Episode 45: "Ask Isadora"
Join OneTaste's Shane Metcalf in this intimate interview with sex educator Isadora Alman. We learn about Isadora's personal journey in being and becoming a sex therapist, from the era of free love to today. She shares how her work reaches out to people engaged in all types of sexuality, including heterosexuality, polyamory and asexuality. Isadora talks about her primary goal for people: to really feel what they feel, say what they feel, and discover what they want. We also hear about her work to help her clients find healthy balanced relationships, including the most important relationship, the one with themselves. Tune in and listen as this sexpert shares some words of wisdom on finding what we want in this ever changing world.
Unknown Speaker: Welcome to A Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker Interviews coming to you from the One Taste Urban Retreat Center in San Francisco. For those of you new to the show, One Taste is an organization committed to developing awareness in all of those areas of our being while being shut down. We offer workshops and practices designed to bring more connection to your life. And every Tuesday night we bring you a guest educator to share their perspectives in a fun and interactive way. You can join us live at 1074 Fulson Street in the south of Market neighborhood in San Francisco.
Shane Metcalf: Welcome to A Taste of Sex. My name is Shane Metcalf and tonight my guest is Isadora Alman. Isadora is a sex therapist, relationship counselor, communicator, lecturer, workshop leader and published author.
Isadora Alman: First of all, have some way of communicating with yourself. You know, whether you keep a journal or you meditate, whether you’re, whatever it is really find a way to listen to what’s going on inside yourself and acknowledge it. Therapy might help, group dynamics like One Taste offers might help, but some way to get in touch with who are you and what do you want, and that might be going on the internet and looking for some support, doing some research into other people, but that’s the first step is really finding a way to hear yourself, sense what’s going on with you, and then accepting it.
Shane Metcalf: Welcome to the show Isadora.
Isadora Alman: Thank you Shane.
Shane Metcalf: So Isadora, would you please just give us a little background about how you actually go involved in sex education?
Isadora Alman: How did I get so lucky you mean?
Shane Metcalf: How did you get so lucky, the best job on the planet.
Isadora Alman: I, my undergraduate degrees were in psychology and communication. I, through a long circuitous route, I was working as a real estate agent and looking to do some sort of volunteer work that I would find more engaging, and I took the training for San Francisco Sex Information, which is an online free help line in San Francisco, and it’s still around by the way, this was 1979 that I did this, and I was just entranced with it. I was so much happier dealing with people’s sex lives than their financial lives. Much more interesting than real estate. And so I stayed with them, got on their board of directors, got on their training staff, and decided that I really needed to get into this full time, so I got license to be a marriage and family therapist in California.
Shane Metcalf: And what was this data and the curriculum that your were learning in 1979 about sex education?
Isadora Alman: They gave the best education that I know of to this day, even for graduate schools. It was maybe 60 hours over a period of 6 weeks or so, focusing on what do people do and how do you feel about it and how can we get comfortable talking about it. And boy, that’s still the basis, it’s still the basis of what I do as a psychotherapist, it’s been the basis I do as a writer. You know, what is it that concerns you? Lets put it out, look at it and lets talk about it in a way that will increase your comfort level.
Shane Metcalf: You’ve been involved in this work for over 25 years…
Isadora Alman: About 25 years, yeah.
Shane Metcalf: And have you seen, have you seen the content change much? I mean, you were saying that it really comes down to some of the basics, but have you seen the…
Isadora Alman: Well the content in some areas has changed. I mean, when I was first starting out as a sex educator AIDS didn’t exist. You know, I was of age in the 70’s when free love and free sex and free connecting didn’t have very many penalties, you know, it was very different age in the 70’s than it was in the 80’s. But what hasn’t changed for instance is the birth control method that I used at 18 has not been improved upon in all these years. So some things just stay the same and some things do move along.
Shane Metcalf: Do you think that the culture around sexuality is a healthier more open one than it was 25 years ago or do you think that we’ve digressed?
Isadora Alman: Yes and no. Yes and now, and I mean, that’s another one of those mixed things. We still don’t have a whole lot of alternatives that are acceptable to heterosexual monogamy; although California has just, has just endorsed same sex marriage, but that’s still the norm. The norm still is for what’s sexy is still young, white, thin, you know, sparkly toothed, glossy haired, and while there are magazines with fat women in them, for instance, or devotees of ankles and so forth, we still have the same commercial norm of beauty which is very narrow that you see on Cosmo or GQ covers.
Shane Metcalf: Is there any indicators of this change in the mainstream media?
Isadora Alman: It’s moving along, it’s moving along. We get a hit program like Ugly Betty, for instance, and we get, I don’t know what it’s called but some of the glamorous models who are still ridiculously thin marrying really homely skinny guys who have talent, you know, they’re not marrying, looking for Aristotle Onasis, so talent to me at least is a move in the right direction as something sexy rather than money.
Shane Metcalf: So what do you see the role, the role you play in helping people have a better understanding of their own sexuality and a better sex life in general?
Isadora Alman: I think what I do basically Shane, particularly in my column and on my website is that I let people know that they are not what I call a ‘sexual unicorn’, meaning that what they fantasize, what they think about, what they desire, what they actually do, there’re going to be other people who think about that, fantasize, do it, that there are everybody, there is, has somebody else that does what they do and wants to do what they do, and that everything that feels comfortable to the human being is somewhere on the range of normal.
Shane Metcalf: What motivate you? What’s the inner drive to do this work?
Isadora Alman: I’m really, I’m really passionate about seeing that people have information to make good choices. The choices have been so limited for so long in general. When I was growing up a young girl could aspire to be married with children or not yet, and that was it. Not having children was certainly not a viable choice. Not getting married was not a viable choice. Being other than heterosexual and monogamous was not a viable choice. And the fact is that all these narrow commercial norms I feel leave out the majority of people and their wants and their needs. I wished somebody was around like me when I was growing up and getting into this whole sexual stuff.
Shane Metcalf: What’s the favorite thing, the most gratifying part of the work that you do?
Isadora Alman: Hearing people tell, come back to me saying, “I heard your radio show in the 80’s and it really made a difference in how I thought about sex” or, “I’ve been reading your column for 15 years and I never knew that it was okay to do x or y.” For me to hear from people that I’ve helped them accept their own sexuality is enormously gratifying.
Shane Metcalf: One of the things that we explore here at One Taste is how does our sexual psycho graph, you know, our sexual psychological health affect the other areas of our life, and have you see, have you seen this dynamic in the clients that you work with?
Isadora Alman: Well, one of the quotes that I heard early on was that sex is like, is like air. If the quality of it is minimally acceptable to survive then it’s generally not a big deal, but if you suddenly can’t get any, or what you’re getting is making you ill, it becomes a really big deal. So that’s true of one’s whole life, you know, if your work is minimally satisfying and your health is minimally satisfying, then you can pay attention to your sex and relationships. But if, but if they’re really awful they’re going to pervade every other aspect of your livelihood.
Shane Metcalf: I just heard somebody say that fear of sex is destroying the planet. And I laughed when I heard that because I, there’s this, I have like a hunch in my mind that there are, that sexuality and sustainability are linked together in some way, but I still really don’t know what the answer is to that. Does that, do you have any, do you have any leads for me?
Isadora Alman: Well, this is sort of tangential, but it, I remember during one of the huge political crises of the 70’s or 80’s hearing somebody talking about those powerful men who had their finger on the red button, you know, that could cause nuclear war and destroy us all…
Shane Metcalf: Were they talking about the clitoris or what?
Isadora Alman: No, no, no, they were talking about the button that would set off missiles, and somebody said, “Boy, I hope…”, I don’t remember who was president or who was in charge of Russia in those days, “I sure hope he got a good blow job last night”, and sort of, that was it. You know, people who are satisfied in their sexuality are not going to go out there and blow up the world.
Shane Metcalf: How satisfied do you think that our culture is sexually…?
Isadora Alman: Culture is crazy…
Shane Metcalf: American culture.
Isadora Alman: American culture is absolutely crazy making. You cannot grow up sexually healthy in our society the way it is. And I would say the majority of people in it are a little bit crazy in some area or another because they grew up in it. Some of us through growth work of various kinds manage to be relatively sexually healthy and mange to do more good than harm in our personal relationships, but in general, no, we’re not, we’re a really sick society around sexuality.
Shane Metcalf: What do you do to have your own sexual fulfillment and your own growth?
Isadora Alman: I try to be an honest person who lives life with integrity. I try to be a vivacious, juicy, sexy woman. I flirt a lot, it gives me great pleasure to flirt with other people.
Shane Metcalf: I think people who flirt a lot probably live longer.
Isadora Alman: I think so too.
Shane Metcalf: All the dopamine in the brain.
Isadora Alman: Yes. And the complements that go along with flirting, the essential, you know, “I see you as attractive, I notice”, feels very good, as is the compliment one pays to one’s self as one flirts. You know, “I know I’m attractive and I feel good about that.” So that’s part of how I keep my health. I flirt.
Shane Metcalf: Do you have any other sex, practices that are in the sexual world, in the sexual domain of your personal life?
Isadora Alman: My personal life? I’m a woman of a certain age at this point and now there’s a name for my predilections, it’s called a cougar, never was before, and partners are few and far between for me.
Shane Metcalf: Well thank you so much Isadora. We’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be right back with Isadora.
Shane Metcalf: Welcome back to A Taste of Sex. My name is Shane Metcalf and we’re here with Isadora Alman. So Isadora, can you tell me a little bit about the sex therapy work that you do.
Isadora Alman: Well, I say that I do short-term solution focused therapy, and what I do really for most people is not long-term, you know, lets go back to potty your potty training and so forth, but really what’s hurting and what, how can we make it better. For many people it’s they don’t have a relationship and they would like one, so how do you, how do you find a partner or partners. For many people they have a relationship and they’re hurting, so it’s how do you make it better or how do you negotiate it into something different so that it’ll fit you better or how do you get out of it with the least amount of damage.
Shane Metcalf: That reminds me of some of my friends when they’re looking for a job, you know, they’re obsessed with finding a job and the next thing you know they have a job and they’re like, “God, I have to go to work”, you know.
Isadora Alman: Yes.
Shane Metcalf: We’re so hungry for a relationship and then we actually get one and then all we can think of is getting out of it.
Isadora Alman: Well I have, for the last year or so have been writing for a website called tbd.com which is a social networking discussion group, so I’m getting a lot more input from people over 40 ‘cause that’s what it’s focused on, than I have in my column which almost always, since it’s an alternative paper is for people generally on the younger side, and I’m finding so, how may people are in really miserable marriages. You’d think I’d know that after being a marriage counselor for so long, but I just can’t imagine being as miserable as so many people seem to be and not doing anything about it.
Shane Metcalf: What do you think they can do?
Isadora Alman: Acknowledge it to themselves that there is something to be done. I think that’s part of what I do as an educator. You know, if your wife no longer is willing to have sex with you and you’re 45 years old and your monogamous, does that mean that you have another 40 years to be celibate or is there something you can do? Well yes, you can talk to your wife and say, “We need therapy” or you can say, “”Lets have an open relationship” or you can say, “Well, sexual intercourse isn’t the be all end, lets do some other sexy things that are increasing intimacy and bring us orgasms”, but some people just don’t know that, you know. You either have intercourse within a monogamous marriage or you don’t have any sex. They don’t know any other alternatives, and if your partner won’t talk about it then it isn’t to be discussed.
Shane Metcalf: So you’re creating more options…
Isadora Alman: Absolutely, absolutely.
Shane Metcalf: So if somebody was to come to you, somebody that was in a marriage and they were, they were thinking about these other options but they knew that there was a lot of resistance from the other partner, do you work with the other partner or how does that, how’s that work?
Isadora Alman: I leave that up to them. I will let, if you come to me as an individual and say, “Here’s my situation”, I will lay out the options. Generally, within a monogamous relationship the options is you stay there and you suffer, you leave or you try to do something to make it better. There aren’t any other options, you know. And most people say, “Well, it’s intolerable so I can’t stay there and suffer anymore and I won’t leave.” Well then, the option is to see what you can do to make it better, how you can talk about it, how you can get your partner to talk about it, how you can maybe introduce practices and discussions and things that haven’t happened before, and if you would like, I’d be happy to see you with your partner or if you’re partner’s willing, to see your partner alone. And I’m really okay with however the person wants to do that. I don’t have any strict ways that it has to be.
Shane Metcalf: Do you see people struggle a lot, of revealing these parts of themselves, these desires that they have to the other partner in the relationship?
Isadora Alman: Well, you know, if they hadn’t come to see me they wouldn’t have been struggling already Shane, and by the time they get to see me are willing to spend the time and the money and the effort to find somebody like me who does what I do, make the appointment, pay the money. You know, they’ve already had a long, hard struggle.
Shane Metcalf: Makes you kind of wonder how many people are out there who are suffering silently.
Isadora Alman: Well, I see that on my work on the websites, my own website, askisadora.com and tbd.com, I see constantly how many people are out there silently suffering. The internet is a tool now where at least they can anonymously get some sort of support for their silent suffering.
Shane Metcalf: I recently heard that the internet, one of the first groups of people that are really the most helpful was gay teenagers because they were in small towns, isolated, not in metropolitan areas, but then they were finally able to actually connect with like minded peers.
Isadora Alman: It’s not only gay teenagers, it’s all those people whose sexuality doesn’t fit the very narrow norm. Early on in my practice I saw a small town southern cross dresser who was drinking himself to death until I connected him online with other cross dressers and he found out he was not the only man who liked to wear women’s clothing, that it was not the end of the world, he could still, you know, so anybody, whether they’re gay, whether they’re kinky, whether they’re ugly, you know, too short, too tall, too fat, have a pimple on their nose, to find that there are others like them and there are others who like them, that’s a big deal.
Shane Metcalf: It’s amazing to discover that we’re actually not alone.
Isadora Alman: Absolutely.
Shane Metcalf: One of the things that we do here in our workshops at One Taste is we, if somebody’s going through an experience, having a particularly strong emotion, often we’ll ask has anybody else in the room had this same experience, and this person looks around and everybody’s hands are up…
Isadora Alman: Hands are up, isn’t that amazing?
Shane Metcalf: And you kind of see them loosen up a bit and kind of come in and feel a little bit more included.
Isadora Alman: I’m a real proponent of group therapy for that very reason, that you can look into somebody else’s eyes and you see that they know, they really do get it, your grief or your rage or your lust or your anger or your sorrow, you know, the deepest of your secrets and your feelings, that they’re shared.
Shane Metcalf: What do you think that the role of some of those difficult emotions, like jealousy and anger, what role do they play in a healthy relationship?
Isadora Alman: I was going to say they’re there to crap it up, to give you some challenges so that you feel as if you conquered a mountain when you get through it. Jealousy, such a corrosive, corrosive feeling, you know. It doesn’t do anybody any good. Fear is so corrosive, you know. There’s so many of these things. So I think if there had to be a purpose for them, you know, like what’s the purpose of mosquitoes, if there had to be a purpose for these miserable things the purpose is so that you feel really good when you’ve gotten through it to the other side.
Shane Metcalf: How do you get through to the other side?
Isadora Alman: Work. Real, a lot of personal growth work. Examine, talking with yourself, talking with those other in your life. You saw on the back of my flyer, I think I gave you one earlier, I have there the, this is taken from the work of Virginia Satire, who is a pioneer in communication skills, and to me it’s an outline for a healthy person and a healthy relationship. Can I, may I say what it is? Yeah. It’s in my brochure because I want people to have something to strive for if they’re coming into therapy. “A healthy person needs to be able to see and hear what is here and now instead of what should be, what was or what will be. A healthy person needs to feel what you feel instead of what you think you ought to be feeling. A healthy person needs to say what you feel and think instead of what you imagine is expected of you. A healthy person needs to ask for what you want instead of hoping it will be offered. And lastly, a healthy person needs to take risks in their own behalf instead of waiting or settling for the status quo.” And that’s sort of what we’re all striving for; a well balanced healthy life where we can feel what we feel, say what we feel and get what we want.
Shane Metcalf: Well it’s living in reality, not that as that unicorn…
Isadora Alman: Yes.
Shane Metcalf: as you were mentioning earlier.
Isadora Alman: Uh huh.
Shane Metcalf: So how do you work with what is? How do you avoid the saying what you think is expected of you to whether….
Isadora Alman: How does an individual do that? By resolving that that’s what they’re going to do, and I think an important part of communication skills that’s often left out is self-communication. You know, I’m not….
Shane Metcalf: Can you say more on that?
Isadora Alman: Yeah. I’m not, you know, I can bull crap you and I can bull crap the world, but I have to start with not bull crapping myself. What do I really want? What I really want is to have sex with everybody I can lay hands on. Oh, well okay. Can I do that? Probably not and maintain my relationship. Okay. But I at least I acknowledged that that’s really what I would like to do. So I smile at my own comuppance and then say, “Okay, so what am I going to do about that?” Well what I could do is make my relationship with my partner a little more satisfying so that I’m not lusting after everybody in the world. So that, then we start with, okay, now I know what’s wrong with me and what I want. Now how can I get my partner to hear me when I tell him or her that some things need to be changed between us?
Shane Metcalf: So would you tell you partner that, “Oh, I want to fuck everybody that I see?” Or do you sensor it a little bit?
Isadora Alman: Well it depends on who your partner is and what he or she’s willing to hear. I mean, you would hope that you would know your partner enough to know that if you say that and they have appaplexly, that probably wasn’t the best way to approach the fact. You might say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about how we might add a little bit of excitement to our sex life.” That’s a whole lot different than saying, “You know, I was thinking about getting it on with your cousin. What do you think about that?”
Shane Metcalf: Your cousin, your mother…
Isadora Alman: Right.
Shane Metcalf: Well you know, we teach people that it can be really liberating to speak your desires and you don’t need to act on your desires…
Isadora Alman: Exactly.
Shane Metcalf: but to actually express them and to get them out there can be…
Isadora Alman: The first step is to acknowledge them to yourself. Then the step is to express them to somebody else. Most people don’t even acknowledge, you know, sex, lust, who, me, what, and that’s behind all these scandals of all these religious folk who get caught with their hand in somebody else’s pants. They’re so out of touch with their own desires that quite literally the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.
Shane Metcalf: Yeah, we are, we’re, we might be good at lying to other people but we’re much better at lying to ourselves.
Isadora Alman: Oh, absolutely, yes. That’s well put.
Shane Metcalf: So what do you think happens when the person learns how to stop, how to even be conscious of the lies?
Isadora Alman: I think they become the first step towards enlightened. That this is who I am…
Shane Metcalf: Wow!
Isadora Alman: Yup. And then they get to accept who they are, and boy, does that take a load off most people’s shoulders. You know, I am who I am. I am what I am. It’s why so many people in their later years are much better in bed than young people, ‘cause they know who they are, they know their limitations, they know their desires and they can accept them.
Shane Metcalf: And they are learning how to feel, not perform.
Isadora Alman: Exactly, yeah.
Shane Metcalf: So if you had some advice for our listeners that maybe wanted to move towards being maybe a little more authentic with their desires, what advice would you give them?
Isadora Alman: First of all, have some way of communicating with yourself. You know, whether you keep a journal, whether you meditate, whether you, whatever it is really find a way to listen to what’s going on inside yourself and acknowledge it. Therapy might help, group dynamics like One Taste offers might help, but some way to get in touch with who are you and what do you want. And that might be going on the internet and looking for some support, doing some research into other people, but that’s the first step is really finding a way to hear yourself, sense what’s going on with you and then accepting it.
Shane Metcalf: Great. Isadora, you do a lot of work and you’re definitely one of the champions of a liberated sexuality. What do you see yourself working towards? Do you have a vision on sex in 2050 lets say?
Isadora Alman: You know what I’d like to see Shane? I’d like to see that the alternatives to heterosexual monogamy be just as acknowledged as predilections for blondes or brunettes. You know, do, oh you like blondes, really? Yeah, I sort of have a thing for redheads, yes.
Shane Metcalf: Blonde and brunettes.
Isadora Alman: Yeah, okay, but see people accept that. There’s no gasp or approbrium attached with that. So I would like to see, you know, “This is my wife and this is my husband.” “Oh, I’m glad to meet both of you”, you know. Or I would like to see, “These are my spouses. The five of us live communally.” Or, “I am a sexual. I have never coupled. I’m perfectly happy with that.” And to have all these alternatives be perfectly okay and have no shame attached to them.
Shane Metcalf: How do we get there?
Isadora Alman: Oh, I don’t know, but you’re trying and I’m trying.
Shane Metcalf: We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.
Isadora Alman: Yes.
Shane Metcalf: Great. Well thank you so much Isadora for joining us on the show today.
Isadora Alman: My pleasure.
Shane Metcalf: Alright. Well, you can visit, do you want to mention your websites?
Isadora Alman: Sure. You can reach me at www.askisadora.com, that’s my online sexuality forum. You can jump right in and ask questions and make comments and so forth. You can email me to have a question answered in my syndicated column and that’s askisadora.com. And if you’re over 40 you might check into the website for which I write, tbd.com.
Shane Metcalf: Great, and to hear this and other great podcasts, log onto personallifemedia.com, and please visit us at onetaste.us. Thanks so much.