Sex and relationship advice

Who would you turn to for advice regarding issues in your sex life or relationship? If friends and family simply aren’t an option – not everyone can share their problems with people they know – would you consider asking an expert? Many people do write to newspapers and magazines or radio and television shows who have an ‘agony aunt’ offering help on all sorts of issues, but just how expert are these people? I wrote about advice columns for BitchBuzz a couple of years ago and suggested that it was best to find out more about the people offering the advice before choosing who to write to. After all, anyone can call themselves an expert in sex and relationships if they feel like it. I could, despite having no relevant qualifications or training whatsoever!

The media like to give us advice because it’s reasonably easy to do and it makes readers/listeners/viewers think the publication/show cares about them. There is very little regulation of this, however, and the diversity of the quality of advice given can be quite astonishing. How do we know whether the person fronting the column is just doing it to further their career? Do we know for certain that celebrity advice columns are actually written by those people?

I’m not saying that everyone offering advice needs to have paper qualifications though, as the recounting of personal experiences can often help in this context. But also it helps to be aware that seemingly official qualifications offer no guarantee that the advice you’re getting isn’t going to be judgemental, ill informed, outdated or even harmful. I have discovered that there is no supervision of advice givers, nor any real accountability – people giving advice might well be doing so based on knowledge gained twenty years ago that hasn’t been updated since. In addition, as anyone who is aware of the role of the sub editor might realise, magazines/newspapers can edit responses in such a way as to undo all the good work!

Even if someone’s usually good, there are still pitfalls. Tricky problems are often the ones where even good advice givers can come unstuck. Questions regarding subjects like BDSM/kink, non-monogamy, psychosexual problems and painful sex are often responded to with a suggested solution, when a much safer option would be to refer them to specialists who would be able to look into the issue in more detail. Remember, advice columns shouldn’t mock, judge, enforce stereotypes or spread misinformation, but many still do. Advice columns shouldn’t be an excuse for ‘banter’ either.

Dr Petra Boynton said in her 2007 paper ‘Advice for sex advisors: a guide for agony aunts, relationship therapists and sex educators who want to work with the media’ (see pages 13-30 of the Onscenity resource pack on sex, health and media): “If one were to write a few articles on heart disease, one would not suddenly gain the title of ‘cardiologist’, yet within the area of relationships it is not uncommon to see a journalist described as a ‘relationships guru’ after writing just one sex feature!” (On reading that, I was surprised that no one’s asked me to do an advice column yet.) Dr Boynton also has a checklist for assessing the skills and abilities of a sex/relationship advisor:

  • Who is the expert?
  • What is their motivation?
  • What are their professional skills?
  • Do they adhere to their professional standards?
  • Do they have additional training?
  • Do they have professional or political partnerships?
  • Can they demonstrate evidence-based awareness?
  • Are they aware of policy?
  • Are they aware of difference?
  • Do they engage in reflective practice?
  • Finally, are they willing to tell you the answers to all these questions?

When it comes to advice, whether you are giving or receiving, question everything. Seek out the best, ask for a second opinion and don’t take anything as a final answer. After all, how can anyone offer a perfect solution to any problem when all they’ve received is a short email outlining what someone thinks is wrong? I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure no one can actually read minds.

Image via laughlin‘s Flickr photostream.

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