Tags: depression, disability, medicine, TMI
In my last blog post, I wrote about losing about ~8 months to another bout of depression. I’ve had long episodes of depression off and on since I was a child. It’s been years since the last time I had depression. Frankly, I kind of figured this was going to happen again sooner or later, based on my own mental health history. For a long time though, the depression wasn’t an issue… or whatever depression I did have, could easily be attributed to a more pressing concern – chronic vulvar pain & painful sex! The pelvic pain problems were priority #1.
Eventually though, the depression came back, even though at this point I have most of the pelvic pain under control (most of the time, for now…) (I’ve often thought to myself, ‘If I have a lid on the painful sex and chronic pain, why am I still depressed?! I should be happy for that reason alone!’ Nope. It worked that way for awhile! But then it didn’t anymore.)
As I said in my last post, I started seeing a therapist for mental health counseling… with little to no improvement over about ~6 months. Things came to a head when I developed a new, unrelated pelvic problem – a vulvar cyst. Given my history of vulvar pain problems, the cyst was the last straw. The stress of the cyst + depression pushed me over my personal minimum thresh hold required to justify taking on the risks of sexual side effects due to antidepressants - and the risks of Stigma associated with medical treatment for mental illness. Some of you have heard the litany of Stigma before – I’m talking about having overheard and read stuff like, “Big pharma is inventing new illnesses and making big cash over it! The risks of side effects aren’t worth medication! Haven’t you tried alternative, natural medicine yet? You just need to take some extra vitamins, get some sunlight, exercise, etc. Americans are all over medicated anyway. You should be thankful for what you got! Willpower/Bootstraps!” (Obviously I’m paraphrasing; basically channeling stuff like this.)
I tried it the way proponents of more natural, less invasive, more holistic treatment options suggest.
The non-medical stuff didn’t work out for me.
I wasn’t making progress with talk therapy alone – or rather, talk therapy + the stuff that came out of talk therapy like: recommended reading + some homework exercises + goal-setting + etc. Unfortunately, additional supplemental holistic treatments in conjunction with talk therapy aren’t a practical option at this time either. I no longer have the time, transportation or cash up front to pay for acupuncture treatments. (Plus I no longer have access to my old, trusted acupuncturist.) I’m not comfortable with light therapy because there are questions about light therapy and eye problems for certain people (I’m at elevated risk of being one such person.) Vitamin D & multivitamin supplements don’t do anything on me as far as depression goes. And finally, the last time I joined a gym to work up a sweat regularly, I developed a series of months-long vaginal infections.
So the non-invasive, natural, etc. stuff maybe isn’t in my best interests after all.
Certainly the pressure to conform & minimize what I was feeling – or not feeling, more accurately, since I was shuffling around feeling completely Dead on the Inside – was making things worse. I felt so much pressure…
…Pressure to please some, vague ~idea~ of an expert.
…Pressure to behave, to “Get over it,” to continue to haul around the responsibility for other people’s actions. “Honey that was a long time ago, let it go.”
…Pressure to please all those people, journalists, and Ph.D.’s who claim to be ~just looking out for us after all,~ in steering me away from medical treatments…
…And unfortunately, that pressure to please others played right into the depression to prolong it and make it worse. When I went on the antidepressants, one of the first things I did when I got home with the medication was break down and cry about what a huge failure of a person I am, for actually needing medication. For “Giving up.” For “Taking the first easy way out.” For taking the path of least resistance, instead of confronting my fears head-on. Etc. Etc. Internalized bullshit.
And of course, I wasn’t a failure for needing medication or any other reason really – I’m coming to terms with the fact that I am in fact, not a failure at all. (We’re not quite there yet due to residual depression.) I wasn’t giving up, taking the easy way out, or running from the past.
I was just a person who needed more help.
Not that I should have felt forced to try the other holistic ways in the first place at all. It’s easier to find pressure from Big Pharma to attract customers and try new (or re-patented) old medication in the form of Big Marketing. But the pendulum can swing the other way too, and in my vulnerable state, I got pushed off of the other edge.
I asked my primary care physician to put me on Bupropion, better known as “Wellbutrin” or sometimes “Zyban.” I got a prescription generic for a half-dose (150mg) of extended release bupropion, for $10/month with insurance. I had the option to bump it up to a full (300mg) dose after 4-6 weeks of being on it, if I wasn’t satisfied with the results at half-strength.
It was not a decision I made lightly. In addition to the stigma of depression & using medical treatment for it, I had to anticipate the medication’s potential side effects. I selected bupropion because SSRI antidepressants have the potential to cause sexual dysfunction. SSRIs may cause some patients to experience things like, lower libido or difficulty orgasming, or more rarely, post-SSRI sexual dysfunction. I don’t have those problems; I have a history of pain. But I figure, I’m already stacked behind the 8-ball as far as sex problems go, so I should probably avoid medication that could throw something new into the mix.
One other factor to consider: I am aware that low-dose tricyclic antidepressants can be a treatment for vulvodynia. Part of the reason I stayed off of the tricyclics and opted for surgery all those years ago is that, at that time, I wanted to leave the option for using antidepressants for depression open in the future. I still don’t know if you can a tricyclic with another type of antidepressant, or if you can bump the tricyclic pain-treatment dose up for mental health, and still keep the pain effect in place.
After crying for awhile, I took my first pill. Then another the next day, and so on.
The antidepressant worked.
The bupropion kicked in surprisingly fast – I felt changes within like the first 2 weeks. The incessant, nagging, self-deprecating voice in my head quieted down. I was able to concentrate on my continuing education studies. The knowledge was sticking. I was doing better at work. I was starting to take interest in old activities again. I started to make more progress in therapy. I was remembering stuff I hadn’t thought about in a long time & making connections from prior events to my current beliefs & behaviors. I could actually feel feelings again, including anger! and sadness! and hope, oh god, the hope! The iceberg of depression started to melt & develop cracks… And it was still inherently me underneath the layers of Ice.
It wasn’t perfect. There were some side effects. I lost some weight. The tinnitus I’ve had since I was a kid sounded louder in my head. I had to take the medication in the evening before bed since it made me sleepy. My libido stayed at the same level, and I actually had an easier time orgasming on the medication than I did off it – Not that orgasm was ever a problem for me to begin with; I just felt more physically sensitive to touch on meds. The mental health improvement was noticeable and positive, but not complete. I felt about a 50% improvement in the depression on the 150mg dose. I was getting ready to bump up the dose to the full 300mg.
Then I started losing my hair.
Or more accurately, my hair stopped growing back in. One day I was getting ready to go out, I tied my hair up and saw a bald spot on the back of my head. That’s never been there before and it’s a problem.
It’s not like the hair fell out in big patches or clumps, or like I was shedding any more than normal. The hair was still falling out at the normal rate, there just wasn’t anything new coming in replace the old stuff. The effect was subtle, but over the next few days – and after comparing my current hair to old photos – I confirmed the hair was definitely thinning overall compared to before I went on medication. It’s subtle – probably something only I would ever notice.
Unfortunately that was the deal-breaker for me and bupropion. Please understand that me and my hair are very attached to each other. We’re planning on traveling to Paris together one day, you see. After a few days of deliberation (and feeling self-conscious,) I decided I wasn’t yet ready to change my hairstyle to something better for thinning hair. I talked to my doctor, and I went off the bupropion.
I had one withdrawal effect from going off the bupropion, a headache that varied in intensity from low to high for about a month. It responded to OTC painkillers and eventually went away. I’m still waiting for the hair to grow back though.
This is the point at which I could get angry and shake my first at Big Pharma for causing my hair loss. But actually, when I did the homework to figure out which antidepressants might work for me, I found out ahead of time that hair loss can be a very rare side effect. I was optimistic that I would be in the majority and not experience this side effect. It only happens to something like less than 1% of bupropion users, and usually kicks in after a few months. It’s weird because it kicked in fast on me – I noticed the hair loss about 6 weeks in. (Just to be on the safe side, my doctor ordered some blood screens to make sure the hair loss wasn’t related to some other medical problem. Apparently not.) It’s possible for depression to cause hair loss in and of itself, if it gets bad enough too. So although I’ll never know 100% for sure that it was the bupropion all along, it seems to be the most probable conclusion.
For me, the mental health effects of the medication were overall good enough so that I’ve decided, if I get depression again later… I’m just going to order a hairpiece, go to a nice salon and change my hairstyle… and then go back on meds. I’m annoyed about the hair loss but not angry… because the medication did something nothing else could do. It actually broke through the depression and gave me a rest from the self-loathing. It was worth it.
Unfortunately, I’m now back to relying on talk therapy for further mental health improvements. The medication did what it was supposed to do, but I couldn’t stay on it. It is a conundrum.
I’m not back to square one with the depression, but I’m not “All better” either! I switched therapists and I’m doing better with the current one than my old one. But it’s been rough. There’s a lot of bullshit in my past that I have to address now, and it still derails me.
What, exactly, in my past is so hard to recover from? What got triggered in the first place by recent events? This isn’t exactly a depression blog, and I’m still not 100% comfortable talking about the depression. It figures; I can go on for hours and hours about vaginas and feminisms and sex, but ask me to open up about what’s inside my head and I slam shut.
So let me put it to you this way:
It is simultaneously deeply liberating
and completely devastating
that all those times, when I was a little kid,
saying to myself, “No one loves me,”
Actually, I was right.
Ouch. Ow. Owwww. Oh come on, that’s the revelation?! So that’s what I have going on now. Emotional and verbal abuse?! Generation upon generation of fucked up parenting?! An actual paper trail of documented abuse and bullying?! All culminating in this one moment?! Mainfesting their legacies now?! Of all times?! And now I have to address the current thought patterns and the past stuff?!
What kind of revelation is that?! Why couldn’t have been something like a surplus of excess puppies, or something good. Brain, you’re really going to make me go through this now? Really? If I go through this now, will I feel better about it later?
I feel like Sgt. Hiller (played by Will Smith) when he’s dragging the unconscious outer space alien across the desert in Independence Day.
[Right about at this part of the movie. Remember this? Party like it's 1996. Description: Actor Will Smith in military clothes, bare arms, sunglasses, mouth agape. Leaning/walking forward. Part of a parachute is draped over his right shoulder; you cant't see it in this picture but he is dragging an unconscious space alien behind him, along the ground, wrapped inside of the parachute. Erin screengrabbed it @ Hellogiggles.]
Cuz I’m all like, “But no, now I gotta integrate this depression and family history of mental illnesses and develop into a something that I’m not, to get to where I want to be now, except you can’t do that right now, because one day at a time. Especially when you are minus the support that you’re supposed to be able to draw upon internally. Dragging your sorry ass across the desert… And what the hell is that smell!? I could have been at a barbeque!”
The antidepressants helped me crash & then punch out the alien thoughts inside of me - “Welcome to EARTH!” And the thoughts really are alien! But now that they’re quieter, I have to still have to deal with them, take them somewhere safe and figure them out.
Tags: blogging, cyst, depression, health, sexual health, TMI
Hello readers, blog mistress K here again, some ~4 months after the last entry. It’s a new year and I’ve been wanting to write something for awhile… something about going through depression yet again for what I initially thought was the 3rd time… but actually turned out to be more like the 4th or 5th time in my life. (But hey, who’s counting?) Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a party – or a blog post – if my vagina didn’t somehow get involved. Don’t worry – it did.
Feminists with FSD, now featuring soul-crushing depression!
My life has been kind of like this for awhile:
I can still do work, do stuff, and do a decent job at it, but I haven’t really been living, you know? Not really feeling it. It, referring to, everything.
It’s been a long 8 months. I’ve been struggling with depression since early 2012. I’m only just now starting to come out from underneath the worst of the most recent depression, after trying a couple of different treatments. I’m going to break it down for you over a blog post or two to catch up.
The trigger for this round of depression is most likely tied up with work-related stress. I’ve been (and continue to be, for now…) stuck at a dead-end job. The job is related to the skills and education I gained during college, so I am able to do what I trained to do. But I do so at a company where we’re understaffed, overworked, and where stratified office politics rule. (In other words, ~a typical office environment!) It’s not the best or the worst job I’ve ever had, but the most important thing is that I’m dissatisfied there. Since it’s clear to me now that there’s no room for growth with the company, I’ve been working on improving my career path by pursuing continuing education outside of work. Continuing education is not easy – it’s time consuming, it’s challenging, and even the continuing education itself is related to the depression – it’s forcing me to re-evaluate my old survival techniques and hang-ups about grades & perfectionism. Plus, my concentration is pretty poor – I can only go for short periods before I get interrupting thoughts and need to take a break. The worst interrupting thoughts are related to depression.
But after awhile – and before I committed to working towards the continuing education – the job wore down on me. Being stuck at work reminded me of being stuck at home in a toxic environment. Feeling like this went on for weeks that turned into months, and eventually, with no hope of escape, I developed depression again. It was bad. I couldn’t make the invasive self-deprecating thoughts Shut Up. I internalized every little mistake as reflecting poorly on myself as a person. I felt like everyone could see right through me. I was emotionally and occasionally physically numb, unable to express or recognize my own emotions – my emotions were absent, I felt only Static. During the worst of the anxiety, I was spacing out, unable to feel physical stimulation (hot, cold, textures, etc.) And I was having nightmares a lot more frequently than I do when I’m not-depressed.
This isn’t normal sadness. The easiest way to describe it is to say it’s more like the stuff featured in some webcomics I relate to:
This has happened to me before. I don’t know how I came out of previous depression episodes – my memory is that I just muddled through it until it resolved on its own. So I don’t know how to be more active about recovery currently without getting help & instructions. Due to Stigma, I wasn’t permitted by my (Insecure, problem-filled/causing) family to seek aggressive treatments (medication) when I was younger, and I never had a chance to confront & work out my issues in a supportive, therapeutic setting.
But I got Shit To Do now, and I’m physically far away from my counter-productive family members. It’s also worth noting here that I Have Insurance – which means I have the means to seek treatment. Not everyone has that option.
But what to do, where to start? I looked for advice on what to do, got advice and I took it. I called for a referral to a therapist and started going in for weekly talk therapy without medication. I read self-help books, some of which were more helpful than others. (I won’t be doing a book review of these, but I do want to point out some of the titles I personally found more useful than others: The Gift of Fear, Outliers, Trauma & Recovery, Will I Ever Be Good Enough, My Mother Myself, Toxic Parents – Based on the last few titles, you may be able to guess where this is going in the end…)
But talk therapy was slow and the results were almost imperceptible… Lots of two steps forward, 1 step back… 2 steps forward, 2 steps back… 1 step forward, 2 steps back… two steps forward, 1 step back for a net increase equal to or less than 1 [Unit of Improvement.] Sometimes I left therapy feeling worse than when I went in. So for months, I persisted, but felt stagnant. I tried to work through my issues – but I kept bumping up against walls, ruminating and getting frustrated. I tried the self-help exercises recommended in the books – and felt more embarrassed about having to confront so many of my own issues when I wrote them down. I tried being nice to myself – and kept defaulting back to self-deprecation. My inner monologue remained turned against myself.
Yet in spite of the mental hardship, my pelvic pain issues, for the most part, behaved. (Isn’t that incredible?!)
Sure, I could feel the pelvic muscles tensing up and getting uncomfortable when I was under stress – but I didn’t go through any acute pain. Even with the depression, I was able to have sexual activity solo & with my partner, and I enjoyed orgasms on a regular basis. My libido was the same as its ever been, so I still had sexual desire. In fact, sexual interest & pleasure were one of the main things keeping me going! I even started to be able to have all-out penetrative PIV sex, with little to no pain. (It’s still not perfect and will never be perfect – but that’s a big improvement compared to a few years ago!)
But then, that all went to Hell because I developed a Cyst.
And that pushed me over the edge till I hit Rock Bottom.
This cyst. This fucking cyst. Let me tell you about my cyst, because that’s how the depression ties into this being a “Vagina blog.”
This all went down over the course of about 48 hours…
Sometime around a weekend in October, I noticed an acutely painful vulvar bump, in between the labia minora and clitoris. It’s a bad, scary place to feel a painful lump. (I suppose all places are bad and scary to find cysts.) You’d think I’d have noticed something starting to go amiss sooner, but no: It hadn’t even been there a day or two earlier! By the time I found it, it felt huge…
…But the truth is, the cyst never got any bigger than pea-sized.
After I noticed the pain and found the source, the cyst grew more defined. Over the next ~2 days, swelling from a sore, vaguely internal lump to a visible, discolored, painful bump.
From experience and from having already read up on vulvar bumps & lumps, I knew it was a cyst. I’ve had one before, related to the vulvar vestibulectomy surgery. I knew going into surgery in the first place, cysts are a potential side effect, and I accepted that risk. So I wasn’t surprised when the old one showed up near the surgical site. That old one formed nearby one of my Bartholin’s glands, and at one point was big enough for my physical therapist to notice. But the old one just kind of resolved on its own and hasn’t come back in years.
The weird thing is, this new, recent cyst was nowhere near the surgery site! In between the labia and clitoris — WTF, what are you even doing there?! Nothing happened there! I was like, “CYST. CYST. WAT R U DOIN. STAHP!“
Since I knew what it was, I also knew what to do as treatment at-home. I called a nurse hotline to see if I should go to urgent care early, but was given the same information I already knew – take it easy, use warm compresses, sitz baths, hope for the best; maybe it will resolve on its own.
I followed the cyst care instructions. I kept warm compresses on it and didn’t mess around (squeeze) with it. Spent some time in the sitz bath. Walked funny. Complained a lot about being in pain, took some OTC painkillers. No sexual activity. Continued doing my continuing education study stuff in spite of it all.
And then of course, it broke.
By itself. And that made a mess. And it scared me. And luckily it broke while I was at home, so I ran into the shower and at this point I’m like, “Okay it broke on its own, whatdoIdowhatdoIdowhatdoIdoooo!”
(It may be worth noting here that, anecdotally I’ve heard that broken cysts can smell bad… this one had no odor whatsoever.)
After cleaning up the wound and washing my hands, what I did was call the nurse hotline again and got told basically, “Yeah you can probably go in for urgent care now…”
So I hauled ass to urgent care.
And of course by the time I got to urgent care, I already knew what the treatment for draining a cyst is: You can get an incision, marsupialization or a word cathether installation.
None of these really appeal to me since I don’t want to risk any more scar tissue in and around my vulva, especially not so close to the side of my clitoris. In the end, I was too chickenshit to get the usual treatment! I said to the attending doctor, “Just give me the antibiotics to kill off whatever infection caused this and make a follow up appointment for a few days from now in case I get a complication! I’ll take my chances!” The attending doctor agreed, took some swabs to check for germs and complied – for better or worse, I decided my best course of action was the least invasive one.
Cysts and depression don’t really have anything to do with one another. They should develop independently of each other. However, in my case, the wires got crossed and became interconnected: The cyst forming and breaking was enough to finally break me.
Depression alone is one thing… throw a vaginal problem into the mix and that’s where I draw the line. Developing a vulvar problem while depressed triggered all the other old memories and anxieties from when I was stuck in the worst of the vulvar pain. I felt like I was right back to square one with the Vaginismus and the Vulvodynia/Vulvar Vestibulitis. So not only was I dealing with “Regular” depression and anxiety, I was also dealing with old sexual problem shit and invasive thoughts!
I crossed the minimum thresh hold required to make going on antidepressants worth the risks of sexual side effects. By now I was a shivering ball of anxiety, anger, fear and sadness. I refused food; called in sick from work and spent some time in bed, hiding. None of the self-help techniques in my books or suggested by the therapist could reach me. No one could console me.
By now my thought process when I was hiding in bed was something like, “What is the point of staying off of antidepressants due to a fear of sexual side effects, if I’m just going to go around developing sexual side effects anyway?! Fuck this shit. I’m not doing this anymore. Oh but then people are going to say shit like, ‘Americans are all over-medicated and ~*~Big Pharma~*~ and blah, blah, blah, overdiagnosis, blah blah blah STIGMA.’ Well FUCK THAT TOO!”
At the follow up appointment a few days after visiting urgent care, the doctor confirmed that the wound was still draining on its own. All the swabs came back negative for the strains of bacteria tested for. There wasn’t much else to do or that needed to be done. No need for surgery or a word catheter at that point. Whatever caused the cyst to form in the first place, I still don’t know. The doctor okay’ed going off antibiotics early (I am fully aware that you’re supposed to finish the entire course. I was instructed by a medical professional to not do that in this case. Kids, don’t try this at home.)
And while I was still in the examination room, I asked the doctor to give me the prescription for Bupropion. Because seriously, fuck this shit, at that point I was like, I’m not doing this depression the hard way anymore. I went on medication for it…
…And for awhile, that worked out pretty well. The medication was doing its job. I started making more progress in therapy. I started to feel better…
…Then I developed a side effect: I started losing my hair.
To be continued…
Tags: blogging, depression
Hey readers, this is your blog mistress K speaking. It’s been over six months since the last time I updated Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction. That’s a long time for a blog to go inactive without warning, though not entirely unheard of.
So why the long pause? The short version is…
I told you I had a history with depression.
I mentioned it on this blog in passing a few times. I didn’t go to deep into my history with depression since it wasn’t an issue for awhile… My primary health concern for the last few years was addressing the vulvodynia and the vaginismus. But then, suddenly! (Not so suddenly) sexual dysfunction & depression changed places!
Although I’m feeling good physically and sexually, depression eventually did become a problem again. I’ve always felt like I had to look over my shoulder and wonder when it would appear again, and I finally got my answer: Right about now. It doesn’t feel as familiar as I thought it would be – the form & content of my current depression are different from the last time I went through it. I’m still dealing with some of the old unresolved issues I had when I was a teenager, plus a few new ones as an adult.
The good news is that I’m not completely alone; my partner is still supportive. I reached out for help and I’m seeing a therapist who accepts my insurance, so I am working on my issues under professional guidance. For better or worse, I’m still not on anti-depressants. I think I would do really well on them, but SSRI’s can cause sexual side effects – and I already have enough sexual dysfunction to deal with, thank you very much. (Note: I am fully aware that Bupropion has a better track record as an antidepressant with minimal sexual side effects; however I decided that the ~7% to ~22% risk is still unacceptably high at this time.) I want to try light therapy, if only to help me sleep… but I’m not doing that either, since it might not be a safe option for me – I have an elevated risk of developing serious eye problems later in life.
So I’m stuck with in-person therapy alone, for now. I’m worried and self-conscious that my progress thus far has been painfully slow. I keep reminding myself that when going through depression, you go at the rate that you go and you feel what you feel (but then what does it mean when you don’t feel anything? Am I doing enough?)
I’ve been writing as though the depression came up again from out of nowhere spontaneously, but that’s not entirely correct. A lot it is work stress. There’s no question that the stress of working at a dead-end job did and continues to exacerbate everything. The corporate culture stirred up memories of growing up in a toxic home environment and community. But work covers my benefits, so I cant leave without having something better lined up. My job search stalled out too once it became clear (after multiple heart-breaking post-interview rejections from companies I’ve wanted to work with for years) that I need to continue my education beyond just a bachelor’s degree if I’m going to be able to compete with my peers. Combine these ingredients all in a blender on medium setting for a couple of months and sooner or later, you get a depressed K.
What this all means is, now not only do I have to spend my free time on therapy stuff, but I also have to dedicate a lot of my free time going back to school! (Note that school in this case means online classes.)
And what that means for the blog is that, I haven’t had any time (or motivation) to write about feminism & sexual dysfunction. My interest and desire are still there – I’m not burned out. But I’m in a bind. This blog and writing are still deeply important to me. However, I can’t balance a full-time job, therapy, continuing education, and blogging. Something had to give.
So what happens next? Well, I don’t know. I want to write but I should focus on the self-care and education stuff first. (I keep on rationalizing, doesn’t writing count as self-care? Sure but on the other hand, shouldn’t I be doing the writing exercises suggested by the therapy book? Don’t make me choose!) Once again I’ll restate that if’n you have a guest post that would be appropriate for the blog, then you can leave a comment here saying so and I’ll get in touch with you. I’m keeping the blog up since the archives are pretty good and I want to return to it again later as time permits. But just be aware, the next 12-18 months of my life are going to be Hell. Thank you for your patience.
Tags: books, communication, disability, media, sex education, TMI
I recently picked up and finished reading the sexual guidebook, The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex, by author & blogger Violet Blue. It’s exactly what it sounds like – an in-depth guide to integrating strap-on sex toys and techniques into partnered sex.
Why are we reviewing a book about pegging on a blog about sexual dysfunction? For much the same reason cited last time we read a book by Violet Blue: Personal reasons + it was in the book queue. Besides, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Sometimes when you have sexual dysfunction, you gotta get real creative, real quick.
The short version of the review is…
Well… I liked the Ultimate Guide to Fellatio better…
The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex – let’s call it TACG from here on out – the book is short. I was able to burn through the book start to finish within just a few hours. The Kindle edition I read has 1568 locations (sentences, I think,) which translates to about 160 pages in paperback format. There aren’t any pictures in the Kindle version – there’s not even one of those cut-away academic diagrams of male pelvic anatomy. All of the descriptions of anatomy and how-to are written out in paragraph form.
TACG‘s target audience is cis, heterosexual couples interested in pegging – and pegging, by definition, takes place between cis, het partners. But strap-ons are used in LGBTIQA communities too – so to me, it was weird to see so little coverage of strap-on use outside of straight sex. There was a lot of reassuring the reader that an interest in pegging does not necessarily mean you or your partner is gay. Definitely a book aimed at cis, het couples primarily.
The book includes just about everything you will need to know about strap-on sex and maybe some stuff you hadn’t thought about – anatomy, history, myth debunking, what gear to look for, how to go warm your partner up and then go through with pegging, and safe sex. Actually, I would have preferred to see the section on making strap-on sex safer close to the beginning of the book, instead of at the very end, but there is precedent for saving the best for last – Sex Toys 101 did it that way too. Remember that anal penetration is a risky sex act in terms of passing along infectious agents between partners, because the tissue is delicate, and there’s a lot of bacteria behind the anus. Blue includes a table detailing your risk of infection from anal sex, pegging and related activities and describes tools like condoms & dental dams you can use to reduce the risks.
Remember also that if you’re inserting objects anally, they really need to be designed specifically for that. If you just grab whatever’s handy, you or your partner could wind up with a toy lost inside the body and/or a serious injury – either scenario requires a trip to the emergency room. Blue addresses what kind of butt-friendly toys to look for. Shape, size, and materials all matter, so shop smart. Don’t forget the lubricant, since the anus can’t produce its own secretions the way a vagina can.
Where TACG really shines is when Blue talks about the importance of communication. Pegging isn’t something you can just spring on your partner, and a desire to engage in it isn’t something you can just pantomime out using secret code gestures (no matter what Cosmopolitan tells you.) If you’ve been slacking off in the sexual communication department, Blue lists a few suggestions for how to bring strap-on sex up in conversation – most of these suggestions can easily be applied to other various sex acts as well. Blue also reminds the reader to think about their partner’s perspective, since talking about sex can be (but doesn’t have to be) nerve-wracking. Blue suggets a few areas for exploration if one partner or another is reluctant – what are you the most uncomfortable with, the potential for pain? Insecurity with flipping around gender norms? Cleanliness/messiness/poop? You don’t even know where to start or what else there is to do during? There’s ways to address these concerns.
I liked the section about the history of the terminology of strap-on sex and why you may have noticed a glimpse of pegging here and there in mainstream sex shops, films and discussions. I was also pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of a chapter on how to have strap-on sex with a third party. Opening up a relationship is a little too advanced for me but the book is clearly polyamory friendly. There’s a lot of coverage about various reasons couples might want to try strap-ons during sex in the first place – some reasons include (but are not limited to) the potential for prostate stimulation, aesthetics, and/or fantasy fulfillment.
TACG contains a little information about strap-on sex and disability. Author Blue suggests using a double-ended dildo if you have a wrist injury or mobility problems (location 1188,) and she suggests a vendor from which to procure a harness designed for cis men. (Specific item is here; NSFW; similar products may be available elsewhere.) Why would someone who already has a penis want a harness for a dildo when their equipment is already present? The idea is double penetration of a cis female partner, but in my mind I’m imagining something like it might actually come in handy for couples dealing with erectile dysfunction – especially since Blue states that an erection is not required to use a double harness. TACG describes other harnesses as well; there’s one kind that the wearer can strap onto their thigh or even their head.
A couple of considerations for folks with pelvic pain issues who might be interested in harnesses:
Blue writes that “If you worry about [your pubic bone] getting sore from thrusting, you can buy a specially made pad of thin foam to cushion your pubic bone” (location 1159,) though where exactly one might buy such a pad is not explicitly stated. If this type of pad has a specific name, I don’t know it.
One of the double-ended dildos described in TACG is the Feeldoe, a double-dildo with one bulbous end. It’s designed to have the bulbous end inserted vaginally, leaving the phallic part exposed, for your partner’s enjoyment. However I don’t know how accessible this toy is to folks with pelvic floor dysfunction and/or pain – It looks like something I would find uncomfortable, if not outright painful, to the point of impossible to use as intended. Supposedly it can be used with certain harnesses with some adjustments, but it’s designed to be inserted in the wearer’s vagina.
In general, I would recommend some of the other dildos from Tantus, because I own one I’ll vouch for, they’re silicone & many have a flared base suitable for a harness and anal stimulation – including a few smaller models and plugs.
If you’re a pelvic pain patient interested in a harness, I strongly recommend sticking to two-strap harnesses only. Or harnesses that are worn over some other body part, like the thigh. The problem is that single-strap pelvic harnesses have to be worn between your legs like a thong and thus cover up more of the vulvar area. Two-strap harnesses go around your thighs and butt instead, leaving more area exposed. The distinction between single and two-strap harnesses is described in further detail in TCAG.
Also, Blue doesn’t mention this part, but beware of harnesses with a pouch for a vibrator… Harnesses with a bullet vibrator are supposed to make the experience more pleasurable for the wearer, but depending on how the vibe rests against you, it might just feel like a foreign, hard something digging uncomfortably into your pelvis. It’s like something out of the Princess and the Pea. I personally find it more comfortable to use a vibrator separately either before or after wearing the harness.
If you’re worried about causing your partner pain, then remember that anal stimulation doesn’t have to – and if you’re doing it carefully, shouldn’t – hurt. You might be tempted to share your prescription lidocaine or OTC novelty numbing gel with your receptive partner but that’s actually a bad idea: numbing gels dull everything, which makes deriving pleasure more difficult… and if you can’t feel what’s going on, then you won’t know if you’re getting injured. The book will tell you how to adjust your techniques to minimize discomfort & maximize pleasure.
Remember also that you are by no means obligated to peg if you’re thinking about getting a harness. After talking with your partner, you may decide instead to just wear it around for awhile or to engage in some other non-penetrative activities with a dildo equipped, just for show.
Overall, The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex is an okay book. It will be most useful for straight folks – especially cis women – just starting to consider strap-on sex, who don’t know what’s involved. Likewise, it will be useful for straight men who want to be on the receiving end, but never tried it before.
TACG becomes less useful if you’ve already had exposure to strap-on sex, either through experience or though some of the free how-to guides available on sexuality websites. The trick is, if you’re thinking about trying strap-on sex, then chances are you’ve already looked at those free how-to guides before picking up the book.
I wouldn’t recommend TACG be your first book purchase by Violet Blue. My overall impression is that IMHO I think she put more effort into some of her other stuff. There’s nothing wrong with the book; It contains good factual information & encouragement! I just liked some of her other sex guides more. Franky I thought that some parts of the book were drawn out longer than necessary – I basically skimmed through the chapter about male anatomy because I’ve seen it all before… And I skimmed over the erotic vignettes. The short stories are fine; I have no problems with the writing, though they are several pages too long. They’re just not my taste. Obviously, YMMV!
In summation: the $10-$15 retail price investment will be best for newcomers, with less bang for buck the more experience & knowledge you already have about strap-on harnesses & how to use them. More experienced readers may find it useful as a reference from time to time.
Disclaimer: As with all products reviewed on Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction to date, I had to pay for this book out of pocket with my own money, and I don’t get any compensation for writing this review.
Tags: blogging, female sexual dysfunction, Feminism, FSD, news, sexual dysfunction, vulvodynia
2011 has come and finally gone, as have most of the retrospective posts around the rest of the blogosphere. As my time has been worn thin due to real life concerns, I’m only just now able to catch up to everyone else.
[Image description: Slowpoke from the Pokemon franchise. Quadraped pink critter with its mouth open and big, dead eyes, and a blue top hat that says "HAPPY NEW YEAR!" Found via Know your meme.]
If I could give 2011 a theme as it relates to my personal life, the theme was Change, con’t. I made a big life-changing switch at the very end of 2010 and spent much of the rest of the year re-adjusting & getting back on my feet. Most of the changes involved in my personal life were positive, but there’s still one area that’s acutely lacking. I’m working on fixing the weakest link. Unfortunately for the blog, my attempts to further improve my personal situation continue to impede my ability to write on a regular basis. This trend will continue until such time as I get everything worked out to my satisfaction.
More broadly – politically and economically – 2011 was… more of the same shit from 2010… Pretty lousy. Unemployment in the US is still high, both the US and Europe had debt problems, the US continues to see record numbers of laws restricting reproductive rights, etc. Man-made and natural disasters did enough damage on their own and combined into some long-term destructive forces. But you already knew all that, and other bloggers have done a superior job delving into 2011′s news.
I didn’t see quite so much buzz re: sexual dysfunction in 2011 as I did in 2009 and 2010 though – probably because the flibanserin fiasco is done, with no change for ladies. You still don’t have an oral medication option to address a low sex drive. There are still activists who will do everything in their power to combat any such drug from entering the US market. I didn’t hear any news bits about vulvodynia or vaginismus coverage on the television or radio either, but if I missed something, let me know in comments.
One story I did miss re: vulvar pain is that, another study just confirmed what we here already knew: That vulvar pain is still ~uncommon, in the sense that less than a majority of vulva-possessing people experience it… but ~common enough so that you’d be surprised at just how many people do deal with it – up to 25% of women experience it at some point during their lives. Wow. Based on survey results, researches concluded that somewheres around 8% of women (cis in this study, I presume?) have it now, and a lot of them aren’t able to get effective treatment. I wish I could say I’m surprised by the findings, but I’m not. Here’s an abstract to the official study.
My blogging schedule is reduced, but we’re still able to crank out some original content here. Let’s review some previous noteworthy content first.
Don’t miss the guest posts from 2011:
Guest post – update from a guest poster – the return of Rhiannon, who provided readers with a follow up to her original 2009 guest post.
Guest post – the sexual subject – about pleasure and vaginismus, in a culture that works to impede women’s enjoyment of sex in the first place.
Guest post – on sexual pain, consent and treatment – an anonymous post from someone with PFD/vaginismus, addressing important topics. It’s still rare for me to see perspectives on these topics from someone whose sex life is made more complex due to sexual dysfunction(s.)
Top 10 don’t-miss posts I wrote in 2011:
1. Feminists with FSD does Orgasm, Inc. – If you read just one 2011 post by me at Feminists with FSD, make it this one. This is the post that finally addresses the film that everyone’s talking about. You know – the sexual dysfunction documentary that didn’t talk about sexual pain, which Dr. Leonore Tiefer herself is surprisingly quick to pathologize as the One True sexual dysfunction. You know – the film that I’m not even sure if it took the perspective of women with sexual dysfunction, considering the one woman interviewed who talked about experiencing it, we’re supposed to question whether she really had it and even then at the end, she decided she was normal all along after all. Great for her, not so great for me, since I had another solid year of sexual dysfunction and stigma.
These cartoonish slaps the face somehow aren’t working to snap me out of it – they just annoy me.
2. Vulvar pain in women of color – This blog desperately needs perspectives of vular pain and other sexual dysfunctions from women of color. If you are a woman of color who would like to submit something, please leave a comment somewhere on this blog (this post is fine,) and I’ll get back to you with contact details.
3. Conceptualizing the FSD hierarchy - So if dyspareunia is the one true sexual dysfunction, then what about every other kind of sexual problem? I cobble up graphics to show the relative importance placed upon a few different broad categories. I don’t like that there’s a hierarchy at all and I think it sucks.
A series of posts!:
4. Doctors debate dyspareunia (painful sex) – Starting off an in-depth look at the weird way painful sex is treated by sexual health professionals. It occupies a unique place in that it’s a hot potato no one knows wtf to do with.
5. Doctors debate dyspareunia part 2: is pain the only valid FSD?: Start of a 2-part series within a bigger series in which I take a more detailed look at that journal article/editorial/reply by Dr. Tiefer I’m always linking to.
6. Doctors debate dyspareunia part 3: Pain’s validity, con’t: We finish looking at Dr. Tiefer’s response in the debate about wtf to do with sexual pain.
7. Doctors debate dyspareunia part 4: The debate continues: My conclusion upon completion of our multi-part series is that, no one knows wtf to do with sexual pain; everybody has a different opinion and a basis for for their opinion and oh my god it’s a fucking mess out there. Ya’ll on ya’own. The fact that doctors are talking to each other without soliciting the feedback of patients contributes to the problem. Hey. Hey. We’re over here. *Waves arms* Hey. Can someone send up a flare signal over here or something?
8. For (belated) Lady Porn Day: What are the experts saying?: In which I feel like I’m in the middle of a tornado and the tornado is made up of different sex therapists’ opinions about pornography’s place in relationships and sexuality. Who do I believe and why should I trust you, but not this other person with likewise admirable credentials, who came to an opposite conclusion after years of practice?
9. Happy 3rd birthday, Feminists with FSD: I can’t believe I blogged that much… also, ponies.
10. Where are all the good advice columnists?: Yeah good luck finding one of those when it’s all just more of the same. Well, maybe not always – there’s a few good eggs out there I guess.
What’s next? We still have a lot of work left to do, if my previous retrospectives are any indication. There’s still a lot of topics we haven’t covered, and new areas to explore develop with every passing year. Those posts aren’t going to write themselves, people.
One painful topic I’m brainstorming on is sex or the lack thereof within marriages and unconsummated marriages. Why think about this now? Because I am so completely disgusted by some recent conversations about “Cutting off sex” – because there’s a very real possibility that that could be me everyone’s gossiping about someday and how could she do that to him etc marriage is a contract with certain expectations etc terms of the relationship etc disclosure etc no one is saying he’s entitled etc physical intimacy etc x number of weeks/months/years is far too long etc (why is marriage between asexual partners not coming to everyone else’s minds?) etc at least open the marriage up etc unreasonable demands etc…
Has everybody forgotten about the post, “Painful vagina? Your poor husband!” Cuz I didn’t.
So if’n anybody reading knows about sexless marriages/unconsummated marriages and divorce – comment and let’s see what you can give me to work with here. (Poking around on google, it looks like there’s no legal precedent for lack of sex to be a viable grounds for divorce in and of itself.) Yes I want to explore the very language used in these conversations, ie how exactly are we defining “Sexless,” “sex,” “unconsummated,” etc. I don’t mean to use these terms uncritically.
Alas, my time and energy levels are limited for the vague reasons outlined above – I only just now finished reading like 1 book for pleasure within the past year, so I couldn’t even crank out a book review.
But we’re still here… going at whatever pace I can manage. Stay tuned…
Tags: accountability, charity, communication, Feminism, health, nonprofits, research, taxes, vulvodynia, what
Is everybody excited for tax season?! January 15 to April 15, woo-hoo…!
I’m dreading it. My tax return is the opposite of fun; I bet yours isn’t much better. Certainly filling out tax returns can be headache-inducing, to the point where some folks hire out the service to a third party. But sometimes, examining financial statements and tax returns can reveal useful – if dry – information.
I don’t mean to get paranoid here, but since Jezebel pointed to a fascinating critique of anti-gay marriage group NOW’s tax records carried out by American Independent, and Feminist Whore pointed out the high salaries received by higher-ups at the Police Executive Research Forum (timely in light of their alleged involvement in suppressing OWS,) I figure it’s fair for me to point you in the direction of some feminist & health nonprofit organizations tax returns – if only to use them as examples of some interesting features to look for when choosing where to donate your hard-earned tax deductible donations. It’s a way for the public to hold charities accountable and a way for the charities to maintain transparency.
Caution: Among many other things, I am not a tax professional. There’s a limit to my interpretations of the following tax returns. I know enough to find public returns mildly interesting, but please address serious inquiries to a real pro. (Good luck with that – I knew a tax professional who replied to all questions about taxes from laypersons (including his friends and family) with, “Sure, I can help you with that, I’ll do some research – if you pay me!”) Nonetheless, nonprofit tax returns are publicly available information you have a right to review. All we’re doing today is stating the obvious. One additional caveat: This post is US-centric, since we’re dealing with US tax laws.
If you want to evaluate charities, there’s some decent guides available online. According to CharityGuide, excellent organizations put about 80 cents out of every donated dollar towards their stated purpose – and you’ll find that purpose explicitly stated within a tax return. In general, fundraiser, salary reimbursement and administrative costs should be relatively low. Good luck with that, since some charities classify fundraiser activities as something else. A shortcut to some strong charities is compiled here and here. I recommend this easy-to-understand 990 guide by Ronald Campbell, but it’s in Word .doc format – Google Docs can open it though.
Of course the financial criteria do not address the subjective, ideological importance a charity to you. That means organizations with high administrative costs may in your eyes still be “Worth it.” Or not – for example, the Salvation Army has an excellent financial rating, but it has been subject to criticism from sex workers and LGBT advocates. So there’s more to think about than money.
Protip: Usually you can use the IRS’s search pages, to confirm that donations to organizations are in fact tax-deductible by using the Search for Charities tool. Alternate searches for financial records can be conducted at Guidestar and Foundation Center. However, according to the IRS’s site, small tax-exempt organizations with revenues below a minimum thresh hold (Between $50,000 or $25,000, depending on the year,) don’t need to file a regular tax return. Such small organizations can report in using an e-postcard instead. And the IRS search function to look for 990-N e-postcard organizations is located here.
It can be a little tricky to find some organizations since the DBA (“Doing business as” – how you know an organization) names might be different from the name on their official tax return. Bitch Media’s official name is “B Word Worldwide.” And to make matters more complicated, some nonprofit orgs accept tax-deductible contributions
through a loophole via a pass-through. In order to make a tax-deductible donation to sex education site Scarleteen, you have to go through the Center for Sex and Culture. (You can donate any amount at any time – but you can’t necessarily deduct the amount at year end unless you do it a specific way.) UPDATE 1/3/11: Heather Corinna stopped by (*excited gasp*) and pointed out that you can make tax-deductible donations to Scarleteen through the NetworkforGood nonprofit organization.
Speadking of Bitch Media! Let’s start off with this feminist organization as an example. You’ll find that there’s a lot of jumping around to do when you look at a tax return.
The most recent tax return is from 2009. Here’s some highlights about how Bitch did that year: I’m seeing negative income (loss, so their expenses were greater than income) for the year – which can happen when you run a non-profit – and negative assets. Non-profits place a higher priority on goals other than making “Profit,” so losses can happen from time to time. But according to the tax professional I quoted earlier in this post, ultimately nonprofits still have to run like a business… I’ve seen nonprofits collapse for financial reasons.
Next up are some yes/no disclosure questions. When I do a quick rundown of this part of the return, I look for check marks that don’t line up with everything else – a “Yes” where most other answers are “No.” For Bitch’s return, I find most of the answers to yes/no questions in the return to be mundane, except for one indicating that a loan to a major stakeholder was outstanding at year end. We can learn more about this loan by jumping to Schedule L, which indicates about $5k remained to be paid back by Lisa Jervis – she’s the founding editor of Bitch.
Parts VIII, IX, and X break out the yearly revenue, expenses & balance sheet by category. Basically, most of the 2009 revenue came from “Other sources” and sales of inventory (magazines?) The revenues in Part VIII Column B & C add up to the $117,386 listed back in Section III as revenue toward Bitch’s goal – analyzing pop culture from a feminist perspective. The biggest expenses (Part IX) were labor related, and about half of their expenses (Column B) went most directly towards Bitch’s mission statement (for tax purposes anyway.)
(FYI I’m not using shorthand for ‘section,’ ‘part,’ or ‘schedule’ – these all have unique meanings and locations so don’t mix ‘em up.)
What I find most interesting about this return is that, between 2008 and 2009, the amount of net income this non-profit earned netted to almost zero. There was a loss one year and a profit the next. The net income between the two years was ever so slightly negative – something like a loss of -$1660+ total. Interestingly, OBOS lobbied for political activity, as described in Schedule C, $1400 worth of lobbying. Most of their revenue came from “Other sources” and royalties (books?) Most of their expenses were program-related and again, labor-related costs made up the biggest chunk of expenses. If we jump down to Schedule A, we can drill down farther and see that the revenue from “Other sources” came from the public. Schedule F is included, and it lists the value of activities outside of the US.
The organization had net income (“Profit,” if we were talking about a business,) of a little over $100k for 2009. One interesting response to a yes or no question is that, we see that under part VI (page 6) that there’s a familial or business relationship between at least two of the key stakeholders. A disclosure like that can indicate a potential conflict of interest, so it’s something to keep in mind as a donor. If we drill down to schedule O, we can see that the board president & treasurer are married. Part VII lists out compensation to officers & directors – with this return, we can see that executive director Christin Veasley (you may recognize her name from the website and from interviews, etc.) received about $50k for the year for her work with the NVA.
The NVA generated most of its revenue (almost $300k) from “Other sources,” which means the public at large – and over $50k from investment income, with another $20k from selling assets. The balance sheet shows that the organization holds over $1 million in investments. The NVA’s 2009 tax return lists limited fundraiser expenses. The NVA funds grants for research & treatment of vulvar pain. Labor and grant allocation were the largest expenses – the NVA distributed about $75k worth of grants. Schedule F & I break out where the research grants went – about $50k (doled out over 6 grants to medical and educational facilities) stayed within the US, and $25k (2 grants) went abroad. There are printing, internet, mailing and publishing related expenses broken out as well – keep in mind the NVA maintains a website and produces pamphlets & guides, etc. for patients & doctors. So per Column B of Part IX, most of their operational expenses were related to the NVA’s mission statement.
At this point, I would like very much to show you all the tax records for the New View Campaign, a feminist nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading the social construction view of sexual dysfunction and combatting the medicalization of sex. After all, Dr. Petra Boynton has recommended directing donations to the organization for the last two years. However I can’t find their records on Foundation Center, GuideStar, or on in New York’s state’s registry of corporations (including nonprofits) and businesses. I can’t find the group listed in the IRS charity database. I’m both fascinated and frustrated that I’m having difficulty confirming the organization’s tax-exempt status. It’s not just that I can’t see the 990 document – nonprofits are not obligated to make the forms available online - it’s that I can’t confirm the group’s exemption using the IRS’s publication 78 database.
I’m stumped, however the lack of confirmation doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The New View Campaign could be operating under a different DBA name. The most likely scenario is that the tax stuff isn’t readily available because the revenues are small (I’m comfortable estimating under $25k/year,) and that if I just ask politely, a representative from the group would be happy to send me the New View Campaign’s public tax records. I may yet do something like that – we can always swing back around to analyze the records later.
In conclusion, I hope I have provided readers with some tools about how to follow the money trail at non profit organizations, how much cash you’re willing and able to provide to charities, and what charities make the most efficient use of funds. Keep in mind that there’s limits to the information though, and it can be hard to find this information in the first place if you don’t know where or how to look. Understanding nonprofit finance isn’t easy, and the tax froms can’t tell you everything, but sometimes you can quickly find interesting answers to burning questions.
As for other blogging news – every blog and their grandmother is posting 2011 retrospectives in light of the new year! Expect to see mine, listing 2011′s don’t-miss posts from this blog, later this month.
Tags: advice, agony aunt, bad advice, blogging, communication, experts, language, psychology, relationships, what
I can’t find an advice columnist I like.
I’ve been searching for the right agony aunt for years. It shouldn’t be too hard, since advice columnists are a staple feature of most major news outlets and magazines. Even smaller media outlets and blogs recruit advice columnists to generate new content.
Besides, sooner or later, just about everyone goes through a period where they believe they are equipped to start giving advice, so some folks take the “Dear so-and-so,” mantle upon themselves, without solicitation.
Perhaps I should put an ad in the paper – “
Single (not really) white female seeks competent sex, relationship and general life advice columnist. Must maintain a predictable schedule, be open minded, patient yet firm, and be knowledgable on every topic addressed… Must never screw up.”
Part of my problem is timing and schedules. I liked the Feministing.com column, Ask Professor Foxy when it was still active, but the eponymous Prof. Foxy hasn’t written a new Q&A column for the site in about a year. Good Vibrations Magazine occasionally answers reader submitted questions in the feature, GV Housecalls, but this feature is irregular. There can be weeks or months between new columns.
I believe that folks gravitate towards the advice they want to hear. So how open-minded your agony aunt is, is likely a function of how open-minded the advice seeker is. In other words, if you value spiritual guidance, you probably wouldn’t reach out to a secular agony aunt for relationship advice. You’d probably look for an advice columnist with a spiritual bent instead. “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger is one such spiritual agony aunt, but for multiple reasons her programs, which include racist rants, repulse me.
With regard to advice columnists in general though, that desire for certain types of advice means different agony aunts will attract certain types of audiences. I’m sure that agony aunts figure out their target demographics. Advice columnists then hone their responses to better meet their readers’ expectations.
Advice columnists specialize in certain areas too. Although one agony aunt responded to every submitted query, I think this is an absolutely terrible idea. The sheer amount of research required to give yourself a crash course before answering curveball questions would draw time away from more relevant queries. I wouldn’t ask a self-described expert on cooking about when it’s appropriate to move out-of-state. (I might ask a financial advice columnist though.)
And so much advice-giving is really permission granting. I notice that the way questions are written offer clues as to what the the submitter already perceives to be true – submitters want confirmation from someone perceived as an authority figure. I remember reading an article about the real Erin Brockovich a number of years ago, in which she described talking to herself when facing dilemmas. (An Amazon review of her book provides backup that Brockovich does indeed describe talking to herself.) I think a lot of advice seekers could similarly find the answer they seek by looking within and confronting themselves.
Frankly I’m not even fond of the direct question-and-answer format of advice columns. With Q&A columns, there’s no way to get all the relevant information required to make an informed decision on behalf of the submitter. Printed letters have to be edited for space, too, which can be even more confusing for readers.
An example of a format I especially want to avoid though, can be found in Wayne & Tamara’s column. The authors usually respond to questions with unrelated stories, with the advice buried in parables. I love it and I hate it all at the same time – the responses can be so cryptic it’s funny.
I prefer blogs, since bloggers frequently follow the “Show, don’t tell” principle – though there’s still some telling involved with blogging. Even then, personal stories & experience work well as examples to illustrate a larger point – the personal is political, after all.
But not all bloggers are agony aunts.
So there’s still plenty of popular advice columnists left to consider, right? Maybe not. My last criteria may be unfair, since everybody makes mistakes sooner or later. And what I view as an error, someone else may perceive as a positive feature. (The social justice blogosphere frequently critiques examples of ignorant “Advice.” Feminist & social justice readers probably recognize the problems in this recent gaffe, but if you’ve been swimming in privilege, you may be all like “I don’t get it.”) But when an advice columnist is recommended and has a strong reputation, I expect more. I’ve been disappointed and disgusted by popular columnists, and once I’m disappointed enough I just stop reading. From that point on I’ll be more reluctant to trust the agony aunt and whatever advice zie have to offer. Sometimes advice-givers apologize after getting called out for obvious screwups, but it may be too little, too late… Doubling down on privilege doesn’t help either. For example:
I stopped reading Dear Abby on June 27, 2007 when I saw this Q&A posted. In her response to a 33-year old virgin woman with anxiety over the prospect of her first gynecological exam, Abby wrote in part:
DEAR SCARED: A woman should be seen by a gynecologist if she is sexually active, or if she has reached the age of 18. She should DEFINITELY see one if her regular doctor tells her to — so please start acting like the 33-year-old adult you are and stop listening to “horror stories” from friends. Pap smears are not painful, and women do not normally bleed after having one.
Sounds spot-on, right? Wrong. Pap smears can be painful for some women – Abby’s response makes it sound like anyone who says otherwise must be a drama queen or a liar – instead of someone who may have a treatable medical problem that any competent gyno could make accommodations for.
Abby doubles down and adds insult to injury with the snide implication that “Scared” is acting like an immature child, just like a childish woman who can’t suck it up and deal with it at the gyno’s.
I never got into Dan Savage’s advice series because by the time I found out about him, it was because his reputation had been recently marred – and not for the first time. I know he’s done good things for the gay & lesbian community in particular, notably the “It gets better” project and comically redefining “Santorum,” but I can’t get over his history.
I’m certainly not going to read Dear Prudence, who recently gave some fucked up “Advice” to a gentleman regarding his wife’s prolonged therapy and the lack of sex after marriage… because she had just started therapy to cope with the abuse her father committed on her.
Do I really need to delve into why Prudence’s advice terrifies me? To make matters worse, Prudence’s answer was heard ’round the tubes, so hundreds of folks saw fit to comment on this couple’s sex life. As always, things got real ugly, real fast.The myriad terrible answers to this particular question, unfortunately, are how I know looking for any better advice is ultimately an exercise in futility.
I used to read Carolyn Hax’s advice column (When it was still called Tell me about it,) until I got bored with it. I decided that much of her romantic relationship advice boiled down to “DTMFA,” because it looked to me like relationship problems, minor or major, could be solved with a breakup. In fairness, that is always an option. But her recent advice is pretty good, so maybe I should give Hax another chance.
Then there’s the self-described agony aunts of the Internet – they’re not featured in mainstream media, but they’re still popular (On the internet!) Some of these advisors have qualifications that lend credence to their advice – Ph.D. Degrees, M.S.W. degrees, certificates reflecting formal training, etc. Others are bloggers with no formal training, yet have a wealth of experience to reflect upon. And for a lot of readers, I’m sure the advice in Internet agony columns works out well.
The problem is that when the advice I want or need is sexual in nature, I can’t turn to a lot of agony aunts, even the popular ones. I saw some professors and sex educators recommended by commenters in blog posts on places like Jezebel or Feministe, so I read and have since screened out a few recommended agony aunts who write general observation stuff.
Sometimes the posts are great and well-researched. Other times, they’re as airy & fluffy as cotton – and personally, I would rather not post anything, then inflate my post count with fluff. (Everyone reading this now is thinking to themselves, “Yes, K, we’d all prefer it if you didn’t post too.” Haha.) That quality variation is pretty typical of any writing though, so no big deal.
But when it comes to problems most near & dear to my heart, sexual dysfunction specifically, the recommended agony aunts let me down. Some just vomit up yet another uncritical iteration of the New View’s rhetoric: The problem you describe isn’t an actual problem you are experiencing; it’s just part of being a woman. You can’t take medicine for sexual problems today because in the past women didn’t get a choice and you dishonor their memory. Doctors and Big Pharma are in cahoots to fleece potential patients so you can’t trust the sexual health research out there co-authored by medical doctors and certainly you should never visit one for a sex problem. Wait, you have pain with sex? Go see a doctor.
To be fair, I’ve seen this very blog you are reading get plugged by commenters offsite too. I’m flattered. So what’s the difference between me and professional or amateur agony aunts?
The difference is I have never described myself as an agony aunt. I’ve repeatedly stated, I am not here to give you advice. I prefer to be a general nuisance, presenting evidence in contrast to conventional advice, since the usual advice backfires on me anyway. I may on occasion, when pressed directly, offer up some link or sound byte, but ultimately, I believe that individuals are the only ones who know what’s best for themselves when it comes to personal & health decisions.
That said, there are some bloggers I still look to for advice, though they aren’t necessarily in the business of answering questions. Keep in mind even you may find the following bloggers repulsive, for the same reasons I’ve outlined above! They aren’t always perfect, and I’ve seen some of the below make mistakes too.
Readers, have you found a decent agony aunt that might fit the bill for what I’m looking for? Now I want your advice as to who’s good & why.