Dr. Ruth — one of the world’s most recognizable sex therapists — has famously said there’s only one thing about sex she won’t answer: questions about her own sex life. That being said, everything else is on the table, and Dr. Ruth is excited to talk about it. “Ask Dr. Ruth,” which traces the nonagenarians’s still-packed schedule as an educator while also exploring her past, is a testament to the sex therapist’s candidness and willingness to talk about anything in the world of sex.
It’s truly rare to see a public figure so open about sex, and Dr. Ruth is not only an exuberant and informative face of sexual health and sexual pleasure, but also a fascinating figure in her own right. “Ask Dr. Ruth” is a balanced look at the educator’s long life and at the myriad ways she has shaped how American people talk about sex, both in the media and in their private lives.
Ruth Westheimer — most often referred to by her moniker — was born in 1928 in Germany, and she came of age amid the rise of the Nazi regime. After her father was arrested in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Ruth (then called Karola, her given name), was sent to an orphanage in Switzerland. This is where Ruth would spend her formative years, and she would never see her family again. At the end of the war, Ruth emigrated to then-British-controlled Palestine, where she would serve as a sniper with the Haganah organization.
Dr. Ruth would then go on to study in France and in New York, eventually taking up an interest in sex counseling while working at Planned Parenthood. From there, she would take to the American media — she became a go-to figurehead on talk shows and appeared in cameos across film and TV, but she was perhaps best known for her radio show “Sexually Speaking.” As a public figure and educator, Dr. Ruth was taken into the folds of the zeitgeist as an approachable, ruthlessly candid commentator on America’s sexual faux pas and anxieties.
With the countless life experiences layered into Dr. Ruth’s nine decades, director Ryan White makes a smart choice through largely letting Ruth tell her own story. Over the course of the documentary, Ruth’s friends and family make intermittent appearances testifying to Dr. Ruth’s influence and amicability, but for the most part, the show is driven by the titular figure herself. In her own words, this becomes a story of overcoming immense hardship and turning a traumatic past into a motivation to help others. Sex becomes Dr. Ruth’s conduit into making the world a better place, and she does so with a clear emphasis on inclusivity and openness.
Stylistically, the film is augmented by occasional animated sequences illustrating scenes that Ruth describes. Rather than adding to the descriptions, however, the animated style comes off as a little mawkish, particularly when depicting harrowing events such as her experience during the Holocaust or her near-death experience during her time as a sniper. In the scope of the film, however, this discrepancy is a small complaint amid Dr. Ruth’s buoyancy in discussing these tragic and difficult events.
There are a few brief references to the current political moment in the film, but the tone largely stays neutral throughout, letting Ruth’s experiences and attitudes around sex stand for themselves in place of overt political commentary. In a political moment in which sex and sexuality are frequently being policed, this could have been an opportunity to explore some of the more concrete issues that involve sex beyond the bedroom. This gap in commentary doesn’t detract from the film, but it leaves you wondering if the envelope could have been pushed just a little further to make a more pointed statement.
In full, “Ask Dr. Ruth” is a study in frankness, both in how Dr. Ruth is unabashedly open about her own life experiences and in making discussions around sex accessible to the too-often-repressed public. In this sense, the documentary is an extension of Ruth’s decades of work, bringing her ideology into the present to make sex something that can and should be talked about.
Dr. Ruth premieres in theaters May 3 and on Hulu on June 1.