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Real Retirement: Dr. Ruth says sex can still be a joy when you’re older

Our bodies change with age, and we can’t do many things we did when we were young. But that doesn’t mean people can’t enjoy sex in their 60s, 70s and beyond.

So says Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose radio show Sexually Speaking aired nationally in the 1980s. I caught up with her recently and at 93 ½ (she reminded me to add the half year) she’s alive and pitching: During a 25-minute phone interview from the Washington Heights apartment where she’s lived for decades, she plugged two books, one of them Dr. Ruth’s Sex After 50, the other to be released next year; a movie about her streaming on Hulu, and the revival of a one-woman play, Becoming Dr. Ruth, which will open in December at lower Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, starring Tovah Feldshuh.

“She played Golda Meir. She played Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Now, Ruth Westheimer. I’m in very good company,” she said in her high-pitched, trademark German accent, at once marveling at and reveling in her fame. (She also recently did a Q&A at the 92nd Street Y in New York.)

And this wasn’t an “interview” per se; it was more like laying down chords for a Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins-like jazz improvisation on the subject of sex. Each question produced advice delivered with the certitude of an old-school Jewish grandmother, but on a topic on which few grandmothers of any background dare tread.

Dr. Ruth, who is not an MD but has a Ph.D. in education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and studied and taught about human sexuality at New York Hospital and its medical school, started out by saying that the word for sex in Hebrew is ladat, to know. In the famous 1611 King James Version of the Bible, Biblical figures knew and begat each other left and right.

“People have to know that after a certain age—I’m not giving an exact age—the erection is not as strong,” she said. Indeed, nearly 70% of 70-year-old men experience erectile dysfunction.

“The lubrication in the vagina is less, and people have to know that,” she continued, “because if…a man and a woman engage in sex with a not-well-lubricated vagina, it’s painful. And she’s going to say it hurts. Who needs it?”

So, how to deal with the biological realities? Dr. Ruth was on it before I even asked. “Older people should engage in sex in the mornings, not at night. They should get up in the morning, go to the bathroom, have a small breakfast, go back to bed. Because in the mornings, it is easier for men to obtain an erection.”

But beyond the mechanics of sex, does it change as we age? Is it more about intimacy and less about the act itself?

“I want people to be grateful if they have a partner,” she said. “That holds true for gay or straight people, especially in times like today, with this experience of isolation and loneliness. People who have partners should be rejoicing. They should not bring old grudges into the bedroom.”

They should also feel free to fantasize. “Fantasies are very important,” she said. “However, if you think about having sex with your neighbor, don’t talk about it. Keep your mouth shut.” What your partner doesn’t know about what’s going on in your brain won’t hurt him or her.

And, as she used to insist back in the 1980s. when AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases were rampant, she said men in new couples who don’t know each other’s history should wear a condom.

Not everyone, however, is attached. According to Pew Research, 27% of U.S. adults aged 60 and over live alone. “For older people who don’t have a partner,” she said, “I want them to masturbate.”

Then, with exquisite timing, she delivered the punchline: “And be careful not to have the Zoom on.”

Ka-ching! Who says Borscht Belt humor is dead?

Dr. Ruth said single older people should have no inhibitions about masturbation, either. “There’s no time for guilt feelings. There’s no time and no place.”

And if you need outside stimulation, go for it, she advised. Breaking with feminist critics, who say pornography objectifies and dehumanizes women, she is pro-porn as long as there are no children around. “Look at some sexy movie. It can be pornographic. It doesn’t have to be,” she said. “It can be an old movie, like Gone with the Wind.

Um, Gone with the Wind? Presumably she meant the steamy chemistry between Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, not the burning of Atlanta?

When I suggested ever so gently that she might be showing her age, she said: “That’s all right. Tell them that there are some newer, sexually explicit movies.” Indeed there are.

All kidding aside—and I’m sure Dr. Ruth is a good sport—her life story conveys a serious message.

As a 10-year-old girl in Nazi Germany, she watched the Gestapo take her father away the week after Kristallnacht in 1938, when Nazi thugs destroyed hundreds of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses. Her mother and grandmother sent her on a Kindertransport to Switzerland where she lived through the war while her family was murdered in the Holocaust.

She wound up in Israel, where she served as a scout and sniper in the Haganah during the new nation’s war of independence against invading armies from five Arab countries. She almost lost both legs in a bombing that killed some of her friends.

In 1956, she emigrated to the U.S. and became a uniquely American success story. I asked her how someone who has seen humanity’s very worst can go through life without bitterness.

“It doesn’t mean that I forget about that,” she said. “But I have learned to make the best out of every situation, period. That’s my philosophy of life. Rejoice that you are alive.”

They say living well is the best revenge. And sex is one of life’s joys—at any age.

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