Family advice from Abby contains mixed messages on sexuality
Dear Abby’s pen is double-edged: One side dispenses her solid, homespun advice; the other, according to critics, promotes a faddish, post-traditional, anything-goes approach to sexual morality.
The Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va., analyzed the 365 Dear Abby columns written in 2007 by Jeanne Phillips — daughter of the original writer, Pauline Phillips, who dispensed advice under the pen name Abigail Van Buren from 1956 until her retirement in 2002. They found that 30 percent of the columns dealt with sex and that of those, more than 50 percent rejected traditional morality, the view that sex should be limited to marriage between one man and one woman.
“Abby has flown under the radar for years dispensing radical advice on matters of sexual morality while enjoying a reputation for hard-nosed, common-sense advice,” says Robert Knight, director of the institute. “We
thought people ought to know there’s a pattern here that’s consistent throughout her career.”
Dear Abby is the most widely syndicated newspaper column in the world, distributed to 1,400 newspapers worldwide, with a readership of more than 110 million people, as stated in Dear Abby’s bio at www.uexpress.com, the Web site for Universal Press Syndicate, an independent newspaper syndicate based in Kansas City, Mo.
“Dear Abby’s popularity and reader respect are well-established,” says Kathie Kerr, assistant vice president of communications for the syndicate, in an e-mail interview. “She is not afraid to take up an issue or explore an alternative way of looking at a modern-day problem, often citing experts and explaining the facts. She does have her own opinion on topics, and she’s not afraid to talk about them, which is what advice columnists do.”
Ms. Phillips declined a request for a phone interview; Ms. Kerr says the syndicate handles all questions about the content of her columns.
Ms. Phillips “enjoys a tremendous platform to promote her beliefs on everything from wedding etiquette to handling the crazy uncle in the attic,” as stated in the executive summary of the institute’s report, “Down a Dark Abby,” published earlier this year.
“Dear Abby, overall, dispenses good advice on most other matters,” Mr. Knight says, “but when it comes to sex, she is a disciple of the sexual revolution, which basically says if it feels good, do it.”
Dear Abby, which began promoting the sexual revolution in the 1970s, endorses gay marriage, encourages sexual experimentation from cross-dressing to homosexuality and refuses to criticize sex outside marriage, even teen sex, Mr. Knight says.
“Dear Abby is one of the most trusted advice columnists in the world and rightfully so,” says Steve Ralls, spokesman for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a national nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington with more than 200,000 members and supporters. “She gives her readers practical advice about real-world issues, and she encourages her readers, for example, to embrace their children and have honest conversations with them about critical issues.”
The institute researched the Dear Abby columns to determine whether the sexual permissiveness seen in the 2007 columns was a recent development or a long-standing tradition.
The institute reviewed the columns related to sex and rela- tionships that turned up from a Nexis search and those on the Dear Abby Web site, which has columns on file back to 1995, along with the columns in the 1981 book “The Best of Dear Abby,” the report says.
“She gives bad advice on sex, and people ought to be forewarned that she’s not an authority,” Mr. Knight says.
The institute wants her columns to carry a disclaimer stating that they should be considered entertainment only, Mr. Knight says, adding that the institute has received 4,000 e-mails asking for the disclaimer.
Promoting a liberal viewpoint, particularly on issues of human sexuality, is a concern for organizations like the Family Research Council, a public policy organization in Northwest that promotes a Judeo-Christian worldview, says Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy.
“She is supposed to be support- ing an unbiased point of view,” Mr. Sprigg says. “Abby rests her credibility on the fact she relies on prominent organizations as sources of information. The problem is, some of these organizations aren’t unbiased.”
Ms. Kerr disagrees, saying that Dear Abby does not push her own political agenda on the public.
“That kind of advice columnist doesn’t last long,” she says. “She’s never held herself up to be anything more than what she is — a writer who thinks she owes it to her readers to answer their questions openly and honestly.”
Dear Abby is a champion for equality and fairness, Mr. Ralls says, adding that PFLAG honored Ms. Phillips in 2007 with the Straight for Equality Award, given to a heterosexual ally of gays and lesbians.
“We were proud to work very closely with her when she announced her support for same-sex marriage,” he says.