My journey to being an agony aunt

With a few exceptions, most of the agony aunts I’ve interviewed tell me they never planned on being an advice columnist. They ended up in the job by accident, or through a separate career as a journalist or writer, or after coping with difficult life events.

I didn’t always know I wanted to be an agony aunt, but from a young age I was interested in the wellbeing of others. Never leaving the house on family days out without a first aid kit in case someone we encountered needed care.

Advice columns fascinated me when I was a teenager and used to read Jackie magazine’s ‘Cathy and Claire’ problem page (mostly under the desk during physics lessons) or the columns in My Guy, Just 17 and Cosmopolitan. I used to imagine what advice I’d give if I were writing the column. I also used these columns, and listened to Anna Raeburn’s radio show on Capital Radio whenever I could, for comfort about my own worries. I mentioned wanting to be an agony aunt when at university and was firmly told by my personal tutor such work was very competitive and I should forget about it.

This was in the late 80s and early 90s, I was living in Brighton, and there were plenty of opportunities to offer sex and relationships advice through outreach, drama and activism. I joined others to offer earnest, uncritical sex positive information on safer sex and HIV. We were all well meaning and enthusiastic but I suspect largely ineffectual and at times patronising.

During my PhD research part of my thesis focused on media advice giving on sex and relationships and I undertook several studies post-doctorally assessing media sex coverage and relationships advice in the self-help market.

I latterly applied this work by evaluating and consulting on media public health campaigns including Want Respect? Use a Condom, Condom Essential Wear and Sex: RU Thinking About It? (2002-2011). Advising the World Service Trust on HIV programming for radio (2004). And serving on the UK Government’s Inquiry into Self Harm (2004-2006).

By my late 20s I was working in academia on sexual health research, had access to a wide range of peer reviewed papers, and experience of talking to thousands of people about their intimate lives. All of which I drew upon in my teaching and latterly talking to the media. Sex sells, and I was regularly asked for quotes from journalists for their relationships coverage. Frustrated with poor reporting on sex issues – especially the endless pinning of stories onto whatever had featured in that week’s episode of Sex and the City – I started writing to editors pointing out how stories could be improved.

Someone had to eventually tire of this and it turned out Men’s Health were the first to crack. In 2002 Simon Geller, then editor of the UK magazine invited me to be their sex editor. Closely followed by Annie Auerbach editor of teen girl’s website mykindaplace (MKP) who I’d worked with on many relationships stories in the past.

Me answering a problem for Mykindaplace
Me answering a problem for Mykindaplace

It was the readers of MKP who dubbed me ‘Dr Peppa’, although most people who’ve since contacted me for help stick with Petra or more commonly ‘aunty’, ‘mummy’ or ‘mama’.

My ‘agony aunt CV’ across print, online and broadcast media includes:
The teen girl’s website mykindaplace (2002-2007)
Men’s Health (UK) magazine and online (2002-2006)
BBC Radio 5 Live’s Up All Night weekly advice phone in show (2003-2007)
Channel 4 Television’s The Sex Education Show (Series 1, 2 and 4 – 2008-2011)
Beauty Zambia (2004-2008)
More! Magazine (2009-2011)
The Telegraph, Wonder Women (2012 – present)

Alongside this I’ve written or presented advice columns for the magazines B, Sugar, Grazia and TV Hits. The men’s websites mansized and monkeyslum. NHS Choices. BBC World Service (What’s the Problem?), BBC Radio 6, LBC, Choice FM and BBC Radio 1. Plus ITV (This Morning).

Beauty Zambia Front Cover
Beauty Zambia Front Cover

Frustratingly, having got to do the job I’d always wanted – being an agony aunt – I was experiencing ongoing opposition within academia where my full time job was based. While doing teaching and research in international health I was keen to apply the experiences, skills and knowledge I had on media advice giving and evaluating public health campaigns. But I found within the university setting my advice giving role was viewed as something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about, discredited as ‘journalism’ and not supported as a worthy area of practice nor academic study.

An exception to this came in the form of the late Professor Otto Woolf, a paediatricain who not only invited me to give one of his ‘OWL (Otto Woolf Lectures) celebrating the importance of advice giving for young people, but who also encouraged me to continue to use ethnographic research to explore my role as an advice giver and to evaluate media advice giving more widely.

I’ve felt every agony aunt job I’ve had, whether it’s only lasted a few weeks to several years has been a privilege. Not for the cachet of being in media, but for the trust expected of me by those who chose to share their worries and problems. Inspired by Otto I am currently working to have the job accepted as a recognised part of social and health care, a suitable area for in depth academic investigation, and an occupation with definite standards of good practice.

If you want to know where my advice giving takes place it’s usually at my kitchen table. I’m a mum to two young children so much of my agony aunt work fits in around them. And when time allows I teach and carry out research in International Health Care, specialising in diverse methodologies and sex and relationships during (pre)conception, pregnancy and parenthood. You can find out more about my background and qualifications here.

This site is a repository for other research I’ve drawn upon to understand and inform advice giving, plus my own academic work, and links to resources and tools others may want to use to understand advice giving and perhaps either be an agony aunt or uncle themselves or to study this fascinating area of media.