“An Orgasm is An Orgasm—
and Freud Was Wrong”

Dr. Ruth Westheimer was sitting before an audience in the recently built Steinhardt Hall, doing what she does best—speaking plainly about sexuality—when she paused for a moment. “I don’t know if the walls of this new Hillel have ever heard orgasmerection ... ” The crowd erupted in laughter—another moment when humor and education were interwoven in Dr. Liliane Weissberg’s pilot course, “Freud and the Invention of Psychoanalysis.”

Weissberg (with the Department of German, Penn Hillel, and the Women’s Studies Program) invited Dr. Ruth to campus in March for a public dialogue with Dr. Richard Summers, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Penn’s School of Medicine and a practicing psychoanalyst.

Here’s an excerpt from their conversation:

Richard Summers: In the Broadway show Falsettos, there was a miserable psychiatrist who was visited by the image of three dancing heads ...

Ruth Westheimer: Why do you say he was miserable? He was short, he was smart …

RS: Well, the talking heads were Freud, Jung, and Dr. Ruth, and what they said was, “Why don’t you feel all right?” You were there with Freud and Jung … Why were you up there with those guys and how was your work influenced by the psychoanalytic tradition?

RW: In the Jewish tradition, it says, if you stand on the shoulders of giants, you can see further. I’m 4’7’’, so that’s important to me. Freud was a genius in many aspects of human behavior, but for us women Freud was a catastrophe. Freud was sexually illiterate. Your hero did us women a tremendous disservice, because I still in 2004 have couples or women walk into my office saying they think they’re not normal because they don’t have what Freud called a [mature] vaginal orgasm ... So it’s very important for all of us to right away bury that myth. An orgasm is an orgasm, and Freud was wrong.

RS: [When a couple comes into your office], I’m sure most of time it’s not simply an issue you can deal with, with a very specific behavioral intervention. A lot of times there is something going on in the relationship as well.

RW: Here is what happened with Viagra. It is a fantastic pharmaceutical breakthrough. My fear is what happens across the United States. He gets the Viagra pill from his medical doctor. He takes the pill. He now has an erection from the floor to the ceiling. He goes home and he tells his wife, “Hop into bed.” He did not do the dishes three nights in a row, he didn’t take her out for dinner, he didn’t buy her flowers, and in our culture, if there is a sports event on television, he hasn’t talked to her in three days. All the women here know what that wife or that girlfriend is going to tell that man to do with that erection. So we do know we have to work, of course, on the relationship.

RS: Over the course of your career there certainly has been an increased amount of openness about sexuality. What are some of the trends you’ve noticed in terms of how people are actually behaving sexually?

RW: On the one hand, because of talks like ours, there is no question that people are more sexually literate. We have less unintended pregnancies.

But I’m old-fashioned, and I’m a square. What worries me terribly is in New York we now have sex clubs springing up. Heterosexual, homosexual, indiscriminate sexuality, because we don’t see AIDS patients walking around anymore, so people think they don’t have to worry. That worries me on many levels—on the level of relationships and it worries me in terms of sexually transmitted diseases.

RS: I did have the opportunity to read your wonderful autobiography [Musically Speaking: A Life Through Song, Penn Press]. What was really striking and moving about it was, obviously, you’ve suffered a lot of losses and found some way to deal with them in an incredibly upbeat, flexible, adaptive kind of way. What can you tell people about that?

RW: The early socialization in my life was crucial. For example, whenever I hear the melodies of the synagogue of my early childhood, I can feel the hand of my father, because I went with him every Friday night to synagogue.

I would say to people, be sure those early years of your children are a success. My father was taken to a labor camp and I was told that I could join a group of children, called Kinder-transport, that went to Switzerland. I had no choice. If I had not joined, I wouldn’t be sitting here.

I made it a point that, because I survived and so many of the German Jews and others, as all of you know, did not, that I had an obligation to be counted, to do something with my life. I did not know that would be talking about sex. —S.F.


2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04


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