companies, she says. Seaman's most recent book, The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women: Exploding the Estrogen Myth (Hyperion), explains the history of marketing hormonal medicines."I've been called the Helen Thomas of hormones because I've been on the beat 44 years," she says proudly.
Sexuality education for parents and children is Deborah Roffman's beat. She distinguishes between sex education—teaching the facts of life—and sexuality education, which focuses on sexuality as a central life force that influences every aspect of living. "We are sexual people, not just when we are having sex," says the author of Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense about Sex and But How Did I Get in There in the First Place? Talking to Young Children About Sex (Perseus).
Schools and families have abdicated their roles in sexuality education for decades, she laments. Their roles in nurturing children are even more critical in today's world, where messages about sexuality targeted even at young children are provocative to the point of being "unconscionable," she says. "If creatures landed in our society from another planet, there's no way they would conclude that sex had any meaning. It's presented via the media in purely mechanistic body-rubbing ways, something you can do with anybody."
Roffman's message—for both secular and religious parents and children—is to put ethical values back into sexuality. People need to connect the values of equity, privacy, mutuality, responsibility, honesty and respect to all situations, including sexual situations, she says. "Kedushah—holiness—is a way to help people understand that sex is to be kept private and separate, held in deep regard and with great care."
Like Dr. Ruth, Roffman, 56, became interested in sexuality education through a job in community outreach at Planned Parenthood in 1971. "In a day I knew I had found my life's work," says Roffman, who trained as a social worker. "I see it as my attempt to repair the world."
Raised "hypocritical Orthodox"—she is now staunchly Conservative—Roffman says that nothing prepared her for her career. "For the first 20 years of my life, this topic was ignored. I saw a film about periods in fifth grade. My parents rarely spoke about it. I didn't read anything about sex in college except in my abnormal-psychology textbook." When she began at Planned Parenthood, she practiced saying explicit terms in front of the mirror or on the phone with a "cool aunt" who was a school nurse. One of her first presentations was at an army base, where she discussed sex and birth control with 45 servicemen. "I got over the embarrassment fast," she says.
Roffman, who has been teaching children in grades 412 at Baltimore's Park School and other independent schools (including a Jewish day school) for nearly 30 years, says that sexuality education allows children "to regain their humanity instead of thinking of themselves as walking, talking genitals. It also breaks the need to fit into gender stereotypes." Parents today don't have role models who talked comfortably about sexuality with them when they were young, so they find the task "daunting," she says. "Iput parents in touch with the good parenting skills they already have. Those skills just need to be transferred to sexuality. Kids have five fundamental needs, and those point to five clear roles for parents: affirmation, information, clarity about values, limit setting, and anticipatory guidance."
Numerous Jewish women have chosen sexuality education as their calling, she says. "They get it. They get the ethics, the empowerment for women and how it's related to the oppression of women; they get that it's related to the health of families and children." Their desire to further tikkun olam blends with a yearning for personal fulfillment: "The permission to embrace part of who you are that was previously ignored," says Roffman, "is enormously healing."
Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist, author, singer, speaker and storyteller who lives in Great Neck, N.Y. Visit her at www.rahelsjewishindia.com. Her new book, Apples and Pomegranates: A Rosh Hashanah Seder (Lerner-Kar-Ben), is due out this summer.