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SEX TALK: Not the Usual Line
Isadora Alman warns us not to live hungry;
that self-esteem is the ultimate aphrodisiac

By Catherine Taylor

From Radiance Fall 1990

Counselor, columnist, author and talk show host Isadora Alman says that her credentials as a Marriage, Family and Child Counselor just begin to describe the work she does in her private practice and as a public educator. She prefers to call herself a "relationship counselor" and "communications consultant." The large and diverse readership of the "Ask Isadora" column in the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the New York Press would probably agree. Well known for her frank, sympathetic and entertaining responses to an unusual range of questions, Alman demonstrates that sex and intimacy are really all about good communication. In this Radiance interview, she demonstrates her generosity and ease in talking about herself, offering insights from her own life as well as from her professional perspective. As she explains, her personal experience is "an educational tool I would be remiss if I didn't use." Here she talks to Radiance readers about what it is like to be a relationship and sex counselor in the 1990s and a large woman in a think-thin America. She begins, in energetic Ask Isadora style, by posing and answering her own question, and goes on to explain that self-understanding is the key to forming and maintaining intimate connections.

ALMAN: What's a nice girl like me doing in a business like this? Combining my two loves-psychology and communications. My undergraduate degree, back in the 1960s, was in both fields and included mass media. After graduating, I worked as a vocational counselor for some years, and then ended up being a real estate agent. But I missed the counseling, so in 1979 I volunteered at San Francisco Sex Information, an education and referral switchboard. What body part fits next to or on top of or into another body part was the very least important thing callers were concerned with. Mostly I found myself concentrating on social skills and relationship issues-how one feels about oneself, about men, about women, how one connects with another human being. The more I focused on this as a volunteer, the more exciting and dramatic it was for me. I also started doing a lot of public outreach on behalf of the Switchboard and its aims-public speaking, radio appearances, articles-and I wrote a book about my volunteer experience called Aural Sex and Verbal Intercourse (Down There Press, Burlingame, CA 1984, $8.95 paperback). Suddenly I found myself engaging in both my original loves, and I decided I wanted to do this for a living.

Radiance: Who comes into your office or writes to you for advice? What are their most common questions? A: Both men and women, all kinds of people. About 50 percent have a relationship problem with an ongoing partner, and about 50 percent are singles. Most people just want permission to do what they do and feel what they feel. They want to know, Is this okay? Am I normal? Have other people done this? The next largest number of people want some limited information: How do I do this? How do I find somebody to do it with? What's the safest way to do it? Next are those looking for specific suggestions: How can I do it better? What's another way to do it? The smallest percentage of people actually need intensive therapy, for example, someone who is terrified of sex. For those people, there's no easy answer. It's not only a matter of more communication or lubrication. It's going to take some work to arrive at a satisfactory solution.

R: We have all become much more concerned about the safety of sexual activities over the past few years, especially with the AIDS epidemic. What effect is this having on people's sense of freedom about sexual expression? A: I want to remind people that being sexual has always had its risks. There was a brief period in the 1970s when some people-by no means all-felt freer to experiment sexually with partners and behaviors. But up until then, this behavior could cause a woman to lose her reputation. Unwanted pregnancies were terrible tragedies. Before AIDS, syphilis was at least one sexually transmitted disease that could be fatal. The fact that there are diseases around-now herpes and chlamydia and AIDS-is not entirely new. Society, or Nature, has always threatened some penalty for deviating from the straight and narrow. But those people who are determined to lead full lives, which include sexual expression, find a way. Today some are choosing to have intercourse with latex-covered body parts. Some are choosing monogamy who might not normally be monogamous. Some are choosing certain sexual behaviors and forgoing others they might prefer, yet they're still having full lives.

R: Could you comment on how we as a society are just beginning to open up to and understand the kinds of choices we have in partners and ways of life?

A: Our many choices make for a more complicated world, but they certainly have given us the potential for richer lives. When I was growing up, the choices for a woman were to be married with children or not yet married. Otherwise, you were something weird, like Marion the Librarian or Polly the Poodle Groomer-a career gal or a mannish woman. Our society narrowly defined what were acceptable sexual practices. They were penisvagina intercourse between one man and one woman who had a religious and legal contract, performed under the covers, at night, in the dark, for the purpose of having children, and with the man on top. Every variation from that norm, or desire to vary, brought feelings of lowered self-esteem, fear, shame, mistrust, all kinds of pain.

R: So how do you see your role?

A: I provide a place where people can be heard nonjudgmentally. What I do in the column is essentially what I do when I am counseling-nonjudgmentally hearing, exploring options and making some specific suggestions.

R: You've made the point that your work is primarily about communication, but many readers are drawn to your column for answers to fascinating questions about sexual how-tos.

A: People are as much reassured as they are titillated by hearing about other people's private behavior. My column wouldn't be in the paper if it weren't entertaining, but my purpose is to educate. The resultant danger of people not having answers to their questions is unwanted pregnancy, soaring disease rates and homophobia, which leads to gay bashing-all the ills our society is heir to and that cost money and lives. Lord knows, I am just one little candle in a very dark darkness, because our society is so crazy making about issues of sexuality, and this is dreadfully injurious to our individual sense of ourselves as men and women. Look at the need for Radiance. Every woman who reads this magazine is trying to counter the 50,000 advertisements she sees daily telling her that she's unattractive because she's not thin.

R: How has being a large woman influenced your life and your thinking?

A: There have been times in my life when my body type did fit the cultural stereotype, and that was fun. I was curvaceous in the 1950s, which fit the I'deal of the attractive woman then. At that time, I felt a little off balance when people were not acknowledging my very fine mind. So here I am now, at 50, and when people say, "What a fine mind you have," there is still that other part of me that wants to say, "But I'm attractive too!" I didn't want to be seen as a brainless bimbo before, and now I don't want to be seen as a bimboless brain. But it gets harder the older I get, the heavier I get, the less firm I get, the further away I get from society's current beauty stereotype. I remind myself constantly of what I have that is attractive. That's the best I can do. I'm not willing to do what's necessary to look like Jane Fonda, although we are about the same age. I'm not willing to spend my energy that way.

R: Do you have some advice about finding and sustaining intimacy and some thoughts on intimacy for those who have chosen to be single or not to have one partner?

A: By the way you ask the question, you imply that intimacy means a one-on-one, long-term relationship. But intimacy is something anybody can share with another willing person, just like sex. It doesn't have to be life long. It doesn't have to be exclusive. It doesn't have to be with someone of a certain sex. It doesn't even have to involve sex. Intimacy has become a euphemism for sexual intercourse. You can certainly have sex without intimacy; the opposite option is acknowledged less often. To me, the definition of intimacy is mutual self-disclosure. Intimacy means really letting loose, saying to someone, This is who I am. Can you accept what you see? Can we have a mutual exchange? Intimacy can happen between women friends; it can involve girl talk. It can happen in a one-night stand. It can happen slowly over the years between two people who grow more and more intimate. The degree of intimacy a person is comfortable with may vary or change. Some people are comfortable with less intimacy.

One example is parallel marriage: Two of us have agreed to work together to buy a house and raise some children, but what I'm afraid of or what turns me on I will keep to myself. That's an intimate relationship for some. Others take 14 dates, two hand-holdings and an hour of kissing on the way to becoming physically intimate, on the way to becoming emotionally intimate. For me, there's a very broad definition of intimacy for any individual at any given time. When I hear people say "Let's just be friends" or "The relationship is only physical," that implies an I'deal kind of intimacy that must be both sexual and emotional, and that any other kind isn't real. I don't buy that I'dea. It's too narrow a scope to accommodate many people, and so creates a great deal of unhappiness.

R: What about marriage or life-long partnerships?

A: Our cultural I'deal at the moment asks an awful lot. Asking each of us to find one person with whom we can have wonderful sex, fabulous communication, long-term emotional sustenance and economic interdependence is, I think, asking the impossible.

R: Is there hope for maintaining a long-term relationship if we're realistic about our expectations?

A: Yes, absolutely. But first you have to know what you want. Next, you have to know if your partner is likely to provide it. If not, that means you can dump that partner and seek another, which is what most people do, or you can acknowledge that what you have together is good, and provide yourself other methods of obtaining what you miss.

Say that what you think you are lacking is enough sex, and your agreement is monogamy. Maybe what you really want is more touch. You could get that need met by having a body massage. Or you could join a square-dancing group where you can be held in the arms of another person. Or maybe you want flirtation. You could flirt at parties and then go home with your spouse. There are all kinds of ways to meet needs that don't break a couple's sexually exclusive agreement. Your wants have got to be I'dentified and separated from this package society assumes means partnership, so that you can get what you need and not be living dissatisfied and hungry.

R: You talk about Identifying what we need or want. Don't many people have a very hard time knowing what they want?

A: Yes. And finding out what you want can be the outcome of counseling or of personal introspection or of having a good friend along with you to go mucking around in your psyche to figure it out. Some people find out what they want by the process of elimination. After 14 bad love affairs, they know they don't want another one that hurts. But there are less painful ways to find out what's important to you. Look around and see whose relationships you admire. Look in your life and see what you miss. What do you think another person might offer to you? What do you have to give that you have no outlet for?

R: How does someone have a happy, full life while between partners or without one by choice or circumstance?

A: Self-communication is another communication skill. She who is without what she wants needs to say, Here are other ways I can get what I want. I'll go explore them. At the moment I have to go without what I'm doing without a lover. But does that mean I have to go without going to parties? Does that mean I have to go without touch? No, I don't have to go without either of those things. A lot of women don't know that they can separate the whole of what they want into obtainable pieces. It's still okay to be sad about not having what you want, but don't let yourself feel wrong. Remind yourself that you are a worthwhile person and of all that you do have in your life. Counting one's blessings requires frequent talking to oneself, because society-the magazines we read and television and movies we watch-doesn't give a whole lot of support to a single woman. Society only helps her buy into the myth that she's not okay unless there's a man on her arm. One of Barbie's main accessories is Ken.

Our society has the Noah's Ark syndrome. You're not okay unless you've got a mate, and that mate has to be of your same species. If you're a kangaroo, you have to have another kangaroo to live life to its fullest; a marmoset won't do. But some people really are much happier without a life mate-when they finally disabuse themselves of the concept that they ought to have one. They really like sleeping in their own beds and spending their own money and going out with friends at a moment's notice. But they might like someone to share their problems with or to hold sometimes. That is possible without the rest of the package. People can live happier lives if they don't buy into society's concept of what they need to be happy.

R: You've broken a couple of society's rules in the way you live your life. One is that your partner is 14 years younger than you are-which, of course, would not be considered a broken rule if the sexes were reversed.

A: Yes. And when we first came together, he was not only younger, but he had less financial and educational status. Now he is a chiropractor, but he was a student for a goodly portion of our life together, while I was an acknowledged professional. But I felt he was my intellectual equal, certainly, and my superior in certain areas. If I had held on to society's concept that a man must be older, taller, richer, smarter, then I would have missed a really important and rewarding relationship in my life.

R: Have you also experienced more traditional relationships?

A: Yes. I married exactly the person I "ought" to have married, a man slightly older and of the same religious and socio-economic background. It was a fairly good marriage. We had one child, a daughter who is now 24, with whom I am delighted. But at a certain point, I simply did not want to be married anymore in the conventional sense, and he didn't want anything else. I don't think I would marry again. I can't see any reason for it. Not for economic security; I provide that for myself. Not for emotional sustenance; I'm happy living with my lover. I don't want, nor can I have, any more children. And, honestly, conventional marriage has never been for me the I'deal option. It's just that at one point in my life I knew no other possibilities.

R: You've run workshops on how to meet people. Could you pass on some of your tips to Radiance readers?

A: The first thing is to take a good look at your life and decide what you want. Friends? Romantic partners? Men or women? Next, and most important, is to know yourself. If you're not a razzle-dazzle person, going to a singles mixer where first impressions are what counts will make you feel crummy. Know where you shine. If you feel comfortable in a one-on-one setting and not in a group, you might look at blind dates or personal ads. If you interact better when you're relaxed and sitting down, don't go to an event where you've got to stand up. If you're comfortable only with women and you want to meet men, then you'll have to stretch yourself. But start with your own comfort level. Most people meet partners and friends in ongoing situations. Maybe you see this someone everyday at work or every afternoon on the bus, and you begin over a period of time to see that he or she is pleasant and warm.

Society says that love has to happen between two strangers across a crowded room, but it doesn't usually work that way. Often desire can surprise us in hitherto nonsexual friendships. So I often urge people to find a way to be in constant contact with a certain number of people. A class or club will do that.

R: Can we really help whom we're attracted to? Isn't attraction pretty irrational?

A: How and what attracts us immediately is mired deep within our psyches. I am always attracted, for instance, to short, stocky men. I have friends who say I'd be attracted to a fireplug if it smiled. But what is important to me is wit and intelligence. So my partner happens not to look like my physical ideal. I don't look like his either. That was not the highest priority for either of us.

R: Do you have suggestions specifically for large women who want to meet friends and potential partners?

A: Large women in a society that says being large is not okay have to deal with that fact. In our society being large is considered unattractive and a character fault as well. Two big negatives. A woman could join an organization such as NAAFA, where she knows anyone she meets already has a preference for somebody large-so what was a big negative becomes a positive. A woman could also seek out partners from cultures in which size is not a deficit and fat women are considered attractive. That's certainly not true of the modern day United States, but it is true of some Eastern cultures and some Latin cultures, and it is more acceptable to be large in black America than it is in white America.

Another way to deal with being large in this society is to accept it. Wear bright red. Walk in the world in a way that says, This is who I am. I'm also charming and sexy and warm and witty. Most people will eventually respond on that level. Unfortunately, a large woman generally can't expect to be the object of instant attraction on a physical basis. So she has to put herself in situations where people see all the other good things about her. This is a woman for whom ongoing connection will work really well, in situations where she does well, where she can flaunt her strengths. Remember, self-esteem is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Note to Readers: Isadora welcomes your questions on relationships, sexuality and intimacy, especially as they relate to you as a large woman. Send them to her c/o Radiance. (While she cannot respond to you personally, we do promise to have her responses to some of your questions in a future issue.) Three Audio Tapes by Isadora Alman

#1 Let's Talk: A Guide to Improving Couple Communication
#2 New Ways To Meet People: The Search for Intimate Connection
#3 Enjoying Sex With Safety: Some Solutions in an Age of Problems

All tapes are approximately one hour in length and are $15 each, postage included. For more information on each tape, write to Isadora Alman, M.A., MFCC, 3145 Geary Boulevard, #153, San Francisco, CA 94118.

CATHERINE TAYLOR is the senior editor of Radiance. She lives in Berkeley, California.


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