The COVID-19 pandemic shattered social norms around physical closeness and intimacy. As the world reopens, how do we learn to touch other people again—even in normal, everyday ways? The Atlantic staff writer Emma Green seeks advice from the iconic sex therapist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Ruth on how to find pleasure and purpose after life-changing loss.
Further reading: Dr. Ruth on Finding Love After the Pandemic
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This episode was produced by Julia Longoria and Katherine Wells, with help from Kevin Townsend. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by Alexander Overington.
Music by Laundry (“Films,” “Phthalo Blue”), naran ratan (“Spring Nostril,” “Forevertime Journeys”), Ob (“Waif”), Keyboard (“Contractions,” “Shingles”), and water feature (“with flowers”), provided by Tasty Morsels. Additional audio from Good Sex! With Dr. Ruth Westheimer, The Dr. Ruth Show, and SME.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(A lush, fuzzy synthesizer sound reverberates as birds call. The episode begins.)
Emma Green: I wanted to know how we should even begin to get used to the weirdness of touching other people.
(The music changes tone to become a meandering, mystical melody, led by a clarinet.)
Julia Longoria: Emma Green is a staff writer at The Atlantic who writes about the tough stuff—politics, religion—and she recently went looking for an answer to a question.
Green: You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it’s going to take for us to collectively move out of pandemic mode. And I don’t necessarily even mean “touching” in the kind of capital-T, dirty-magazine sense of the word. I mean, like, after a year of being hermetically sealed off, a year and a half for a lot of people—some people didn’t live like that, but a lot of Americans did—it’s so weird to be in physical proximity to another human. It’s so weird to give hugs. It’s weird!
(The music plays out.)
Longoria: And Emma thought, Who would be the expert on this?
(The sound of a click as a caller comes on the air.)
Dr. Ruth: Hello! You are on the air.
Caller: Dr. Ruth, what can a couple who’s been married for a long time do about sexual boredom?
Dr. Ruth: Fabulous question.
(Plunky, bright percussion plays up.)
Green: Dr. Ruth is the master of this stuff.
Dr. Ruth: So I do believe that sex life has to be nourished like a fire.
Do something that is very different.
In the middle of the day, take a bubble bath. Drink champagne.
Green: This woman who, in middle age—and even in older age—became a kind of coach.
Dr. Ruth: Does he wake up with an erection in the morning?
Caller: I don’t know if he does.
Dr. Ruth: Can you peek?
Caller: I can try! (Laughs awkwardly.)
(The audience laughs.)
Green: For people to ask questions and talk about sex in a way that had been really verboten.
Jerry Seinfeld: You have changed sex for America.
Dr. Ruth: I do!
Seinfeld: You have changed sex. It’s not the same thing anymore.
Dr. Ruth: Don’t you tell me it’s less good now.
Seinfeld: No! It’s better now. Everyone knows it. [Dr. Ruth laughs.] Now it’s like a sport. Now people suit up for the game. (Both laugh.)
Green: I mean, she’s just this iconic figure who has showed up everywhere and taken pictures with everyone.
Robin Williams: That’s when you need sexual therapy. That’s when you need help from a little tiny lady like [Putting on an accent.] Dr. Ruth Westheimer. [Audience laughter.] Yes. Dr. Westheimer. Here’s a woman talking about oral sex! [Dropping the accent.] And you know, she doesn’t even eat pork. Warning!
(A light, solemn, reflective piano melody plays.)
Green: Even before she became famous, her life was extraordinary. She lived through the Holocaust. Her parents were Orthodox Jews. She was about 10 years old when her parents put her on a train—a kindertransport—to Switzerland from where they lived in Frankfurt, Germany.
She lived at a home in Switzerland throughout the duration of the Holocaust and lost her parents and her grandmother.
She became an orphan.
Moved to Israel and served in the precursor to the Israeli military during the war of independence, and almost lost her feet during an explosion. And then she moved to Europe; she moved to the United States. She was a single mom for a while. She lived through the death of her husband.
So I felt like she would have wisdom here, because we’ve just been through this traumatic thing that is huge and collective and historic and so hard to grapple with.
(The previous music fades out, to be replaced by what sounds almost like the Croatian Sea Organ, playing chords calmly and evenly at regular intervals, with a light, wind-chime ringing behind them.)
Green: And she just has lived that. She’s lived through so many tough and traumatic things in her life.
Green: You know, I wanted her to help me understand, like … How do we go about regaining that sense of—of intimacy with other people’s bodies?
(A moment more of the Sea Organ.)
Longoria: This week, Emma Green asks Dr. Ruth Westheimer for wisdom: How do we learn from the pandemic and get close to other people again?
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment.
(One last moment of the music before a sonic wave sweeps it away.)
Green: I wanted to see the place where she had lived out the pandemic. So I looked her up, and found that she has lived for about 50 years in my neighborhood.
Green: Uh, in New York City. So I figured I’d pop over and see her.
Dr. Ruth: First, look at the view.
Green: You know, I—
Dr. Ruth: You don’t have that from your place!
Green: I—I … [Stammering.] That’s very true. And I am stunned.
Green: I learned quickly when I met Dr. Ruth that any preconceived script I had for how the conversation was going to go was totally thrown out the window. (Longoria laughs.)
Dr. Ruth: But I have to tell you what’s new!
Dr. Ruth: Because that’s what you need!
Green: Dr. Ruth has a tendency to take control. She had a whole bullet list of items she wanted to review that she had written on a piece of computer paper with black Sharpie.
Dr. Ruth: This is the latest book. You probably have it: Ask Dr. Ruth. That’s about joie de vivre, “lust for life.”
Green: An important concept.
Dr. Ruth: Okay. So now I have to tell you what else is new.
Dr. Ruth: I’m going to be 93.
Green: So what are you going to do to celebrate your birthday?
Dr. Ruth: This time? Nothing, because … I’m eh—eh … What is it called ... an endangered species!
Green: She recognized that, with her age, she’s frail. And, you know, I wanted to see this person who is clearly a lover of human beings. She’s super social; she’s super outgoing. And yet she’s been inside of this apartment for the entire pandemic.
Green: So I—I wonder, what has the last 15 months been like for you? Since the pandemic was, like … ?
Dr. Ruth: (Cutting Green off, excitedly.) Okay. So what it has meant for me is that I was very obedient. That’s the word that pops into my mind.
Dr. Ruth: I used to have a lot of dinner parties out. I did not do that.
Dr. Ruth: Not even now. The whole year, I, um … I kind of … I’m an optimist, and I knew it would somehow end, so I stuck it out.
Green: And were you lonely?
Dr. Ruth: Was I lonely? Of course! Lonely? Yeah, of course!
Not only that, any widow—uh, I’ve now been a widow for over 20 years—and there are moments of loneliness, and what I then do is go right to the list of the positive things that you have. In that respect, I’m a very good therapist for myself.
Green: (Laughs lightly.) Uh-huh.
Dr. Ruth: And then, I am on the phone a lot. My friends, I talk to them almost every day.
Dr. Ruth: I’m very careful.
Dr. Ruth: My daughter took me—for the vaccinations—to Javits Center.
Green: So now Dr. Ruth is in a moment where, like a lot of us, she got vaccinated and she’s starting to slowly enter the real world again. So I wondered if she had advice for people who are thinking about dating and having sex.
Dr. Ruth: I say to everybody, “I hope that right now—after the epidemic—that you go out and that you find a partner.”
Green: What do you mean by that? What are—what are you hoping to see?
Dr. Ruth: I hope that, right now, people should be optimistic again—that, definitely, single people should say, “Okay, the time has come for me to participate.” Go out and find a partner!
Green: You know, I saw this gum commercial—chewing-gum commercial— recently that made me think of you, where, um, it’s for a chewing-gum brand. And it showed all of these people waking up after the pandemic and going out and emerging from their homes. And they’re all finding each other and starting to make out. And they’re making out all over: in the lawn and in the pond and in the park and whatever.
Dr. Ruth: I didn’t see that. I didn’t see that.
Green: So, I wonder if you think, um, it’s good for people to go out and start, you know, kind of being together—to get together and, you know, find new people.
Dr. Ruth: No. No! Because—no. I tell you why.
Dr. Ruth: I do not want people to have indiscriminate sexual relations. I don’t want to see a rise in AIDS.
Dr. Ruth: I have spent so much time of my life to worry about unintended pregnancies and about sexually transmitted diseases.
Dr. Ruth: So my advice is yes, go out, try to find a partner, but don’t hop into bed just because you didn’t have sex for a year and a half.
Green: Mmm. Mmm.
Dr. Ruth: That will be a big mistake. Put an exclamation mark next to “mistake.” (Green laughs.)
Green: I also was really interested in the dynamics of dating and sex for people who have basically had to abstain from that—willingly or not—for the last year and a half.
Green: Just by happenstance, we’ve been forced to live our lives really differently. And some people who might’ve had sex on the third date or on the fifth date have suddenly found themselves, you know, waiting, and getting to know someone without sex over the course of a year, or more. And, um, I wonder if you think that there could be an insight there about … ?
Dr. Ruth: No, I don’t.
Green: You don’t think so?
Dr. Ruth: I don’t—I don’t want to speculate.
Dr. Ruth: No.
Dr. Ruth: But I think it’s very different. I don’t want to make a statement that that is better than … Sometimes people have sex at the first time—
Dr. Ruth: And are married for 50 years after it! (Both laugh.)
Green: Fair enough. Fair enough.
Dr. Ruth: On the other hand, learn one lesson: To be alone and lonely is not a solution. So that lesson you have to learn by going out and finding yourself a partner. That doesn’t mean you should hop into bed with the first one.
That means—that does not mean that you shouldn’t be careful about unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease. And, uh, if you see that there is a problem sexually when the two of you get together, go and see a therapist.
Green: Mmm. Fair enough!
Dr. Ruth: Sometimes this is not a deep-seated psychological problem, but some—some knowledge about good sexual functioning.
Green: Mhm. You know, it’s funny, because I feel like I know so many people who felt despair during the pandemic.
Dr. Ruth: Hmm.
Green: Not only about being lonely on a daily sense, but felt despair about ever finding someone to be with.
Dr. Ruth: And then I will say if you feel despair, and if it’s serious, go and see a psychiatrist.
Dr. Ruth: Don’t sit there and suffer by yourself.
Green: Sure. But I—I mean more, um, you know … I think the pandemic showed us how important relationships are. That the people in your life …
Dr. Ruth: I don’t want to say that. People …
Green: You don’t think so?
Dr. Ruth: No. I … Because what I say is, a few more months, people are not going to talk about the epidemic anymore.
Green: You think?
Dr. Ruth: Yes.
Dr. Ruth: Yes.
Green: You think we’re just going to … (Fades out.)
Green: The thing that was shocking to me [Longoria laughs.]—I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked [More laughter.]—but the thing that was shocking to me was that she was totally unsympathetic to all of my searching, delicate, you know, meaningful, thoughtful questions.
Green: You think we’re just going to move on and leave it behind?
Dr. Ruth: Absolutely. And that’s what I subscribe to.
Dr. Ruth: Yes.
Green: One thing that I hear people talking about is this idea that it’s hard to go back to normal right now.
Dr. Ruth: That what?
Green: It’s hard to go back to normal life, because people feel like they’ve lived through something traumatic.
Dr. Ruth: People feel what?
Green: That they’ve lived through something traumatic. I wonder in terms of relationships—like, um, being back with people …
Dr. Ruth: So here’s about relationships.
Green: Yeah! Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Ruth: Yeah. Here’s about relationships: A good relationship is going to survive. And I’m going to say to people, “Stop constantly talking about how difficult it was.” We all know that. Period.
Dr. Ruth: A not-good relationship is not going to survive. As you know, in the Jewish tradition, it’s perfectly all right to divorce.
Dr. Ruth: There is no—it’s not a bushah; it’s not a shonda. It’s not something that you have to be embarrassed about, if it didn’t work.
Dr. Ruth: So my advice is, when you talk on the phone, find something before you pick up the phone—something positive—that you can discuss, because all of this “How terrible it was” and—and “How upset” and “How lonely” [The sound of a page turning.] is not going to help you.
Just have that joie de vivre, that joy of life, in—in your heart. You’re not going to forget this year.
Dr. Ruth: But—but stop harping on it.
Dr. Ruth: Because there’s nothing you can do about it.
Green: Why do you think that’s better?
Dr. Ruth: Because I think that that’s what—what happens, and that’s from my experience as an orphan of the Holocaust. If I would not have had the inner strength to keep on and go on, I wouldn’t be Dr. Ruth.
Dr. Ruth: So I—I don’t want to dwell on it. [Her phone rings.] Hold it!
Green: Yeah, yeah. Sure.
Dr. Ruth: Hello? … Hello?
Longoria: After the break, how Ruth’s past can inform our future.
Dr. Ruth: Bye-bye, Jack. Bye. Bye. Okay. (The phone beeps to end the call.)
(The lush sounds from the start of the episode enter: the same birds, the same synth bed, the same echoing.)
Green: Dr. Ruth told me that we should basically just forget about the pandemic. Move on with our lives! But it made me wonder how she carries all the other painful moments from her past—like the fact that her parents were killed in the Holocaust.
(The sounds play out.)
Green: It has struck me that people of your generation are the last people who lived through the Holocaust.
You know, my son—he’s not going to grow up around that many people who are survivors, or who lived through the Holocaust. And I wonder what you think that will mean for the world.
Dr. Ruth: Okay, I’ll tell you what that would mean.
Dr. Ruth: So, um, the next generation, the next, next, next generation, like your son … Eventually, it’s going to look—to feel for him like ancient history, but there is no question that there is enough material and enough literature and enough museums for them to learn the history of “Never Again.” But it’s a very important question that you have, because if it will look to them like ancient history, then it will not have the same impact as if one can say, “But your grandmother’s parents were in Europe.”
So I certainly need to stand up to be counted, for the deniers of the Holocaust—for those people who say it never happened—and for people who say, [Clicks her tongue.] “Holocaust fatigue. Don’t talk about it anymore.”
But I’m also saying that you have to have a certain … a certain balance. For example, there are some people who are obsessed with it. Not necessarily Holocaust survivors! Other people, who—who every conversation, talk about the Holocaust. These people, I try not to call them so often on the phone.
Dr. Ruth: Because I protect myself.
(A lightly ringing, buoyant music floats in the air.)
Green: When I talked to Dr. Ruth about the Holocaust, I think I realized why she talked about the pandemic in this way: She is someone who is focused relentlessly on living—not lingering on the past, but just being totally energized in every moment of the present.
Dr. Ruth: And, as you see, I’m doing new things.
Green: That you’re looking forward to?
Dr. Ruth: I’m waiting to see when I can go to Israel.
Dr. Ruth: Because I used to go every year. Luckily, we have a place one hour from New York.
Dr. Ruth: So we are all set for the summer.
Green: She’s got all these schemes! She’s focused on the future, even at 93 years old.
(The music changes tone and increases steadily in volume, bubbling up and over with joy and motion.)
Dr. Ruth: It was wonderful last night to see a restaurant filled to the last table. It was wonderful to see a few weeks ago, on Riverside Park, everybody watching the blooming trees. It was wonderful to go to the Bryant Park, to see the little tulips. And then, next year, there will be many more miniature tulips in beautiful colors.
Green: I think this orientation toward the future is the mark of a true optimist. This is Dr. Ruth’s advice for everyone else: Look forward, not backward.
Dr. Ruth: Forget about that terrible year—except, keep the lessons of that year alive. That, if there is—chas v’chalila, “God forbid”—if there is another outbreak, learn from the experience that we have had this year. But, right now, move on.
(The music cuts abruptly.)
Longoria: What do you make of her advice? It seems like a lot of media right now during this time has been about, you know, acknowledging our trauma, saying it out loud, trying to recognize it. And she kind of had an opposite view.
Green: It did feel very much counter to the times. We’re living in a time when there’s a lot of public discussion about trauma, about the disproportionate impact that something like the pandemic has on different groups of people, the way that that can really stick with people. Um, you know, it’s—it’s a time that I think, in good ways, is more open about things that are hard. It’s not as sort of shut down, you know—hiding behind walls, um, and people having pain to deal with themselves, by themselves.
[Exhaling abruptly.] But I do—I do think there’s value in the Dr. Ruth way of looking at the world.
Longoria: I mean, as we are all … moving into … some kind of normalcy, um, you know, we’re all doing it at our own rate. [Laughs lightly.] Um, what did you make of her advice in your own life?
Green: (After a beat of silence.) You know, I think I could stand to live life a little bit more like Dr. Ruth, because I think there is this temptation to be in constant, you know, drum-beat-of-miseries mode.
And for good reason! People have been through really hard stuff. And it’s good to be honest with friends and family and co-workers when they ask, “How are you doing?” It’s good to answer that honestly.
(Music enters, resonant and hopeful, quiet but soft like a blanket, like a light at the end of a long, long tunnel.)
Green: But, you know, I took away from the conversation a kind of reminder—a kick in the butt—to not just dwell in the parts of my life that are hard, or that are a grind, or that have really drained me and my family during the pandemic, because there’s a lot that’s awesome. And there’s a lot that is coming that is awesome.
(The music continues to play for a long beat of reflection.)
Kevin Townsend: This episode was produced by Julia Longoria and Katherine Wells, with help from me, Kevin Townsend. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by Alexander Overington. Music by Tasty Morsels. Our team also includes Gabrielle Berbey, Tracie Hunte, Emily Botein, and Natalia Ramirez.
If you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(Birds chirp, seagulls caw, and the music continues to play for a long, good moment.)