(Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life and Joie de Vivre.)
What started me on the path to stardom was losing my job. The School of Hard Knocks has a lot to offer in terms of upward mobility, though during class you’re probably going to feel more like a failure than a rising star. And very often, you’re at the top of your game when failure happens, which makes the fall that much worse.
For example, one time when this happened to me, I was one of the most popular professors and my classes were full to the brim. The head of the department was having problems getting enough students to sign up for her class, which should have made me watch my back; but as often happens, I never saw that blow coming. Yet, as miserable as I felt staring at that pink slip, it gave me the freedom a bit later on to accept the offer that led to that pink cover of People! So you never know.
Talking About Sex Isn’t So Crazy
In 1967, the money ran out for the public health project I was working on, and that left me out of a job. I began asking around for leads and was told that Planned Parenthood was looking for a research associate. I applied and not only did I get the job, but a week later the man who was running the project quit and I got his job. My bad luck had turned to good luck.
My role was to train and supervise two dozen women as para-professionals who were to be sent out to collect the contraception and abortion histories of about 2,000 women in Harlem.
At the end of my first day, I came home and said to my husband, Fred: “These people are crazy! All they talk about all day long is sex!” About a week later, though, I decided that they weren’t so crazy and sex was a topic with which I wanted a closer relationship. Like most people, I considered sex to be a private matter — and I still do — but it also became obvious that people needed help with their sex lives, and providing that help was a true calling.
Today, because I now talk about sex all day long myself, many people assume that my views on the subject have undergone a radical transformation, that I’ve become some sort of libertine who thinks that any type of sex done any which way with anybody is perfectly fine. While it’s true I know a lot more about what goes on in people’s bedrooms than I did back then, my overall perspective isn’t much different. As I say over and over again, I am old-fashioned and a square. I want people in a relationship to have the best sex possible, but I’m not in favor of some of these modern sexual practices such as “friends with benefits.” I bring this up because if you thought making this decision to go into the field of sex came easily to me, you’d be wrong. My background as an Orthodox Jew raised in Germany was a very conservative one. That marriage manual was in a locked cabinet, remember? Sex was not a subject that was bandied about in the home where I grew up. And one reason for that was the manner in which I came into the world.
To enjoy joie de vivre, you have to be comfortable in your own skin. You can’t allow your limitations to strangle you.
My paternal grandmother had engaged my mother to be a house-keeper. Nowhere in the job description had there been any mention of having sex with her son, but that’s what happened. And since they didn’t use contraceptives, one of those unintended pregnancies that I preach against morning, noon and night took place, and I was the result. It’s an ironic twist, but it doesn’t change my opinion that contraceptive use is important. Maybe that attitude was instilled in me by my grandmother because she was somewhat cold toward my mother, and the reason was clearly based on the manner in which I was conceived. So given my upbringing, though I’ve been a sex therapist for many years now, I still sometimes blush when talking about sex in public.
Finding Joie De Vivre
People who are sexually frustrated will find it harder to find joie de vivre in their lives, but there is a difference between understanding how to achieve sexual satisfaction and being completely open about sex. How you were raised does affect your attitude toward sex. Some people can come from a home where sex was a topic that was never discussed and learn to be more open-minded, while others from such a background always have difficulty with the subject. But you can be a very private person and still have orgasms. Your life doesn’t have to be an open book in order to find sexual satisfaction. It’s true that as part of a couple, the more openly you can discuss your sex life with your partner, the better the communication, the better your sex life is likely to be. But there are many couples that don’t talk about sex, and yet both halves of the couple find satisfaction in their sex lives.
To enjoy joie de vivre, you have to be comfortable in your own skin. You can’t allow your limitations to strangle you. Again, if your background was so prudish that it prevents you from experiencing sexual satisfaction, I would strongly urge you to go for professional help. But if you’re very conservative when it comes to sex but do have orgasms regularly, then don’t worry about it. You can expand your horizons in other ways, intellectually and physically.
Bringing Assistance to Women
At Planned Parenthood, I was only supposed to train the women going out into the field, but I wanted to see how my training was being used. So sometimes I’d accompany them when they went out to take surveys. The streets of East Harlem weren’t the safest place back in those days, and the insides of some buildings were in worse condition than the streets. Climbing all those stairs — remember, stairs are more of an obstacle for me than for most people — smelling the urine, and stepping around the garbage sometimes made me wonder if I had made the right decision not to stay back in the office. However, listening to these young women tell their tales opened my eyes. I’d known poverty, but because I had 10 good years with my family, my foundation was solid. Most of the young women we interviewed were facing the world completely on their own. Even though they were sexually active, many didn’t have the slightest idea of the connection between what they were doing and the potential consequences.
The women I sent out were only supposed to ask questions, but often I couldn’t stop myself from adding some advice. I remember sitting in the living room of one young mother of three. The plaster at the corner of the ceiling was coming down in chunks, the table had to lean against the wall because it had only three legs, and the green couch we were sitting on was terribly stained. I asked her about the father of her children, and while she knew who two were, she wasn’t so sure about the third. And, of course, none of them were helping her in any way.
“Do you have a partner now?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied.
“Do you use contraceptives?” “No.”
“He says he doesn’t like condoms.”
“Do you want another child?” I asked her, looking into her eyes. Her only response was to look down at the floor.
I explained the options to her, though I could tell that having that fourth baby was probably inevitable without some intervention. It made me sad, but at least the program I was working on might help bring women like her some assistance.
A Mission to Learn More About Sex
My next job was as a professor at Lehman College in the Bronx. There my specialty became instructing teachers and prospective teachers how to conduct classes on sex education. Because of my “expertise,” I was suddenly being asked very specific questions about sex by both students and fellow faculty members. Students would take a long time packing up their books so they’d be the last one to leave the classroom, and they’d come up to me and ask questions such as, “Professor, does the pull-out method really work?” or, “My boyfriend and I have sex, but I’ve never had an orgasm.” I usually gave them an answer of sorts, but often it was based on common sense, not hard facts. I wanted to be able to help them more knowledgably, which led me to decide to become better educated.
When I first came to the States and needed to learn English quickly, I turned to reading the True Confessions-type of magazines. The language was simple enough for me to grasp and the stories entertaining enough to hold my attention. But while these magazines certainly covered sex — adventurous sex at that — now I needed something with more depth. My first foray into getting an academic background was a week’s worth of seminars given by Long Island Jewish Hospital. I learned a lot, but this wasn’t a long-term solution. I then read on a bulletin board that the famed sex therapist Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan was giving a lecture at the Ford Foundation. I bought a ticket and off I went.
The auditorium was packed, but I had arrived early because I knew that if I didn’t get a seat down toward the front, I wouldn’t be able to see a thing. After Dr. Kaplan spoke, she showed a couple of short films. Then there was a question-and-answer session. I was determined to ask a question, but the audience was composed mostly of other experts. My heart was racing as I tried to think of a question that wouldn’t make it obvious how little I knew but would still be interesting.
“Dr. Kaplan, do you believe that premature ejaculation is more readily treatable if the man has a partner?” That set off a discussion among the audience. After the lecture, I approached Dr. Kaplan while she was still at the podium. Dr. Kaplan complimented me on my question, which gave me the courage to ask her if I could visit her training program for sex therapists at Cornell Medical School. She gave me a smile and said, “Of course.” That was a Thursday, and on the next Tuesday I showed up. As you may have discovered, I’m a very impatient person!
Impatience as a Virtue?
Impatience may not be a virtue, but if you constantly procrastinate, that’s going to limit the amount of joie de vivre you experience. Each of us is given only a limited amount of time on this earth, and we don’t know when the ticker inside of us is going to stop, so wasting time is a big mistake. I understand that if you’re supposed to do something unpleasant, you might put if off — but you know what? Those types of chores somehow always manage to get done because there’s a need. But you don’t have to see the latest movie or feel the sun on your face that first warm spring day, so it’s all too easy to just sigh and miss out on these pleasures. But if you keep putting off everything that can bring pleasure, then your life becomes dull. So when it comes to joie de vivre, stop procrastinating and instead make enjoying life to the fullest a priority.
For the next three months, I was a regular visitor at Dr. Kaplan’s program. The more I learned auditing those classes, the more I realized that being a sex therapist was the right career choice for me. Sex therapy appealed to me because of my impatient nature. It’s a form of behavioral therapy in which the patient doesn’t have to spend a long time looking for the root cause of their problem but instead gets instruction on what to do right away to improve their situation.
Let me give you an example. Many men complain of not being able to last long enough during intercourse. The condition is called premature ejaculation, or PE. (You may remember it was the subject of the question I asked Dr. Kaplan during her lecture.) It’s not a physical ailment; it’s more of a learning disability. One theory behind the condition is that young men masturbating behind a locked bathroom or bedroom door train themselves to reach orgasm quickly, in the event that a family member comes a-knocking. As a result, they are then stuck in an instant-gratification mode, which is not so desirable when they begin to have sex with a partner. But as a sex therapist, you don’t care why your client has PE. You don’t undertake a psychological dig to find out when and how a client masturbated or whether or not he was attracted to his fourth-grade teacher. Your job as a sex therapist is to teach him how to gain the control he is seeking. And that can be done in a rather short time. You assign your client homework — and if he does it properly (even better is if he has a partner willing to work with him), he can gain control over his ejaculations in a few weeks’ time. Much of a sex therapist’s advice is of a similar nature. It’s short, moves quickly and gets results. Just like me!
I made up my mind and enrolled in Dr. Kaplan’s program as a student.