Something about nothing, or, the question of advice columns


It is not that I disdain all advice columns, but sometimes I really do wonder about the purposes they serve. For instance, Carolyn Hax, whose column appears in The Washington Post:

Dear Carolyn:

I am 1½ years into a relationship and I have lost my libido. I have gone from wanting sex about three times a week to about once every two weeks. I’m young, I still like my boyfriend and I still find him attractive, but I find myself more interested in falling asleep than any other bedroom activity. Of course, he is still interested in having sex and has started to notice my indifference. I’ve been giving in to keep him happy, but I rarely really enjoy it. I think that’s been making the problem worse. I’m afraid this will ruin my relationship, but I have no idea how to fix it.

Adapted from an online discussion—and perhaps this should be our first clue—the resulting exchange is revealing, including the two cents we hear from other participants. Carolyn’s first response is to seek more information:

Are you 1. depressed/anxious, overworked, and/or going through anything stressful; 2. on medication, including the pill; 3. noticing changes in the way you think or feel about your boyfriend that you’d rather rationalize away than face, or just wishing something would break you up besides you? 4. Have you had a checkup lately, including thyroid?

These are all things that can put a huge dent in your libido.

And what emerges in the discussion all leads back to a simple question. Because the querient does not want to drop her birth control pill, and an anonymous contributor makes the point less than elegantly:

Amazing how people who have a problem that may be due to something like, oh, birth control pills, can decide that any solution will not involve getting rid of said birth control pills, as if they could somehow change what is causing the problem in the first place. If the problem is the pills, YOU HAVE TO STOP TAKING THEM.

Now, certainly, this is not a good expression of advice, since the anonymous contributor is more interested in being amazed and thus judging people than in actually helping the querient through her problem. But let us set this aside, because here is the essential punch line: Why are people willing to ask an advice columnist if they haven’t even asked their doctor?

That is what gets me about these situations. And it’s not that I am without sympathy; I can certainly understand why someone might ask Dan Savage about some things before their doctor—

As for pudding in your vagina? I’m not a doctor, but that just sounds like a bad idea. You might get a … UTI or something, but it probably isn’t that bad. I mean, if you’re packing pudding up into your vaginal canal, I would say that just sounds like a bad idea. But if you’re just getting pudding on your vagina because you’re throwing pies around, he can’t hit you in the crotch with a pie hard enough to get it into your uterus, or anything.

—but, in the end …. I don’t know, I guess. It just seems that declining libido isn’t something one ought to be ashamed of. Comparatively, I can imagine that someone would not want to ask their doctor about getting pudding in their love canal.

But in the end, it always blows my mind that some people haven’t asked the first obvious expert about a common problem. And in the case of declining libido, that first obvious expert is clearly one’s doctor.

“Time to find a therapist?” asks Hax’s querient. I would think her primary care provider would probably be a better person to ask.

I remember the days when advice columns settled disputes about the proper way to hang toilet paper, or tie a necktie. I even remember that crazy letter from “Sidewinder”, whose penis curved to the left, that made damn near every teen advice column for years. And, yes, when the question is how to fulfill the sexual desires of a mate who wants to throw pies at you for pleasure without ruining the couch, and, oh, by the way, do you think it’s unhealthy if it hits the cooch, there is certainly a reason to start with the sex-advice columnist who has made his fame addressing such questions.

But advice columnists are not good replacements for doctors. There are some questions that, obviously, belong in the doctor’s office.

And, sure, something about anonymity goes here, but there are times when the only real advice ought to be, “Check in with your doctor on that.” I have no idea why a random WaPo link I stumbled across while reading the news unsettles me so. And that’s not the kind of question I would ask a physician. I certainly wouldn’t waste it on an advice columnist. Of course, therein lies another consideration: I’m lucky, it seems, because I have well-educated friends who wouldn’t wonder why I was mumbling about advice columns. The psychologist I know would tell me about people’s inhibitions, and leave me to put the puzzle pieces together; the theologian would probably try to psychoanalyze my reasons for wondering; the educator would probably want me to back up and go through the bit about pudding again.

So, yeah, that makes me lucky, I guess. Does Ms. Hax’s querient have nobody in her life she can talk to, who would simply tell her that it could be any number of things but you can’t know until you ask your doctor?

And maybe that’s what bugs me. One would think that if the Lonely Hearts Club gets big enough, the lonely hearts won’t be lonely anymore.

Or I’m just reaching for a reason to mumble and mutter and murmur about advice columns.

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