Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Turning us on or putting us off?

Great fun yesterday evening, at the biennial Family Planning Association debate. Two years ago it was on sex education and I bounced up from the floor to make a contribution. This year it was on pornography and I was asked to speak - a really great honour.

The title was "Turning Us On or Putting Us Off". The panel - Mark Limmer the North West Teen Pregnancy Coordinator, Maddy Coy from the Women Abuse Studies Unit and Jamie Maclean of the Erotic Review - was wonderfully facilitated by David Aaronovitch, who seamlessly wove all our statements together then moved it on with substantial audience contributions. I would like to have heard more from "Leanne", a former porn star, and perhaps slightly less from an unamed man in the audience who seemed not to have got the point at all.

Views were wide-ranging - though all agreed on the essential horror of violent porn and the essential wisdom of good sex education. My own approach, though occasionally challenged, hinged on my belief that society is currently in a state of total confusion about many aspects of the porn debate. For a start, what is porn - and what is pleasurable erotica or useful information and knowledge? In my own lifetime I have seen the definition shift - what was reviled thirty years ago is now accepted as natural, normal and helpful.

Above all, though, what I found wonderful was that we were putting issues on the table, talking them through, shining a light on areas that are so often hidden or avoided. Whatever agreements we did or didn't come to, whatever action is or isn't taken, we talked about it sensibly, calmly and usefully.

Hats off - as always - to the Family Planning Association for raising the issue!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Tea with the aunts!

When people hear that I'm an agony aunt, one of the questions I always get asked is... "and do you and all the other agony aunts meet up then, and swap notes". Normally, I say no. We tend to live at opposite ends of the country - and we tend to live very busy lives. "Tea with the aunts" just isn't on the cards.

But recently, thanks to an invitation from The Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, several of us did meet up - and yes, there were tea and cakes served. From the Tavistock's point of view, this was an opportunity to spread the word about the therapy they offer, and - I guess - to debunk a few myths about their being exclusive, traditional and totally out of most people's price bracket. (In fact, much of the work they do is subsidised and you can, theoretically, see one of their highly experienced counsellors completely for free).

There were six of us "aggies" at this meeting and we all listened attentively as the speakers - Susannah Abse and Brett Kahr - outlined the work they do. But then came the surprise. The Tavistock was not just holding an information/publicity session. They were also wanting to swap notes with us as fellow professionals, ask what we did, offer support, identify our daily challenges and compare them with their own.

This was unexpected. I firmly believe that media advisors are just as much trained professionals as anyone else in the field. I would never claim that our job is a counselling job - it's not interactive and it's not longterm. But I would argue that we play just as skilled and demanding a role. We advise not just one but many millions of people. We need to offer wisdom in a few dozen words not over several hundred hours. When we do our job well we disseminate society's best practice. Yes, we are different from counsellors; but we are no less useful or professional.

Some counsellors don't get that. "Agony aunt" can be seen not only as a soft option but as a less skilled one. So it was delightful that the Tavistock were responding to us totally as equals, and initiating a conversation between equals. It turned into an astoundingly useful and insightful occasion, where we discussed mutual problems, offered suggestions and resources, and where both sides learned huge amounts about themselves and about the other.

At the end, it was so successful that we all agreed to meet regularly - for mutual information and support. I am thoroughly looking forward to the next session. And now, if asked whether aggies meet for tea, I can say 'yes'!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Broken hearts are for real

I commented for LBC Radio this morning on a really moving story from the Cass Business School. Apparently one of their lecturers just analysed over 11,000 life insurance policies to track down just how often, following the death of one partner, the other partner died too.

There's already been research about the stress of bereavement causing heart disease. But apparently losing a spouse can actually mean that in the following twelve months it is twice as likely that a woman will die and an astounding six times more likely that a man will.

So yes, you can die of a broken heart. Or - this is my surmise based on my mailbag, not on science - you can die of grief, of loneliness, of a lower quality of life. You can die because you miss your partner so much and simply can't bear the thought of going on without them. Jim Callaghan tried living without his wife of 67 years for just over a week - tried it, didn't like it, followed her to the grave.

Very moving - but also thought-provoking. So often I get letters which, summarised, say something like "my spouse died a few months ago and my family are telling me to cheer up - I should have got over it by now." To which I usually reply "Rubbish - this is serious stuff, you need to grieve!". I give the same reply, actually, to those whose spouses have left; a relationship breakup is not as final as a death, but it too can have devastating effect.

Advice then. If you are mourning a loss of whatever kind, be gentle on yourself and do all you can to look ahead and regain hope. If you are supporting someone who is mourning a loss, keep close - however much of a brave face they put on, they may well be suffering more deeply than you ever could imagine.