Dirty Little Secrets
I used to work as an advice columnist.
The place where I wrote my column is long gone, and the evidence cannot be used against me, so I feel perfectly comfortable telling you the truth…
...I don’t actually know anything.
Strictly speaking, that’s not accurate. There are areas in which I am academically qualified to give excellent advice, but they are limited and were, by-and-large, not the topic of my column. Instead, mostly what I dispensed was humor, research, and a solid dose of common sense.
Here’s another dirty little secret:
Most of the advice columnists aren’t any more qualified to tell you what to do with your life than I was. Some of them are even less.
For those people who submit their problems to an advice column, it doesn’t matter that, most of the time, the advice given by an advice columnist is no different than what their friends or family would tell them. The fact that the advice is in print makes it seem more authoritative, and gives them the impression that there really is a clear way to handle any situation. They may also get a bit of an exhibitionistic thrill from seeing their words and life in print and knowing that hundreds or thousands of people are reading about them.
As for why everyone else likes advice columns… there is a German word, schadenfreude, that loosely translates as “happiness at the misfortune of others.”
The real job of an advice columnist not so much to provide the best advice possible, but to provide the best advice that suits the tone of the magazine, website, or newspaper that it’s published in. That’s why the “Sex Advice From…” column on Nerve.com is salacious, The Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine is high-brow, and the call-in relationship shows on conservative radio stations make me want to pull out my hair and stuff it in my ears. It’s all about the audience, and what they want is what they get.
Just look at the sample advice I cribbed from five very different, and very popular, advice columnists below. Just like their audiences, no two are alike:
1. Dr. Laura
Public Persona: No-nonsense doctor and advice counselor.
Professional Qualification: Dr. Laura did do a post graduate certification course in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling, but her doctorate is in the somewhat unrelated field of Physiology.
Recent Advice: Responding to an article about a scientist who believes that men contributing to housework makes them better husbands, Dr. Laura says in her blog:
In those situations where both husband and wife have full-time jobs, and there’s a “war” about who’s going to take care of household chores, I say they should budget and pay for part-time housecleaning help, or one of them ought to reassess their life and decide if having no one at home to make a nest is worth the money they both make.
My Opinion: I have to be honest here. I can’t actually give you an opinion on Dr. Laura’s call-in show because listening to her for more than about a minute and a half fills me with unspeakable rage. I can barely read her webpage without wanting to bang my head against the table. I am, in short, not her audience. As for whether or not her advice is dangerous… my liberal, feminist, emasculating politics make it impossible for me to be objective. I have trouble taking seriously any woman who thinks that expecting your husband to fold the laundry is emasculating.
2. Dan Savage
Public Persona: Sex columnist, liberal, and writer.
Professional Qualification: Doesn’t claim any.
Recent Advice: In a recent column, Dan told a survivor of testicular cancer that there’s no reason he needs to pre-disclose his single-ball status since it neither affects his sexual performance nor puts any of his partners at risk. His advice for what to say when things get hot and heavy?
"Just so you know, I've only got one ball. Long story, and I'll tell you all about it later. And I only have one dick, too—but you only have one throat, so we'll find a way to make this work."
My Opinion: Most of the time, I can’t fault Dan’s advice. Sometimes the letters he receives, or his responses to them, make me want to hide under the table, but he seems to do a good job of checking his facts when accuracy is important… and he’s reliably and amusingly snarky whenever it’s not.
3. Dr. Drew/Loveline
Public Persona: A doctor. A real, honest-to-god, doctor!
Professional Qualification: Dr. Drew is a board certified internist, an addiction specialist, and an assistant professor of psychiatry. He’s one of the few advice doctors who actually is a doctor of medicine.
Recent Advice: In the July 29, 2009 segment in his audio archive, Dr. Drew talks to a woman about why she doesn’t enjoy sex. In between some rather obnoxious comments from his co-hosts, he actually handles the problem with compassion and aplomb. His conclusion regarding her lack of sexual desire:
“The fact is that it’s not normal, in the sense that you asked ‘Is it normal?’, no clearly not normal, however it doesn’t mean there’s something pathological or seriously wrong with you. […] You’ve had unwanted sexual contact, you’re disgusted by sex, you can’t have a stable, close relationship. Something sounds like it’s up there.”
My Opinion: One of my lab-mates used to listen to Loveline back when I was in graduate school, which may be why I dislike the show so much: it makes me think of hours spent slaving over a hot fume-hood staring at bacteria. Or it could just be that the combination of shock-jock crude language and psychological advice really rubs me the wrong way. I don’t think Dr. Drew is a bad doctor, and I suspect that it’s quite an effective way of dealing with his audience, but it’s just not my cup of tea.
4. Dear Abby
Public Persona: Wise Aunt/Knowledgeable Neighbor.
Professional Qualification: To the best of my knowledge, neither the original columnist, Pauline Esther Friedman, nor her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, who took over her role as Abigail Van Buren in had any professional training in psychology or a related field.
Recent Advice: Responding to a man who needs advice about how to get comfortable with the idea of settling down, Dear Abby says:
“Take things slowly and get to know the lady you're currently dating. If she qualifies in all the areas you think are important and you still find yourself looking around for something in addition, then you may have a problem and should talk to a therapist because no one woman can ever completely satisfy a man who craves variety.”
My Opinion: Dear Abby is an agony aunt of the old school. Although her syndication service says the column is “known for its uncommon common sense
and youthful perspective,” I doubt that anyone under the age of 45 would agree… at least about the youthful perspective. I used to love Dear Abby when I was a child, I thought she gave me a taste of the grown up world. These days, I’m looking for something a little more value-added than just common sense. At least Dear Prudence often is good for a laugh!
5. Dr. Ruth
Public Persona: Sex Expert and Media Pioneer
Professional Qualification: Dr. Ruth has a Masters in sociology and post-graduate training in sexuality. She is also a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine and has had a private practice for years. (Her earned doctorate is an Ed.D. from Columbia’s Teacher’s College in the Interdisciplinary Study of the Family)
Recent Advice: In a recent Q&A, Dr. Ruth tackled a question that is close to my heart… because I spend so much time answering it myself. The question in question? “Could my girlfriend be pregnant if she got my sperm on her clothes?” Her answer was accessible, friendly, and (unlike mine in similar circumstances) not snarky at all. It included the sage advice:
“If he’d gotten some sperm on his finger and later put his finger into her vagina, there would be a small chance of causing a pregnancy, but just because her jeans, not even her panties, got a little wet poses no risk at all.”
How can you argue with that?
My Opinion: Dr. Ruth is sort of a cult hero to me. I can’t entirely explain her extraordinary appeal, but it’s partially thanks to her that it’s possible for sexual health to be a topic of mainstream conversation. How can you not admire that? There’s a reason people keep giving her all those honorary doctorates.