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Shirley Zussman, Indefatigable Sex Therapist, Is Dead at 107

Shirley Zussman, a sex therapist who was trained by William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, the researchers who demystified the mechanics of sex, and who continued seeing patients until she was 105, died on Dec. 4 at her home in Manhattan. She was 107.

Her son, Marc Zussman, confirmed the death.

In 1966, Dr. Zussman, a psychiatric social worker and psychotherapist, and her husband, Leon Zussman, a gynecologist and obstetrician, were invited to a lecture given by two sex researchers who were virtually unknown at the time: Dr. Masters, a gynecologist, and Ms. Johnson, a college dropout who had studied psychology.

At their St. Louis clinic, the couple (Dr. Masters was at the time married to someone else) had begun helping people improve their sex lives, using what they’d learned in nearly a decade of clinical research studying the ways men and women had sex and what gave them pleasure. Their book “Human Sexual Response,” which popularized the treatment of sexual dysfunction and helped liberate its sufferers from the analyst’s couch, had just been published and was not yet the runaway best seller it would become. But the lecture they delivered, as Dr. Zussman told Time magazine in 2014, the year of her centennial, resonated for her and her husband.

Dr. Masters and Ms. Johnson’s research found that women could be multi-orgasmic, but not always or often — or, in some cases, ever — through penetration. They were pro-masturbation and taught about it. It was a fraught cultural moment, as the buttoned-up 1950s gave way to what Dr. Zussman called the frantic hookups of the ’60s, and each period had in its own way been a recipe for performance anxiety and distress.

Despite the relaxing mores of the ’60s, Dr. Zussman recalled: “It was all not just glamorous and wonderful to be sexual. One had to almost learn how to be a good partner and to enjoy the pleasure, not only for yourself but for each other. And I thought, ‘We can do that! Why can’t we do that?’”

The Zussmans trained at the Masters and Johnson Institute and by the mid-’70s were co-directors of the Human Sexuality Center at Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center. Their patients were married couples, typically women who were not orgasmic and men who were impotent or ejaculating prematurely.

They felt the underlying issues had to do with communication, as they gently detailed in their 1979 book, “Getting Together: A Guide to Sexual Enrichment for Couples.” With exercises both physical and psychological — the Zussmans encouraged their patients to plumb their upbringing for clues to their attitudes about sex and relationships, and to examine how work, family and societal pressures affected their intimacy — the book was wide-ranging in its scope. It was also compassionate.

The book that Dr. Zussman and her husband, Leon, published in 1979 aimed to teach couples how to communicate better. 

“Shirley was a pioneer in sex therapy and an excellent role model,” said Ruth Westheimer, who was a program director at Planned Parenthood and was studying sexuality at Columbia University when she took a course in sex therapy taught by Dr. Zussman and her husband at their Long Island clinic. It was the first experience with the discipline for Dr. Westheimer, the buoyant Holocaust survivor and sexologist who later became a familiar face on television. “They were trailblazers, because she was a therapist and her husband was a gynecologist and that validated the work. It gave it the legitimacy that sex therapists like me needed. I wouldn’t be talking about orgasms if it wasn’t for Shirley.”

Sexual pleasure, Dr. Zussman said in 2014, “is only one part of what men and women want for each other. They want intimacy. They want closeness. They want understanding. They want comfort. They want fun. And they want somebody who really cares about them beyond going to bed with them. And I think people are always seeking that in every generation.”

Shirley Edith Dlugasch was born on July 23, 1914, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her father, Louis Dlugasch, was a doctor, and her mother, Sara (Steiner) Dlugasch, was a surgical nurse.

Shirley grew up in Brooklyn and attended Smith College, majoring in psychology and graduating in 1934. (Julia Child was a classmate.) She earned a diploma at the New York School of Social Work-Columbia University (now the Columbia School of Social Work) in 1937, and a doctorate in education from Teachers College, at Columbia University, in 1969.

Her dissertation looked at husbands who were present in the delivery room, a radical act in the ’50s and ’60s. Dr. Zussman wanted to explore delivery customs in other cultures, and she reached out to the celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead, who was a member of Columbia’s faculty, to be on her thesis committee.

In addition to her son, Dr. Zussman is survived by her daughter, Carol Sun; three grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Leon Zussman died in 1980.

Dr. Zussman was twice president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. She was a frequent guest on talk shows and for a decade and a half had a monthly column in Glamour magazine, “Sex and Health.” She attributed her long life to good genes: Her sister lived to 104, her brother to 96.

In her practice of both sex therapy and psychotherapy, Dr. Zussman saw same-sex couples and single people as well as heterosexual couples. She said the most common problem among her patients in the 21st century was a lack of desire.

“You have to look at your priorities,” she told Time magazine. “You have to decide what is important to make you feel good about yourself and your life. And to help make your partner feel good. To establish something that is gratifying, that fills a need that we all have to be close to somebody.”

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