Where are all the good advice columnists?

12/16/2011 at 11:31 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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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.

People I still find credible most of the time:
Holly of the Pervocracy, Violet Blue, Corey Silverberg, Heather Corinna, the archive of Go Ask Alice!, Matt Kailey

Tier 2 (Generally like but with some reservations,)
Greta Christina, Carol Queen, the Sexademic, Marty Klein.

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.

7 Comments »

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  1. Hi! Followed your link from the Shakesville blogaround. I am more than slightly addicted to http://captainawkward.com/. The Captain is a feminist advice blogger, who answers specific questions, and when she doesn’t have direct experience in the realm discussed, she solicits additional guest commentary from her trusted readers. The comments section on there is uniformly excellent, too, both in terms of advice and in terms of its social justice awareness. I can’t recommend her highly enough.

    • Okay well that’s 2 recs for Captain Awkward then, so I can try her Q&A out.

      I dunno though, I’ve been disappointed by rec’s seen elsewhere though! I know that it’s pretty normal to do so but I’m wary of soliciting feedback from readers, since thaaaat did not go over well on the Feministe thread at all… might go in there with my guard up.

      • I third captainawkward.

        • Came here to recommend Captain Awkward also. She’s awesome! A lot of her advice simply comes down to “You’re going to have to talk to people if you want them to know what you’re thinking,” which I love. But she’s also a great mix of compassionate, feminist, and not up on a high horse above her letter writers.

  2. I’ve written this post in my head almost exactly. I think that most advice columnists out there suck. My current favorites are Carolyn Hax and Captain Awkward.

    I love reading the live chats that Hax does on Fridays at the Washington Post. Those seem a little less scripted than her column and much funnier. I will note that there is quite a bit of ableist language in her chats, which is disappointing to me. I don’t agree with everything she says, but she gets it right fairly often.

    My new favorite, to replace all the disappointments, is Captain Awkward: http://captainawkward.com/ She really gets it, from a feminist perspective. I’ve even seen her call out letter writers for being sexist/ableist/ect.

  3. You know what, I left one off, I’m going to edit the main post and add the Ask Matt column in. It meets my above criteria. It’s specialized in the sense that Matt answers from and about the trans* community.

  4. [...] 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 [...]


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