Agony aunts are relics from another time - it's time to kick them to the kerb

Advice columnists are almost always female, but they really don’t seem all that feminist. It's time to consign this Victorian phenomenon permanently to the past.

You’d think it would have been an open and shut case. An expectant mother writes in to the advice columnist of a broadsheet newspaper revealing that she has just been offered a job. ‘Friends say that I should wait and see how I feel before I commit to a new job but my husband has said he’s keen to look after the baby and become a house-husband,’ writes the pregnant Jill. Jill’s husband is freelance and doesn’t have much work on at the moment, while Jill is clearly extremely tempted at the job offer, so the decision to go back to work would not only make financial sense but is also seems to be in line with the wishes of the baby’s parents. And yet, the agony aunt Virginia Ironside’s written response was so unexpected that it not only had people composing the kind of ragey tweets usually reserved for the likes of Taylor Swift, but has led us to question the continued relevance of agony aunts in general. We’re wondering, is it time we give them the boot?

Virginia Ironside’s advice to Jill has to be read in its entirety to be believed, but some choice excerpts include ‘it would be madness to accept this job’; ‘Having a baby is a job. You’ve already been headhunted – by your child’ (strangely, Jill won’t recall an interview); and ‘A househusband recently spoke of his experiences with his baby daughter. What he found, to his distress, was that the child was incredibly backward in her speech as she grew older.’ Such kneejerk fifties backwash (‘backward’? Really?) seems incredible in this day and age. In fact, we hazard that Ironside’s advice might be even more ‘backward’ than that toddler.

Agony aunts haven’t always had a reputation for giving bad advice. In Victorian times (when comments such as Virginia Ironside’s would not have seemed anachronistic), advice columnists appeared to have carried all the sharp tongued, terrifyingly formidable authority of Lady Bracknell. In fact, there’s a whole book, called Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe (good advice, we feel), devoted to such responses as ‘do give up all that nonsense and be a sensible girl’ and ‘a nice, new bonnet might be acceptable in the form of a peace offering’, not to mention ‘no wife should have a soul above buttons’. The problem is that things have moved on quite a bit from then. But the Agony Aunts? Not so much.

Virginia Ironside’s ticking off of the pregnant Jill (‘you clearly have no idea what a huge responsibility it is to bring a baby into the world’) is by no means an isolated example. A few months ago, a young woman of 29 wrote into the Times (£) concerned that the fact that she had slept with 25 people might alarm her new boyfriend. Assuming the woman in question lost her virginity at sixteen, this number amounts to under two sexual partners a year. A pretty normal figure, then, and, actually, probably the bare minimum number of sexual partners required for anyone who’s been single for a long time and is keen to avoid contracting repetitive strain injury from frenzied masturbation. And yet the agony aunt’s response? ‘I don’t wish to alarm you but that is more than four times the national average for a woman of your age!’

Now, we’re aware that those with problems often look to agony aunts for some hard truths which their friends, what with their empathy and their desire to stay on your good side because you’re the only one not on 5:2 and thus still have a sunny personality and pizza in your fridge, might not be keen on troubling you with. We know that. But essentially calling a lass a slag in the pages of a national newspaper, or indeed a bad mother, is not exactly modern (and in addition, massively unhelpful). Nor was telling a victim of domestic violence and sexual abuse ‘less of the drama’, as Mariella Frostrup did at the end of last year when the woman wrote to her lamenting how her friends refused to believe her account of what had happened to her. Or, indeed, advising a woman whose boyfriend had described her vagina as ‘repulsive’ to give her boyfriend an ‘educational DVD’, when really what she should have given him is an educational dumping of his ass and a DVD of the sort which might allow him to deduce if his sexual tastes might not lie nearer the other end of the rainbow (props to Pamela Stevenson Connolly for that one).

Yep, the bad advice just keeps on coming, and ‘quality newspapers’ are apparently as bad as dishing out advice as Cosmopolitan, a publication which we regard as the Cheeky Girl of the magazine world, because it once responded to a reader’s concerned question as to what to do about her boyfriend’s persistence in attempting to get her to touch his bum with advice that she should. . .  er, touch his bum. (The mag also deserves a special mention for its superior knowledge of anatomy - having somehow placed the pituitary gland within a stone’s throw from the ‘anal wall’.)

And this month’s Cosmo isn’t much better, with ‘sex psychotherapist’ Rachel Morris telling a young woman upset at the fact that men ignore her after sex to ‘close your legs and open your eyes.’ ‘Learn to talk to men rather than flirt with them’, she orders, having somehow made the assumption that henceforth her correspondent has been too busy hypnotising men with her vagina to engage them in conversation. Meanwhile, a woman who is finding her lovers sexually dissatisfying is coldly told that one can’t expect good sex from ‘random lovers’. ‘You will have great sex again- with the next guy you spend some time getting to know’, Morris blindly predicts.

With such terrible advice abounding, it’s no wonder we’re questioning just how good these columns are for women. They so often house an archaic agenda, inhabiting a world where casual sex is off limits and women are expected to submit to the caprices of their male partners. After all, how different is putting up with a boyfriend who describes your vagina as ‘repulsive’ from having ‘no soul above buttons’? At their heart, both notions place a man’s contentment before the wellbeing of the woman seeking advice. If we had a pound for the number of times we saw a young woman who has written in upset that her boyfriend went to a strip joint dismissed out of hand and told to accept these ‘laddish antics’ we’d have, well, at least fifty quid. Even worse, we know that teenage girls read these advice columns and take them seriously (take the teen magazines of the nineties’ obsession with toxic shock syndrome, rendering some of our generation of young women absolutely terrified of tampons for months, if not years, afterwards). With internet advice forums that allow the reader to see a mass of perspectives becoming more and more popular, perhaps it’s time we kicked these agony aunties, these vestiges of another time, directly to the kerb. Because, while they’re almost always female, they really don’t seem all that feminist.  


Women are bored of this sort of thing. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.