Isadora Alman (Photo/Lori Eanes)
Isadora Alman (Photo/Lori Eanes)

‘Ask Isadora’ about sex. She’s 78 years old, and she’s got answers.

Isadora Alman, 78, is a marriage and family therapist, a certified sexologist and the author of numerous books, including “What People Keep Asking Me About Sex and Relationships.” From 1984 to 2001, she wrote the nationally syndicated advice column “Ask Isadora” for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Alman lives in Alameda.

J.: How did you become a sex therapist?

Isadora Alman: I started out taking a volunteer course at San Francisco Sex Information, way back in late 1970s, and I was so excited by the field and the people in it and by what was going on there that I became very involved in the organization itself. Eventually, I was on its training staff and board of directors and found out I needed a license of some sort to do what I was doing outside of the parameters of the organization. But what I was teaching mostly was more about social skills than about sex. Most people didn’t know how to ask someone for a date, or how to say no, or tell their partner they wanted to have sex. It was communication skills more than anything else.

How did your column start?

I approached the Bay Guardian with the idea since I felt such a need for it. The only other papers that had personals were really far more sexual, and I was looking for something educational rather than titillating that still addressed sex, and they gave me a great deal of license. At the time, the only advice columnists were “Dear Abby” types, which were so fuddy-duddy. I eventually became syndicated to 25 or 30 papers, and I don’t think I was ever censored anywhere.

What were among the more common questions?

“Am I normal?” was the most common, with many of those related to body parts being different sizes. Others would be about people’s fantasies, and my response was generally “What does it matter if this is what you like? As long as it’s consensual and not against the law, what do you care what other people are doing?”

How have people’s issues changed over the years? I can imagine the internet has changed a lot.

Oh yes, the internet has changed things dramatically. Very early on I saw a really tortured man who was a cross-dresser and he thought he was the only one on earth. I told him about a few clubs, but now it’s so easy for someone like him to find gazillions of resources, references, places to go and people to do it with. It connects people in a way that was never possible before, and in many ways normalizes a lot of atypical sexual behavior. The downside is that it also normalizes pornography. Classic pornography is all fiction. So people who learn about sex mostly from porn think that all women’s breasts point to the ceiling, because they’re fake, and guys are hung like elephants, because these are the men that get into porn. Also, in your typical porn story he comes in the door, there’s a minute of conversation, the clothes come off, he may give her a minute of oral sex, and then she comes quickly and noisily. All of that is fiction.

Does the internet make it easier for married people to have extramarital affairs?

I don’t think so, but I also don’t think most people are naturally monogamous. But there are some who like to eat corn flakes every single morning, that’s their breakfast, and they would be very upset if Wheat Chex were put in front of them. If you marry in your 20s and live to your 80s, that’s an awfully long time to have only one sexual partner.

It seems a lot of well-known sex therapists are Jewish women. I’m thinking of Ruth Westheimer and Esther Perel, for example. Do you have any insight into why?

Ruth started this field and I think she became so well-known because she was nonthreatening. She was more like an educator or grandma. I can think of some other very well-respected sex therapists who are men, but they are Jewish, too. It’s probably because Jews are broader thinkers, and are more likely to look at things from a different angle. Part of being Jewish is that you see yourself in the fabric of the world. The field called to me because I needed someone like me to answer the questions that, as a young woman at the time, I needed answers for.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."