Throughout the course of my dating life I have spent time naked with (in no particular order) a nearly homeless alcoholic who was so hygiene-impaired I made him leave his sneakers out on my fire escape; a closeted sociopath who lived with his parents; a hoarder who dumped me for a baby-talker; and a batterer whom I recently rediscovered on the sex offenders registry.
And yet up until last August, I had spent the past 13 years of my life working as a sex and love advice columnist for Seattle Weekly and a bevy of other publications and websites. While I was busily doling out good advice — and I did give seriously sound counsel — for much of the time I was living bad advice. If any of my readers (or editors) had seen secret footage of the comings and goings of my own vagina, I would’ve been out of a job immediately.
However, the deeply flawed advice columnist is certainly nothing new — Ann Landers and her sister who penned the “Dear Abby” column went years without speaking. Cary Tennis, who used to write advice for Salon, was constantly diagnosing people as alcoholics, colored by his own addiction issues. Dan Savage doesn’t like fat people, transgendered people, or bisexuals. Slate’s Dear Prudence believes child-free people are missing out and that girls should skip cocktails if they don’t want to get raped. Does that make their/our advice less valid?
Maybe, maybe not.
What I found from reading thousands of letters is that very few people who bother to write in aren’t truly conflicted. They already know they should dump the boyfriend who hits on their sister. They’re aware that the mother who drains their college fund for crack doesn’t deserve a Christmas gift. And let me tell you — if there was a secret formula for meeting the love of your life, somebody would’ve monetized that shit ages ago.
Because for the most part, people who write to advice columnists don’t want advice; they want validation. Yep, it sure sounds like your husband is cheating on you. No, your born-again girlfriend probably won’t give up the Jesus stuff. And sorry pal, so far nobody has come up with a kind way to tell your spouse that you feel she or he needs to drop a few dozen pounds, but if you no longer want to have sex with him or her you’re going to have to bite the bullet and risk some tears.
So really, the only job requirement for becoming an advice professional is some level of common sense and a vague ability to string words together. Sure, there are some over-achievers in the racket — Elle’s E. Jean Carroll was crowned Miss Cheerleader USA in 1964 and Dr. Ruth Westheimer is both a holocaust survivor and a trained sniper — but they’re outliers.
Because for the most part, people who write to advice columnists don’t want advice; they want validation.
Which is not to say we aren’t helpful. One of my proudest moments (besides being slapped onto Bill Donohue’s “Bad Catholics” list) was when a gentleman wrote to tell me he’d followed instructions I’d given in a How to Get Laid 101 column and it worked. My advice was really simple — get rid of the futon on the floor and buy a real bed. Toss out the sweater you’d been using to rest your head and purchase a couple of new pillows and high-thread-count, 100% cotton sheets. The guy who wrote to share his success story had done me one better and invited a female friend over to help him assemble the bed. Score!
Or course, I also “crapped the bed” on occasion. Like when I tossed off a casually cruel line about psoriasis sufferers, or another time when I implied that perhaps most swingers weren’t people you’d actually want observe sexing each other up. Until I’d made these errors in judgment, I hadn’t realized how well-organized those groups were.
So while my so-called biases were revealed to include religious Catholics, people with skin conditions, and elderly people who have sex in public, anyone outside of these groups would’ve gotten a helpful answer outta me. Which shows that as long as you choose your columnist with their flaws in mind, they can probably help you out. Chubby bisexuals are better off asking Dame’s Dear Julie for advice than Dan Savage, but if you’re a wealthy white gay dad, he’s your guy. If you’re wondering about experimenting with anal, Tristan Taormino — not Aunt Dara’s Christian Advice — is your gal. And if you want to know how to shoot a man from 300 feet and still keep the lead in your pencil, Dr. Ruth will give you the scoop.
As for me, I finally learned to stop dating jerks and meet a nice guy; a bout with melanoma taught me not to make fun of skin conditions; and maybe this new pope will even change this lapsed Catholic’s mind about the church (though I doubt it). But I’m not a completely new woman. Even as I become intimately equipped with drooping body parts and weird gray hairs popping up out of nowhere, I still think people should pork in private.
Illustration by Kat Borosky