All about advice giving
Why don’t I like kissing?
Is masturbation bad for you?
Am I a lesbian?
Can women and men ever be friends?
What is love?
Is it okay if we live together instead of getting married?
Why do I cry when we have sex?
I’m pregnant and I don’t want to be, help!
Open any problem page (also known as an advice column) and you’ll see questions just like the ones above. But none of these were asked recently. All were put to journalists over 300 years ago. And asked of Agony Uncles, not of Agony Aunts.
The first problem page originated with publisher John Dunton He was a writer, bookseller and latterly the founder of the Anthenian Mercury and the Ladies’ Mercury. Periodicals that relied heavily on reader questions for their content. Just like the ones listed above.
Such was the demand from readers asking questions Dunton needed help, and formed a panel of experts, known as the Athenian Society who collectively answered reader problems on topics ranging from love and household matters to issues of philosophy and finance.
Since then the format of problem pages has run as follows:
A person with a problem writes a letter (or latterly phone call, email or text).
They send it to a media outlet such as a newspaper, magazine, website, or TV show.
An advice columnist, also known as an agony aunt or uncle, provides solutions. An agony aunt is defined in A dictionary of journalism as “A columnist for a newspaper or magazine who invites readers to write in about personal problems, very often involving relationships or sex in one way or another, and who then dispenses advice in the column, creating a curious mix of prurience and public service. Agony Aunts, and the occasional agony uncle, almost universally seem to dislike the term as a description of someone who writes an advice column, or problem page, but they seem to be stuck with it” (p.8)
Problem pages are a staple part of mainstream media, providing entertainment, information and solace. Over the following pages you can find out how advice giving works across print, broadcast and online media.
This site focuses on media advice giving, defined as people offering information and support through print, broadcast and online media. However it is important to remember advice-giving also happens formally through health and social care, therapy, education, charities, faith based organisations, outreach work and activism. And has historically always existed informally, and often subversively through non-expert sources. Advice giving didn’t start with John Dunton. Friends, relatives, local wise women and men have been doing the job for thousands of years.
The Athenian Oracle; an Entire Collection of All the Valuable Questions and Answers in the Old Athenian Mercuries, by a Member of the Athenian Society. John Dunton (also available as a pdf here)