Monday, December 7, 2009

Ask Amy vs. Ask Amy

This is a brief follow-up to last night's very long post concerning the blogger backlash to Amy Dickinson's column about a college student who wanted to know if what happened to her at a frat party was rape. At the end of a post in The Sexist criticizing this column, Amanda Hess writes,

"As this column makes clear, we should all probably refrain from consulting Ask Amy, as well.

* Note: Amy Dickinson’s “Ask Amy,” a syndicated advice column out of the Chicago Tribune, is not to be confused with the “Ask Amy” advice column penned by Amy Richards, published at"

I've read Amy Richards...and here are some excerpts of what she's written to women with questions and uncertainties about rape and sexual harrassment:

To a woman who had been abused as a child and is now unable to maintain a healthy sexual relationship:

"Unfortunately, I'm not a "doctor" and, therefore, can't professionally answer your question. However, through my work with women's issues, I am familiar with many resources in response to sexual abuse. I also personally know many people who have had similar experiences." (Amy then recommends a number of books)

To a woman who is receiving uncomfortable comments from her (female) apartment manager:

"Sexual harassment is a fine line and I'm not an expert . . . it sounds like a good first step would be to simply tell your apartment manager that although she may mean for her comments to be flattering, they make you feel uncomfortable. If that doesn't work, maybe try subtle threats and if that doesn't work....maybe look for a new apartment. "

And finally, to a woman describing an upsetting sexual encounter with her boyfriend:

"Your question is not unlike many others that I have received over the years — not necessarily the exact details, but the fuzziness when it comes to rape. For some people it's very clear when it is/was rape — they felt violated and felt that rape is/was the most accurate description of what happened to them. However, most people are less clear about how to describe what happened to them — and even less clear about what they want to do about it. Even if people are describing "it" as rape - they are resistant to entirely labeling it in that way because they then think they have to act upon it and they don't always want to. Rape is also very personal — what one person experiences as rape, another person wouldn't necessarily and so in that way it becomes harder to talk about universally since we aren't always having the same conversation.

I say this all by way of comfort — your mixed, confused feelings seem entirely natural and in sync with most people that I interact with. In terms of what you should do...of course, only you can answer that."

I'm not quoting these to respond to or comment on Amy's advice (in fact, in these quotes I haven't always included her advice). Just pointing out that, even for a woman who writes at, and who is endorsed by the very bloggers who blasted Amy, things get a lot more tentative when you're advising a specific person who needs medical attention, therapy, legal advice, or possibly all three. The question of "what exactly happened here, and what can I do?" isn't much clearer to this Ask Amy than to the other one--and both of them seem to recognize that it's rarely as black and white as the bloggers want it to be.

I'll agree, of course, that this Amy Richards is softer and friendlier than Amy Dickinson--each of her responses seems to start with "thanks for writing and I'm sorry for what you're going through." But niceties aside--the meat of it is largely the same:


The Sexist said...

I just want to point out that I wasn't endorsing Amy Richards in my post. I've only read her column a handful of times. The note at the end which differentiates Richards from Amy Dickinson was included only because both columns are called "Ask Amy," and I got some feedback from several people who were confused. That said, I do think the premise of this post is interesting and something I've actually been thinking of looking into further. Can any advice columnist adequately address anonymous questions about sexual assault?

Becky said...

Good point--you're right, you didn't. Thanks for clarifying, and thanks for differentiating between the two.

I'm often frustrated--and I'm sure advice columnists are, too--by how little they can really do in the cases where real help is needed most: sexual assault, child abuse, and the like.

Some (like Abby) seem to fall back on "seek counseling" too easily. Carolyn Hax has a weekly live chat where she'll ask follow up questions and tailor her response based on what they say. Both Carolyn and Amy Dickinson have resources that they've vetted and prefer to promote.

Actually something that rubs me the wrong way about Amy Richards' column is that, because questions are often repeated, you're encouraged to look at her answers to commonly asked questions before writing in. One of these is "was I raped?" The fact that Amy R. refers all readers with that question to her single answer to one specific situation really bugs me.

The Sexist said...

What really makes me sad is that women experience something like a sexual assault, and then turn to someone like a syndicated advice columnist for answers. That really makes my heart hurt, because I have to hope there's a better solution just turning to the person who is supposed to have the answers to everything, from the correct fork to use at dinner to what constitutes rape. So I've come to think that the sites that are more tailored to these issues---I guess the other Ask Amy is one of these sites, or Scarleteen---are better, because at least the columnist is becoming somewhat of an expert on these issues. I feel like with issues of domestic violence and sexual assault, times are changing, and the suitable answers to these questions are actually evolving fairly rapidly, so you have to stay on top of it. I also feel like it's more honest to fall on the side of saying "I'm not an expert" and just straight referring people to someone else. I feel like Carolyn Hax does this most often. But at that point, what does that mean for your role as advice columnist? You are expected to be the expert on these things.

But maybe I'm wrong about the more tailored advice columns. (I am not too much of an advice columnist expert myself). I'll have to keep reading some of the bigger newspaper ones and the more targeted ones.