A long history of bad advice
Humans have been giving each other advice since the dawn of time. Of course most of this advice falls on deaf ears. After all, humans have also been giving each other crap advice since the dawn of time.
But with sex and relationships, we sometimes really need answers.
“For more than 1,000 years the Oracle at Delphi offered advice to all who asked for it. More than 500 snippets of oracular wisdom have survived. Some sound just like a modern agony aunt, if you ignore the animal sacrifice and the priestess’s mystic trance,” according to the fascinating ‘Agony aunts through the ages: Whatever should I do?’.
The Oracle did its job quite smartly: they answered in riddles. This left things open to personal interpretation – appropriate when it comes to affairs of the heart.
The first proper problem page appeared in 1691 in Great Britain. “Its creator, John Dunton, was feeling guilty for cheating on his wife. He thought that people like himself might appreciate confiding anonymously in a stranger, and that readers would be titillated by the exchange.”
He was right: the format – as a “purveyor of common sense” – took off.
He called her a whore – though he spelled it ‘w---e’ to spare his readers’ blushes.
Soon, Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe was writing such a column. Unfortunately, he showed no common sense. When a woman admitted to having been seduced, “he called her a whore – though he spelled it ‘w---e’ to spare his readers’ blushes.”
But in general, advice columns reflected and advocated social change (but only to the point that they did not scare off their readers).
“In the 1930s agony aunts began to admit that even nice women might enjoy sex. They gave lady-like hints on the joys of orgasm. […] In the 1960s readers began to pop the pill and agony aunts swung with them. […] Today, advice columns do not merely explain how to have better sex; they show photos.”
The internet changed everything. Before, people often felt alone with their quirks and challenges. But “now they are only a mouseclick away from a self-help group.”
Agony aunts had to up their game.
“Still, agony aunts have it easier than their forebears. If they give controversial advice, they may be subjected to a flame war. When the Delphic Oracle scolded the emperor Nero for having murdered his mother, he had her burned alive.”
The wisdom of crowds
“Unlucky in love? Husband cheating on you? Did you unwittingly sleep with your future father-in-law?” asks ‘Sex, love and money: Nigeria's new Instagram agony aunt’.
“Help is at hand from an agony aunt using Instagram to solve relationship problems in northern Nigeria. The scenarios above are just some of the problems that Ziya'atulhaqq Usman Tahir has come up against.”
"I think a lot of women in northern Nigeria think that, if you have a problem with your husband you shouldn't say it, you should find a way to fix it, or pray for it. I'm all for prayers, but at times we have to speak," says Tahir who goes under the Instagram handle “Fat Ibo Lady”.
Unlucky in love? Husband cheating on you? Did you unwittingly sleep with your future father-in-law?
Tahir crowdsources her answers from her 50 000 followers – who she calls “jurors” – and an extended network of doctors, lawyers, psychologists, housewives and religious figures.
Typical juror advice? “Run for ur life!”
“When he first arrived in Europe, Abdu Osman Kelifa, a Muslim asylum seeker from the Horn of Africa, was shocked to see women in skimpy clothes drinking alcohol and kissing in public. Back home, he said, only prostitutes do that,” according to ‘Norway offers migrants a lesson in how to treat women’.
“Confused, Mr. Kelifa volunteered to take part in a pioneering and, in some quarters, controversial program that seeks to prevent sexual and other violence by helping male immigrants from societies that are largely segregated or in which women show neither flesh nor public affection to adapt to more open European societies.”
Meanwhile, these societies became fearful of the million asylum seekers arriving in Europe last year. These fears were enflamed by the mass sexual assaults/muggings in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve, which were quickly linked to young male migrants. Suddenly, Norway’s program was receiving a lot of media attention.
Back home, he said, only prostitutes do that.
But it’s tricky.
On one side, you have European anti-immigration politicians who want to make such programs mandatory for all arriving migrants as a way “to protect our women” – which is insanely condescending to both migrants and women.
On the other side, enforcing such a program may lead to stigmatising migrants as rapists. And once you start stigmatising a group, you start on a road going towards suddenly thinking that genocide is a good idea – something Europe knows a lot about.
So yes, very tricky.
Where’s a good Oracle when you need one?