Dr. Ruth on sex for folks over 60: Its never too late

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Leave it to Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Who else would stand at the bimah of San Francisco's venerable Congregation Emanu-El and discuss masturbation?

The popular sex therapist did just that in a talk, "Sex After Sixty," as part of the Festival of Natural Living '96.

"Now, I don't want you to go to the JCC tomorrow and sit around and masturbate, but it's the only plausible means of satisfaction when there's no partner," she said.

"Just to tell you how important sex is, we put it in a sanctuary," joked Ada Burko, director of the Montefiore Senior Center, in introducing Westheimer to a crowd of about 250 eager seniors.

On a bar mitzvah box in the spot where the rabbi usually stands, the therapist indulged the audience with advice, stories and laughter.

"Before I became an orphan in Switzerland, when I was growing up in an Orthodox home in Frankfurt am Main, if you told me one day I'd be talking in a synagogue about orgasms and erections, I'd have told you, `You must be joking,'" she said to the predominately Jewish audience.

"That kind of talk made me blush."

Westheimer, 67, grew up in an era when sex was a hushed subject, especially for women. With her strong German accent and comical persona, she broke the ice by telling the audience, "You don't have to say `I' with me, just tell me `a friend of mine wants to know.'"

Burying some of the sexual barriers of her generation, Westheimer mocked myths such as "masturbation causes blindness" or "masturbation makes hair grow on the palms," or women aren't worth educating because menstruation "leaves their brains drained of blood".

"You will walk out of here sexually literate," she promised as soon as the audience stopped laughing.

An expert on sex from almost every angle, the psychosexual therapist lived in Frankfurt am Main until she was 10, then was sent to a Swiss orphanage for Jewish students escaping the Holocaust.

At 16, she moved to Israel to fight for freedom as a member of the Haganah (Israel's pre-state army), and in the mid-'50s, after studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, came to the United States, where she earned a master's in sociology and a doctorate in education.

In the early '80s, Westheimer started to make waves, often using the words penis, erection, vagina and orgasm in her 15-minute radio show in New York. Within a year, the little lady with grandmotherly looks and a zippy German accent was promoting sex on the mainstream media, and getting lots of laughs in the process.

"In the Talmud, it says a lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained," she said. "I'm not a comedian, but I can use humor to make a point, and use it as a teachable moment."

And she has no problem using her innocent image as the butt of her jokes.

Pointing to the audience like a teacher to her students, she stressed the importance of masturbation for older adults.

For many women of her generation, Westheimer said, self-stimulation is a difficult thing. To help break the aversion, she told the ladies to take the phone off the hook, get some erotic literature like D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," and start touching themselves where it's pleasurable.

Further deflating the myths about masturbation, Westheimer defended the biblical character of Onan, who was punished for spilling his seed in vain. The word masturbation in German is onanieren, in Hebrew it's onan and in English it's onanism, which are all derived from Onan himself.

Influences from Westheimer's latest book about sex in the Jewish tradition ("Heavenly Sex") were sprinkled throughout her talk.

Stressing the importance of sexual literacy, she told a story about a rabbi finding a yeshiva student under his bed while the rabbi was making love to his wife.

Asked what he was doing under there, the student replied, "What you are doing is Torah, and what is Torah I must learn from you."

Sex talk in a synagogue is perfectly normal, even when the Torah is present, she said, punctuating her points with stories from Scripture.

"Sex is not between the waist and knees, it's up here," she said, pointing to her head.

In the Orthodox tradition, you could never say the word `fantasy,' she said. So instead, she encouraged the audience to fill their minds with memories of a pleasurable sexual experience when having sex or masturbating.

"Women can have an orgasm during an erotic dream," she said. "You women go home and do that tonight."

Talking about how older adults can still make sex exciting in the wake of weakened body parts and energy levels, she advised against the missionary position because it requires more energy.

Westheimer also recommended lovemaking side by side or in a chair.

Emphasizing the importance of satisfying sexual desires and keeping the libido free of frustration, Dr. Ruth encouraged the audience to feel confident about their age, keep their minds alive with positive thoughts and stay sexually active.

All these things can make for good sex and can be learned later in life, she said. "It's never too late."