Millions of women like you write to agony aunts it seems… Stylist explores the all-new set of strangers we’re trusting with our secrets…
Words: Zoë Beaty
Illustration: Susan Burghart
It’s a cool summer evening and you’re back in your childhood bedroom. According to your parents downstairs, you should be asleep. You’re not. Instead, The X-Files, turned down so low it’s barely audible, plays on a TV-VHS combi in the corner. Silently, you flip the pages of the magazine you cunningly convinced your mum to buy you at the supermarket earlier. “Dear Tracey,” the headline reads. “Can I have sex on my period?”
In a time before Google could resolve the most excruciating questions our adolescent minds could throw up, it was agony aunts who provided our much needed answers. Boys, girls, sex, periods, masturbation… they opened up the conversations we were too afraid – or too embarrassed – to broach. Even if it took months to get a response. Now, of course we have the speed and anonymity of online search engines to shed light on our intimate concerns (just remember to clear your history or browse in ‘private’), not to mention instant, 24/7 access to doctors and therapists via countless blogs and websites. In this age of information overload, who would want advice from something as outdated as an agony aunt?
Quite a lot of us, it turns out. Yes, agony aunts are experiencing a resurgence – and this time around, their audience is global, not limited to the readership of a certain publication. Reaching millions of adults, imparting their wisdom in under 140 characters and responding on camera to real-time comments, they’re reachable, relatable and – they reckon – just as relevant now as in your teenage days. But if you were expecting a kindly, bespectacled great aunt sort in a roll-neck jumper – the likes of Anita Naik or This Morning’s Denise Robertson who reigned supreme for 30 years – you’re about to be disappointed. This new generation of problem solvers are young, sweary and very much on your level.
Gone are the reassuring tones of someone who’s seen it all before – this lot are upfront about the limits to their experience. They’re acerbic, like former-Los Angeles party-scene queen Dear Coquette, whose advice reads like the unapologetically barbed voice in your head you’d otherwise try to ignore, and they’re existentialists (see Heather Havrilesky’s ever popular navel-gazing Ask Polly column on New York Magazine’s website The Cut, which tackles even the vaguest of subjects, such as ‘when do you know when something is right?’ in essays up to 3,000-words long). And they’re multi-taskers, such as Emma Barnett, 31, who launched her Tough Love column in the Sunday Times Magazine last month (all the while maintaining her career as a journalist and BBC Radio 5 Live presenter). And, of course, they’re tech savvy – like London-based dating expert Hayley Quinn, 29, whose YouTube channel of the same name has had over eight million views. And anyone’s welcome to join the club. Even novelist Haruki Murakami is on board. When he put out a call online for ‘life questions’ in January last year, more than 37,000 of his readers got in touch. The author-turned-agony uncle answered almost 4,000 of those questions within seven months, and in July, his responses were made into an eight-volume book, Mr. Murakami’s Place – The Complete Edition, becoming an instant bestseller in Japan.
So why are agony aunts/uncles having a resurgence now? “Every generation needs advice givers,” explains Dear Coquette, the voice behind the pseudonymous agony aunt Tumblr account Dear Coquette, who also has more than 30,000 followers on Twitter and whose first book is out this month. “It’s a format as old as recorded history. A question is posed, a response is given, and somewhere along the way maybe a little wisdom gets transmitted. Technologies advance and mediums change, but we’re all still just a bunch of curious monkeys who need answers.”
Dr Pam Spurr agrees. A full- time psychologist and former agony aunt herself, she believes the new generation of just-like-you agony aunts are so popular in 2016 because there’s so much societal pressure to talk our problems through – something that’s easier said than done. “If you look at the mental health statistics at the moment, it’s pretty clear that we’re still bottling things up and repressing our emotions,” she says. “But we’re also an incredibly impatient generation – when we have a problem, we want to find an immediate solution. A stranger who communicates on your level and in your tone is the perfect intermediary between speaking to a friend and seeking professional help.”
“Even if we’re talking to really good friends we generally self-censor because being honest makes us vulnerable,” adds Dr David Purves, a consultant psychologist and clinical director of the Berkshire Psychology Service. “It could also be appealing to go to an advice columnist over a doctor or therapist because it’s free and it doesn’t go on your medical records. Altogether, being able to write what you really, truly think to a stranger is an unusual experience and can be very cathartic.” So the process of asking the question becomes just as important as the answer.
A new motive
But if the comforting, kindly aunt overtones have changed in recent years, the motives have too. From 1691, when John Dunton – a 32-year-old editor seeking advice regarding his extramarital affair – started the genre with an anonymous problem page in his periodical The Athenian Mercury, to Jackie magazine’s fictitious but wise ‘Cathy and Claire’ in the Seventies, the lost and confused have been hiding behind their handwriting for more than 300 years. But instead of serving up a dose of personal validation, historically, advice columns were a means of side-stepping taboo – and even advocating social change. As early as the 18th century, agony aunts were campaigning for issues like the abolition of arranged marriages and increasing women’s inheritance law rights, while in the Nineties, 19 agony aunts and one agony uncle signed a letter, which was presented to Parliament in an attempt to lower the age of consent for gay people in Britain.
These days there may be fewer taboos to tackle, but letters still revolve around the same timeless issues – love, rejection, self-improvement and self-doubt in work, life and relationships. A 2003 survey found that, if they had a question about sex, two thirds of young women would rather consult an agony aunt than a doctor (3%) or a parent (18%).
“I don’t think the subjects we’re talking about have changed at all – the central themes of love and heartbreak and loneliness are issues I certainly see over and over again,” says Quinn, whose YouTube advice was in such high demand she saw a business opportunity and now provides a service for dating problems on the side. “If anything, I think the need for agony aunts is increasing in 2016 – simply because we have so many options for how we choose to live our lives.
“Take dating: these days we don’t just meet people at parties – we have apps and websites too. There are many models for a relationship, we don’t just meet someone, go on a date, get together and get married. There are grey areas around commitment and monogamy that just didn’t exist in the past, so people are increasingly looking online for support.”
Emma Barnett agrees, although she adds that in a time-poor world, from the emails she receives it feels like people are searching for practical support, rather than moral guidance. “There’s definitely a need for certainty,” she says. “People want answers. There’s a need to have somebody who will say something to you that your friends and family won’t. If you can find a safe berth where you feel you can ask a question it can be incredibly reassuring.
“Even the fact that someone who doesn’t know you at all, who doesn’t have to reply, is taking the time to consider what you’re saying can be a comfort.”
The voice of reassurance
That sense of validation is also what sets apart writing to an agony aunt rather than discreetly googling “does my boss hate me?” “Sure, it’s anonymous so you’re not likely to turn to someone and say ‘that’s me!’, but you still get the inner-satisfaction of knowing your question was picked out of thousands of others and deemed important enough to answer,” explains Dr Spurr. “It’s the emotional equivalent of somebody saying ‘don’t worry – this is a real problem; it’s not all in your head’. For some people, that’s probably all they actually needed to hear.”
For Quinn, it’s simple. Agony aunts are reassuring – and undermine the culture of filtered, digital perfection we see elsewhere online. “I think people just want to see that other people have the same doubts and anxieties as us. We want to see that we’re not alone in whatever we’re going through, and we want to use anything we can to move forward.
“Essentially, we all just want to be heard. In a world where there are so many voices, we want ours to be listened to. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Readers respond to agony aunts Dear Coquette, Hayley Quinn and Emma Barnett’s best guidance
Should you tell someone why you aren’t interested in them? Or can you just ignore their texts until they go away? ~ Harleigh, London
Dear Coquette says: First off, I love your name. I don’t know any Harleighs and now I wish I did. As for whether to ghost somebody when you’re not interested, I’m all for applying the golden rule. Text unto others as you would have them text unto you. Nobody likes to be ignored, so unless the person is creeping you out or acting like a dick, it’s generally considered good form to let them know you’re not interested (of course, there’s usually no need to tell them why). If you need a go-to text to let someone down gently, here’s one that you can tailor to suit your own needs: ‘Hey. I had a lot of fun when we hung out. Easy conversation and laughs. However, I don’t think that I’m in a place right now for us to be a good romantic match. I’d definitely be open to being friends, but understand if that’s not what you’re looking for.’
Harleigh’s response: I’ve never written to an agony aunt before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I love the response because the “aunt” has still made it fun. It made me laugh. Dating is a tricky area, so I’d be interested to know how a guy would respond too. I will be taking the advice on board – we should all live by a “do unto others” mantra, and I’ll be adapting the suggested polite “will-you-just-piss-off” for sure!
I see jobs advertised that I know I could do, but I don’t necessarily have the experience they’re asking for, and I don’t have the confidence to go for them. How can I fake it? ~ Jodie, Southampton
Hayley Quinn says: Today marks the end of your ‘I’m not confident enough’ reasoning. It annoys me that the stats show women hold back WAY more than men, which leaves us behind on the career ladder and stuck on Tinder. There are three things you need to know if you find yourself hesitating on ‘going for it’.
1. We all have the ability to be confident. You don’t have to ‘fake it’, you need to access what you already have. Try writing a list of your achievements or asking loved ones what your strengths are. Say it over to yourself until it sounds real and not awkward.
2. Every time you ditch your comfort zone and take positive action, you up your confidence factor. Even if you don’t get the job, the fact that you went for it sends an empowering message.
3. Try to see it as best case: you get it (!); other case: you have an opportunity to figure out what you need to work on. Fill that gap by working on the skills you need to get the job next time.
Jodie’s response: I like the first and second points, although the third feels a bit more confusing. You don’t always know what it is that you’re missing so it’s hard to get that experience or skill if you don’t know what it is. But having a list of good things about myself is something I’ll be taking on.
I’m single at 31 and am longing to settle down and have a child. It’s making me unhappy and I think about it all the time, but it feels out of my control. How can I learn to be happy with what I’ve got? ~ Anonymous
Emma Barnett says: Why are you giving up? You are only 31 and while I accept it’s crushingly horrible that you’re not where you want to be, it’s a long life. You have boxed yourself into a corner and now need to fight your way out and change the parameters of your daily existence rather than let them close in around you.
I get it, it’s easy to drift and wallow. But now’s the time to be proactive. Think strategically about your spare time. If people channelled half the energy into their leisure hours as they did into work, we wouldn’t be so dissatisfied. Think back to school. There was assembly, with a dollop of headmistress inspiration; lessons to feed the brain; sport for an endorphin high, but there was also a bright unknown future being worked towards. You need to create a similarly full timetable for your adult life. And crucially, you need to be excited about your future again – if you just allow yourself to believe in it.
Anonymous’s response: There’s a lot to do, but there are good ideas here. I need to start with one thing and go from there. I’m of the mindset of wanting to feel satisfied with what I have rather than over-hauling my life. Also, I don’t want to be jealous of others, I’m very happy they are happy.
llustration: Susan Burghart at centralillustration.com