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Before Love Was Savage

Jewish grandma Isadora Alman pioneered the American sex-advice column, then found her work obsolete.

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“I used to play a game with myself,” the sexologist is saying. (This sounds promising.) “I had a big basket under my desk, full of letters. I’d open each letter and try to guess where it was from. New York, San Francisco, Chicago? Were the cultures so different in different places that I could recognize them? Well, I couldn’t. There were swingers in Chicago, and there were people in San Francisco who didn’t know their ass from their elbow. I found no distinction, at least geographically. Or at least for the readers of alternative papers. So they were alternative people, I guess, to begin with.”

The sexologist is Isadora Alman, whose syndicated advice column, “Ask Isadora,” once was a destination for pleasure-seekers everywhere, from the deliriously perverted to the merely perplexed. At its peak, in the other-than-progressive 1980s, her column ran in three dozen newspapers, including the national progressive beacon and alt-weekly colossus Village Voice. Alman presided over a benevolent sex-information empire—as radio host, author of books, leader of sex-information workshops, and ever-responsive taker of all questions you were afraid to ask.

But “Ask Isadora” hasn’t been published for more than a decade, Alman’s radio work has since been reduced from host to occasional guest, and her books have nearly been squeezed off the crowded human-sexuality shelf. People still have questions, they always will, but no longer is Isadora the first person they think to ask. Having so successfully helped alternative people become mainstream, she rendered her own work unnecessary. Once a pioneer in her field, now Alman is out to pasture.

It’s very pleasant as pastures go; on a recent morning I find her there, at her home office in Alameda, California, where she works as a marriage and family therapist. It’s in a quiet, sunny neighborhood full of flower-bedecked Victorians, and easily accessible through a purple back-porch door, just up a short driveway past the gleaming cherry-red Scion whose license plate reads “ISADOO.”

“You have to come here in order to come here,” she tells me, innocent of all innuendo. “It is very much an island.” She means Alameda, where she moved from San Francisco in 2006, to be closer to her daughter and granddaughter. Alman has taken a seat and made hospitable gestures when, with an air of just-remembered concern, she stands again and closes the door to the next room. Ah, here we go. A secret alcove of carnal delights? No. It’s just to keep the cats out while we talk (the only freaky toys in plain view are theirs). We’re enclosed in a cozy hush of professional receptiveness.

Wall décor here includes diplomas; small, tasteful engravings of coupled lovers; the official proclamation of “Ask Isadora Day” from former San Francisco supervisor Tom Ammiano; and the poster blow-up of one Alman-intensive cover of the Village Voice. “When I was going to NYU,” she remembers, “the pinnacle of success was sleeping with a Voice columnist.” The poster commemorates the moment she’d truly arrived. That moment seems as long ago as New York City seems far away.

Make no mistake: Alman, now 74, seems like someone who’s had a gleam in her eye for her whole adult life. (The dust-jacket photo from her first book corroborates this.) She’s easy to talk to, in a way that surely has been titillating to suitors, reassuring to hotline or radio-show callers, and generally conducive to the decorum of a marriage therapist’s home office. Interviewing her here, it is tempting after a while to stop asking questions and start making confessions.

Alman’s voice sounds like her: a blunt nonsense-averse New Yorker tempered by the legato New Age platitudes of Northern California. She is not haughty. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. Nor does she seem to think she’s particularly hilarious. It’s not hard to see how she can’t really compete in the current marketplace of pontificators. She lacks the grownups’-table skepticism of Dear Prudence, the out-and-proud attitude of Dan Savage, the au courant adventurousness of Tracy Clark-Flory. She’s a newspaper columnist, with all the glorious, bygone virtues—and marketplace deficiencies—of a newspaper.

***

“When I was a kid,” Alman once wrote, “we referred to used condoms washed ashore as ‘Hudson River cuddle fish.’ ” (She seems to savor the pun.) Born in New York City in 1940, Alman went to boarding school upstate at age 13. Not long thereafter, she says, “There was a friend of my father who felt it necessary to report to my father that his daughter was not a virgin. He felt it was his job to preserve the virginity of nice Jewish women. I hope my father told him to go fuck himself. It was that kind of humiliation that we were always subjected to. I was a product of my times.” For some context, consider that it wasn’t until 1952—the year before Alman went away to school—that the American Psychiatric Association finally allowed that the ailment formerly known as “hysteria” could in fact be the non-ailment known as female sexual arousal.

At 16, Alman started college at Adelphi, on Long Island, in part because it was one of the few places to admit her at that young age. She began a non-exclusive “really hot sexual romance” with a classmate, who eventually dropped out. “He traveled with a carnival for a while. He was very theatrical. And so when he came into town we were lovers, and then he went away. That was most unconventional. At the time, good girls didn’t do any such thing. I felt no guilt. But there were a lot of questions I had and just no place to get an answer.” Contraception was available from the Margaret Sanger Clinic, at least, but only if she went in wearing a fake engagement ring.

Alman was married for real, to another man, by 22. “I had a higher libido than my husband,” she recalls. “There was no such concept available in the whole gestalt of the society. Every joke was, ‘“Not tonight dear, I have a headache,” said the woman.’ Or he’s pleading with her and bribing her with a new fur coat or something. So where was I to go? I didn’t talk to my women friends because that would embarrass me and my husband. There was no frame of reference. I didn’t even know the word ‘libido.’”

By 1979, Alman was divorced, living in San Francisco, working as a real estate agent, and feeling inclined toward community activism. By then possessed of a psychology degree from NYU, she took up volunteer training at San Francisco Sex Information, a nonprofit advice service, learning to answer anonymous hotline calls from anyone with any sexual questions. “But not for sexual entertainment,” she adds. “And there were a lot of those. People who just wanted to hear a woman’s voice say body parts, that sort of thing.” She learned to screen out the heavy breathers. Among fellow volunteers, she felt she’d found her tribe: people willing to talk frankly about sex, and to listen—willing to provide a public service they all personally wished they’d had. Noting the robustness of personal ads in the alternative press, and sensing a need, she pitched the San Francisco Bay Guardian on a column in the question-and-answer format.

“The editor said, ‘Give me a few samples,’” Alman remembers. “I said, ‘Ask your editorial staff what they want to know, and I’ll write the first column.’ One of them was, basically, ‘I want to ask this guy out but I’m not sure if he’s gay. How do I find out?’ Right from the start it was both sexual and social.”

The year was 1984. “This really redirected my life,” she says. With the guidance of California’s licensing agency, Alman cobbled together a customized master’s program: “My thesis was partially the book I wrote about San Francisco Sex Information, and partly about something I’m still interested in, which is the agreements that couples make regarding the sex outside the relationship. How does that happen? When does it happen, what are the parameters?” In addition to the column, and that first book, she also began a private counseling practice.

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Before Love Was Savage

Jewish grandma Isadora Alman pioneered the American sex-advice column, then found her work obsolete.