"I was there..."
interview with Maggi Rubenstein by Elizabeth Sullivan in 1997
Maggi Rubenstein is a bisexual activist and co- founder of three major sex-education institutions in San Francisco: Glide Memorial Church's National Sex Forum, the San Francisco Sex Information Hotline, and the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. She is also a practicing sex therapist. She spoke about her extraordinary life in early 1997.
ES: When and how did you start to work in the sex education community?
MR: In gratitude to Joel Fort who had gotten me out of the boring hospital I was working in as a nurse and given me a job in a clinic that he ran, I went to work in a free clinic he had started.
It was there that I met many of the people I work with now in the sex field, Ted Makelvena and others, including Toni Ayres and Carolyn Smith with whom I started the switchboard for San Francisco sex information.
I had always been interested in sex education and had taken some sex-ed courses. And I felt that I had an affinity for teaching, it was also a subject that I could talk about pretty easily. I always enjoyed sex myself and thought it was important, a very basic part of everybody's life. It never made sense to me to have a narrow view about what human sexuality meant—I always thought it was all interesting and essential as long as it was consensual.
I had come out as bi in '69 at the clinic where I was working. Nobody was talking about it. In '72 when I began to work with the National Sex Forum down at the Glide Urban Center I began to talk about bisexuality in the workshops we did. So even then it wasn't just about being straight or gay.
ES: What did you do at Glide?
MR: Well, Glide is a church and an urban center. It's down in the Tenderloin and it's very famous. Cecil Williams runs these amazing Sunday services down there and people come from all over to participate.
But we had rented space there, because Ted had originally worked at Glide as a minister. And then Cecil Williams and Ted and several other Methodist ministers were going off in all directions about social justice issues. Cecil went off into working more with poor and homeless people and in the Tenderloin. Ted and Phyllis Lyon, who was a mentor of mine (she and her partner Del Martin are two leaders of the lesbian community) helped to start the National Sex Forum (NSF), along with Laird Sutton and Louis Durham and some other people.
They were studying young gay and lesbian adults in San Francisco.
And they felt that they couldn't study them as a population properly, they had to look at the whole picture, so they began to talk in their workshops about all aspects of human sexuality. I came along and included bisexual issues. And it was absolutely accepted. Everyone said "absolutely, makes sense," certainly.
So Ted, through Mike Phillips at Glide was able to get some money to start San Francisco Sex Information (SFSI), which Toni and Carolyn and I started, and he was also able to get some money to help start COYOTE ("Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics," a prostitute's rights organization.) So my interest in ALL aspects of human sexuality was really piqued in '72, in getting support to be running workshops at the NSF and starting SFSI and giving support to the rights of prostitutes and the rights of all women, around human sexuality.
ES: Who came to the workshops at the National Sex Forum?
MR: We worked at UCSF, and everybody came to the workshops. Well, adults. But at first it was for health professionals, anybody who did counseling or therapy work, then we saw that those people were not set apart from the general population, they were just as ignorant of sexual issues as most of us are. We're all ignorant. We all grew up ignorant about sex, in this society. So we opened it up for everybody, couples, individuals, people of all kinds, college students.
It was general, basic sex education. We started with our 101 course. So people would come to study 101, which was our basic course; fantasy, masturbation, women's sexuality, men's sexuality, sex and disability, sex therapy. We had lots of films, panels, presentations, large group discussion, and two-day courses. Right from the get-down we talked about masturbation, fantasy, that's the first thing we talked about.
We also have in the basic workshop something we call the fuck-o-rama, the first evening, which is all about commercial films. There is so much mythology about pornography, and a lot of pornography is stupid and boring, but some of it is okay and some of it is pretty good. And it IS the way that people get information, a lot of people can't afford to go to counseling or come to workshops and may instead go to watch a film, or may go to a theater. At least they see, well it may be exaggerated, as all films are, larger than life and more gorgeous than life, but it does show what people do, sexually. So it does have benefit.
ES: What are other things you did through the NSF?
We created a whole series through Laird Sutton, our media person, of sex education materials. Regular people, not actors, were hired, who don't work in the sex field, the sex industry, but are just people sharing their sexual patterns on film for education, not to be shown in theaters. And so a lot of the sex education materials we show are real people doing real stuff.
We also offered the 201 course which I still teach at the Institute. The 201 talks about childhood and adolescent sexuality, about gay, lesbian, bi parenting, about group sex, about transgender issues, about S/M, about prostitution, about counseling people with disabilities, about counseling people who have more unusual lifestyles, and that's also panels, lectures, and some films and a lot of group discussion. It's not good to show the second aspect before you show the first because the first sets the ground work for what comes after. So those two basic courses were what the NSF offered, and we still offer a 7 day workshop where people come from all over the country, it's a total immersion workshop—morning, noon and night. There was always something to do about sex, whether it was field trips, or going out to dinner, or using strobe lights and crawling through erotic material, doing massage, hot tubs, as well as getting the basic information. This is once a year. And our process is called "SAR", for sexual attitude readjustment, which is our logo for all that we do at the Institute and at the NSF.
ES: When did the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality start?
MR: We ran these workshops for many years, and people were saying, 'Gee, I wish there was some way to get academic credit, I wish there was a school of sexology.' So we were saying maybe we should start a school of sexology where people can really focus on education, research and therapy issues about human sexuality. So we started planning in '75. We started the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in '76.
The Institute has certification programs, but also mainly it does courses and work leading to a masters in human sexuality and or a doctorate, an educational doctorate or a Ph.D. doctorate in sexology. And people come from all over the world for that and we are the only school in the world that offers this. ALL we teach is all you can think of about human sexuality, there's nothing left out. And we even have a bunch of youth from City College come in to some of our basic courses through one of my colleagues who also works at City College. This is all information people need much earlier than that. But that's how society is.
We also have about 7 or 8 different workshop programs that run the gamut from media work to practical skills workshops and therapy training workshops and gay erotology and women's group training for pre-orgasmic women's groups, sexual anthropology, and an STD course. Everything from going to Good Vibrations to going to an S/M educational evening to ETVC (a transvestite organization.) Getting to know what's out there in the community. We stand on the shoulders of Alfred Kinsey, we want students to look at it all.
ES: When did you start doing sex therapy?
MR: In the early 70's. I did Masters and Johnson type sex therapy with clients and also taught medical students, basic introductory courses. At UCSF, Parnassus.
Our model was: two therapists, two clients, seeing people every day, for 12 days. Or changing it, seeing a couple for 12 weeks with at-home exercises. But we found that one therapist can do it.
ES: Why do people come for sex therapy?
MR: Common concerns for people who come: erection concerns, inorgasmia, pain, poor communication, lack of interest. Communication is always the key, people have to be willing to talk to each other, boldly, about their sexual needs. If they can talk about sex with each other they can talk about anything. It can help their self-esteem in other ways too. It's also very important that people learn how to argue well, and to disagree well.
Also, sometimes people marry each other for convenience or for security or because each other is each other's best friend and they may not feel a sexual charge. And that can be difficult. So sometimes people look at, do they have an open marriage? Do they have a monogamous marriage? What's going to fit for that couple? If one person wants to be sexual once a month in the traditional in-the-dark-man-on-top-Tuesday-night-for-ten-minute way, and the other person wants to go out and party, and get it on in the backyard in the moonlight. You know, as I say in my basic workshop, if you're talking about "intervaginal containment" and your clients are talking about fucking, you are not going to communicate. And likewise with partners you have to have a common language—and also give each other space.
We taught the students for eight weeks in human sexuality. It was an opportunity for all students to get sexual education: is it normal to masturbate? Is it okay to have same sex feelings? These are the things that therapists should have addressed.
ES: Would you tell me a little more about the Institute?
MR: Well we have an extensive sexual information library, and all our speakers are taped, as well. Every subject you can imagine in human sexuality. It's this HUGE collection. So people from other schools come to us for that and the library and the tape library. A large collection of erotic art, of books.
ES: When did you come out as bisexual?
MR: I started hanging out with some gay men I worked with. They were like my brothers, and I was fine with them being out. It was the 50s, the gay rights movement hadn't happened yet, but these were guys that were in the entertainment business, very well to do, and a couple were nurses. Through them I met my first woman lover, when I was 24. She led a very glamorous life in Hollywood as a screenwriter. I pretended to be lesbian—well I didn't pretend, I told the community of women down there that I was bisexual—but they said "no, no you're lesbian". I went through this two-year period of questioning. "Am I lesbian? Am I bisexual? What's the truth?" Maybe I should just give up men. But my erotic interest in men just kept creeping in.
When I was with my woman lover it felt very natural. I didn't tell my family, because I came from this family that did not support me at all. I didn't tell my mother anything. My stepfather was a beast. My Dad was an Irish catholic, an uptight guy though I loved him very much. But I wasn't about to tell any of that.
Later on when I came out of my second marriage, I was still working as a nurse but I knew there was a whole lot more to life. I knew I didn't want to get married again, I didn't want to live with anybody unless my perfect soulmate came along. I wanted to be single, I felt I wasn't a monogamous person. One person didn't ever meet all my needs, though I have great respect for my relationships and I made commitments and kept agreements. I just really needed both genders. I met some people that were going to a sexual freedom league party one night, and I went with them just out of curiosity. Then I had several years of going just to kind of straight sex parties.
I had a lot of sexual activity during the 1970s. Then I got very bored with it in the late '70s. But I treasure all those memories. To this day I've never been sexual with anyone that I didn't really want to be sexual with. I was very selective, even in that community. I treasure all that.
ES: Tell me about founding the Bisexual Center in San Francisco, and how that came about.
MR: We started a bisexual center in San Francisco in '73 which went till '84. It was first at a building downtown and then in the Haight. We had social programs, rap groups, workshops, counseling, newsletter, speakers bureau, and people just flocked to it because there was just no other place for bisexual people to go then without being trashed. There was no other place in the country, just a small discussion group in NY.
Now, Bi Pol, which is the political arm of Bi started in '84. Bi Net, which is the national organization of the bi movement started in '90, and now several bisexual books have come out in the '90s.
The AIDS crisis in a peculiar way brought gay and bisexual men together and lesbian and bi women together more because when all the educational workshops were offered about safe sex of course everybody who had same sex experiences as well as opposite sex experiences were welcome, but heterosexual people didn't want to come. So bisexuals, many of whom had aligned themselves politically with gay and lesbian people, came to these workshops and I ran many of those workshops. We also had a gay man and a bi man and we did what we called the "sexologist sexual health project." We went out and did these three hour presentations with films, and they were a lot of fun; exercises and games all about safe sex and how to make it juicy and hot and sexy. And the Buddy Connection still exists, they got their training from us and they continue with that process. At the Institute the first women and AIDS workshop and training was offered with 12 different safe sex workshops in a week—we did 7 of them.
So the terrible scourge on humanity that is called AIDS—the only silver lining is that it threw bisexual people and gay and lesbian people together with a common goal of taking care of each other and taking care of ourselves. The S/M community too, that community was outstanding in dealing with issues of safe sex."
ES: What group do you see yourself as most a part of now?
MR: I have friends and feel comfortable, whether it's tantric stuff in Marin county or transvestite stuff or the transgender community or the S/M community the swing community, the straight community, gay/lesbian community, bisexual, therapy. I mean I have all these communities that I feel comfortable with and move around in just because I had this opportunity (because of Joel Fort) who opened the door for me and I jumped through and never stopped running. Work in the sex field, it's been so rewarding for me that I really think that the 2nd half of my life (from 40 to 66 now) has been the best years of my life—I like myself, I feel good about myself, I do good work, I'm respected for what I do. And when I look back on my teens and twenties, those were unhappy times for me--I didn't like myself, I didn't know what my destiny was, I hadn't figured out my own attractiveness and my own ability to fit into the world. But I found my niche, and fortunately it's in San Francisco, because if I was born anywhere else--who knows?
ES: Why do you think San Francisco is this mecca for radical sex work and education?
MR: Harmonic convergence—that's why San Francisco is the way it is. It's always been a place, like Paris, that's attracted creative people. It's a mixed bag, though—there are some very conservative people in San Francisco. But I don't know—maybe it's the weather, maybe it's the location—but I feel that this whole northern California area, is kind of a special place. The Bay Area, however, has it's disadvantages—it is very polluted. The highest incidence of breast cancer in the world is here and I had breast cancer and survived it well.
ES: What projects are you working on now?
MR: I'm going to Berlin in the spring, one of my colleagues is there: Erwin Haberly. He's a gay man and he's resurrecting what used to be the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute which was burned to the ground when Hitler came to power. So I'm going to help with that. Magnus Hirschfeld was a gay Jewish man who was a sexologist.
You see, before Hitler came to power, the Weimar Republic was very, very progressive. Then Hitler came in. You know this country is not much different than Germany in terms of some of its attitudes. So that danger always exists.
But also, I'm very much interested in sex and aging, and looking at the issues about that for all people, not just for bi people. So I'm beginning to give talks on sex and aging—because they're not just these retired couples living in Florida that are about aging. But it's about: What do S/M people do when they get old? What do sex industry people do when they get old? What do people like me do? You know we still we may lead very different lives than those people depicted in the AARP or on television ... creeping around. We still may be leading very vigorous active lives—and should!