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
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
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
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
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
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
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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