Sex therapist Shirley Zussman dies at age 107

‘Pioneering’ sex therapist Shirley Zussman dies at age 107: ‘Trailblazing’ expert who trained with Masters and Johnson and saw patients until she was 105 passes away at home in NYC

  • Zussman was born in New York City in 1914, received her undergraduate degree in the ’30s, and earned her doctorate from Columbia University in 1969
  • She and her husband, Leon Zussman, a gynecologist and obstetrician, trained together at the Masters and Johnson Institute
  • William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson were famous for treating sexual dysfunction and demystifying sex
  • The Zussmans were co-directors of the Human Sexuality Center at Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center and published a book together
  • She also wrote a sex column for Glamour magazine and was president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists
  • Dr. Ruth Westheimer described her as ‘a pioneer in sex therapy and an excellent role model’

Sex therapist Shirley Zussman, who trained under the famed team Masters and Johnson and practiced for over 50 years, has died at the age of 107.

Her son, Marc Zussman, confirmed her death on December 4 to the New York Times this weekend.

Zussman, who was born in New York City, received her doctorate from Columbia University, trained with her husband at the Masters and Johnson Institute, and served with him as co-director of the Human Sexuality Center at Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center. 

She published two books; was president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists; wrote a sex column for Glamour magazine, and appeared on countless news and talk shows over the course of her illustrious career.

‘Shirley was a pioneer in sex therapy and an excellent role model,’ Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who took a class taught by Zussman and had her own prolific career as a sex therapist, told the New York Times.

Sex therapist Shirley Zussman, who trained under the famed team Masters and Johnson and practiced for over 50 years, has died at the age of 107

Zussman was born in New York City in 1914, received her undergraduate degree in the ’30s, and earned her doctorate from Columbia University in 1969

Zussman was born Shirley Edith Dlugasch on July 23, 1914 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to a doctor father and surgical nurse mother.

She was raised in Brooklyn, and in 1930 began attending Smith College, where she majored in psychology. She would go on to get her degree from the New York School of Social Work at Columbia University.

Excelling in higher education already made her a trailblazer, and she chose a particularly new and unique discipline in majoring in psychology.

‘When I was at college, it was not a time when women were interested or even thought in terms of careers,’ she said, according to Medium. ‘Their idea was to … have a good education, get married, and have children, and bring them up in the way they were brought up themselves.’

Zussman did get married, too, to Leon Zussman, a gynecologist and obstetrician. The pair had two children, Marc and a daughter, Carol Sun.

In 1966, she was working as a psychiatric social worker and psychotherapist when she and her husband were invited to a lecture by William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, who became famous for treating sexual dysfunction and demystifying sex.

The researchers had just published a book, Human Sexual Response, which would eventually go on to be a huge success.

The lecture struck a chord for Zussman and her husband. 

‘They were recognizing that it was not all not just glamorous and wonderful to be sexual, but that one almost had to learn to be a good partner,’ she told Time in 2014.

‘And I thought, “We can do that! Why can’t we do that?”‘

Zussman got a doctorate in education from Teachers College at Columbia University in 1969. She wrote her dissertation about husbands being present in the delivery room when their children were born — something that was quite rare at the time. 

She and her husband then trained at the Masters and Johnson Institute.

In the ’70s, they became co-directors of the Human Sexuality Center at Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center, where they treated married couples — including women who didn’t have orgasms and men who were impotent or ejaculating prematurely. 

According to Medium, Zussman said that women would come in ignorant about their own bodies, seeing their vulvas as ‘unexplored territory.’

They trained together at the Masters and Johnson Institute under Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson (pictured)

She would help them to better enjoy sex with a holistic approach.

‘You have to look at your priorities,’ she told Time. ‘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.’

She added that sexual pleasure ‘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.’

In 1979, she and her husband published a book, ‘Getting Together: A Guide to Sexual Enrichment for Couples,’ which tackles sex from both physical and psychological standpoints. 

Zussman was also president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists two times; edited a newsletter called ‘Sex Over Forty’; and spent about 15 years writing a monthly column called ‘Sex and Health’ for Glamour magazine. 

She frequently on television as well, and over the years was interviewed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters, and Phil Donahue, and also appeared on 20/20, NBC Nightly News, and CBS News.


She and her husband published ‘Getting Together: A Guide to Sexual Enrichment for Couples’ in 1979 (left), and in 2017, she also published ‘What’s Age Got to Do with It?: A Collection of Essays’ (right)

She was professionally active late into her life, and in 2017, she published another book called ‘What’s Age Got to Do with It?: A Collection of Essays.’

Dr. Ruth Westheimer (pictured) described Zussman as ‘a pioneer in sex therapy and an excellent role model’

She was even still seeing patients at the age of 105. 

In 2014, she reflected on changing attitudes about sex therapy in her over five decades of practice.

‘I don’t think that the stigma around sex therapy exists like it was in the early years,’ she said.

‘People were ashamed they had to go to a psychiatrist or a social worker, because it means they needed help. Many people resist[ed] the idea that somebody needs to tell them how to have sex.’

In addition to her two children, Zussman is survived by three grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1980.

Dr. Ruth — who took a course taught by Zussman and her husband at their Long Island clinic while she was a program director at Planned Parenthood — said that learning from Zussman was her first experience studying sex.

‘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,’ she told the New York Times.  

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