A total of 215 letters and responses published between January and March this year in advice or agony aunt columns of eight magazines and three newspapers were analysed. The study was conducted in the context where multiple and concurrent partnerships, or having more than one sexual partner at a time, is a key driver of the HIV epidemic. Thus, letters selected in the analysis focused on relationship issues. ‘Take this one, for instance’, says Mandi Chikomebro, a co-researcher in this Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication study.
‘I found out that my husband was cheating on me with two women. When I confronted him he got angry. I forgave him because I love him. Now he wants a divorce. He says ‘I don’t treat him well, I’m stingy and we have no future’. I love him and I don’t believe in divorce. What should I do’?
This was the agony aunt’s response to the writer:
‘It seems you are a humble and honest person. Keep on trying to resolve matters and perhaps involve family members. But if he’s not a good man, he’ll leave you no matter what you do or say’.
Analysing the response, Chikombero, says it was scanty on information.
‘There are a number of things going on here. There’s the whole issue of multiple and concurrent partners going on. The husband is cheating with two women, so there are actually three known women that are involved here.
We also see that this person is not necessarily thinking of the risk of HIV and AIDS. The letter doesn’t mention anything about the risk of HIV and AIDS. It just simply mentions that, ‘I’m distressed because my husband is cheating with two women. What should I do’?
So, when you look at the response, the response doesn’t necessarily develop this letter in terms of the risk of HIV and AIDS. It doesn’t mention that, okay, there are already three women involved; you don’t know the status of the other two women that are involved; there’s no mention of their own status ‘ the couple itself. Those are all gaps that we think could have been addressed. Do you know your status; have you considered an HIV test; are you using condoms; have you considered, perhaps, minimizing risk by, maybe, even leaving this husband? All these are options that are available to address issues and to address the risk of HIV and AIDS.
Even though the writer did not, perhaps, think of the risk of HIV and AIDS, we’re saying, as columnists that are equipped with information they can help readers to see just how risky the things that they are involved in are, whether it’s them that are unfaithful or it’s their partners.
We think that just because someone has not mentioned HIV and AIDS does not mean the columnist should not mention it. The columnist in this particular example just responded to this letter as is, but there are so many other things that may be going on that I think as columnists they could be addressing’, explained Chikombero.
She added that agony aunts ‘need to spend a little more time giving consideration to their responses, which could potentially be life-saving to their readers’.
‘There are gaps on HIV information. There are gaps on information on the risks of multiple and concurrent partnerships. There are also gaps in terms of the roles of the advice columnists ‘ the media’s role is to inform, to educate, to facilitate social change. That’s a huge gap here. These columns really can be used to do those things ‘ to inform, to educate, to facilitate social change ‘ particularly, given that in the South African context AIDS is such a huge epidemic. So, we’re actually missing a lot of opportunities to do something about it, and the advice column is just one way that we can try to do something about it’, she said.
The study has come up with a set of recommendations to guide these agony aunts in dealing with queries concerning sex and relationships. Results and recommendations of the study will be shared with agony aunts throughout the country.