Dear Dolly Doctor
You probably haven't heard of Melissa Kang, but thanks to her alter ego Dolly Doctor you avoided a lot of awkward talks with your parents.
If you have an Australian or New Zealand vagina under the age of 40, you’ve probably spent several hours with Dolly Doctor. Scratch that, no matter your genital situation, if you grew up in this part of the world, the sticky horrors of puberty would have led you to her at one time or another.
If you're not familiar with this tampon-spouting fountain of wisdom, Dolly Doctor is a body and health column that has run in the teen bible Dolly Magazine for over 20 years. Dr. Melissa Kang, a sexual health specialist and Senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, has held the title of Dolly Doctor since 1993. Pre-internet she was a one of the few reliable sources of sex and body facts for young people. And thanks to her straightforward guidance you never had to ask your mum what “finger-blasting” was. If there were a Nobel Prize for calming down 13 year-old-girls and answering underpants questions, she would be the reigning champ.
VICE: People are so bombarded with information now, and have almost no restrictions on seeking it out themselves. Are you surprised that Dolly Doctor has survived despite most people being able to just Google their own answer?
Dr. Melissa Kang: I know, it’s amazing, I think it’s a function of age, and the universal nature of this stage in life. The changes in the brain and body around the time of puberty make young people incredibly curious and introspective. I think that’s why they need certain questions directly answered, and why they write in. Perhaps the person sending a question off to a magazine has a need to express that concern or curiosity to something outside of themselves to feel legitimate and real. After so many years of seeing the same questions being asked over and over again, I think the real worry is about being normal.
Is that why the column has prevailed? That need for people to be told by an authority figure that they’re normal?
I’ve struggled with that. When I answer a question about something being normal I worry I’m reinforcing someone’s idea of it. What is normal after all? It’s a real chicken or egg situation. That is the big question and I still struggle with it after all these years.
When I was writing these questions I had a whole section about how you’re the gatekeeper to the idea of “normal,” and it was almost impossible to phrase a question about what it is.
Yeah, I fully understand and agree because it’s something that I always ask myself. But basically I think this is information that any individual has the right to know. I tend to use the word normal when I see that the young person is very anxious because they’re comparing themselves to something else and they think they must therefore be abnormal. I guess I use it in that context when I’m hoping to be reassuring.
Getting back to the role of the Internet, has it affected the questions you get in general?
Yes and no, the themes haven’t changed, but there’s more information out there. Young women are more confident using technical words and asking explicit questions.
I still occasionally get questions referring to “having a funny smell down there”. Which could mean a lot of things, but I think I usually know what they're talking about. But it’s about presenting consistent language from several places, that I hope over time becomes part of their lexicon. But 50% of the questions are still relating to sexuality, that hasn’t changed.
What about the rest of the media, has the increasingly sexualized nature of TV had any effect on the questions?
Again, in the sense that people are more confident in asking questions. They’re not embarrassed to be asking about things like oral sex, in the past there was more hesitation. Questions might have been prefixed with, “This might be a really weird question, but…” Now it’s more, “How do I do this?”
Perhaps it’s the sense of confidence that it’s okay to ask about things. The curiosity has obviously always been there, but it’s more open now.
Are there any questions you don’t get anymore?
Not really, it’s still mostly body changes, periods, sexual feelings, sexual relationships and sexual practices. All pretty mainstream sexual practices, I don’t get questions about fetishes or anything. It’s very much all oral sex and masturbation.
Do you think the anxiety around sex and peoples bodies has increased or decreased as people have more information?
It’s really hard to know. In terms of my role with the magazine it’s such a tiny little crumb of the whole cake that’s out there. But I think it’s both. There has been a reduction in anxiety in some ways and that is tied in to the confidence of asking questions.
But I don’t think it’s so much a specific 'thing' they worry about, but the sense of being overwhelmed with worry about that thing, like the size and position of a mole, the appearance of a nipple or the asymmetry of the vaginal labia. There’s nothing wrong with those preoccupations, but it’s a constant reminder of how introspective we all were at that age.
But there always will be a level of anxiety. I don’t think that stuff is ever going to change.
You touched briefly on the idea that people have the right to know about their bodies and sex. If someone is old enough to ask a question does that necessarily mean they’re old enough to have the answer?
It can be difficult because a lot of the time I don’t know their age, but I’m aware the readership might be very young. And I can’t really tell from one specific question how much of the bigger world they’re actually absorbing or exposed to. Again it’s a judgment to say something is or isn’t appropriate. I guess it’s about trying to avoid any form of distress rather than trying to control any information.
But it’s really hard to know, especially when a question is about a sexual practice like oral sex. That’s tricky, but as a woman and a health professional I’m aware that there is a lot of misinformation out there.
That is basic human rights to know about your body and not have information withheld. I will often be on the side of being more explicit. If someone asks about how to give a blowjob, in another context I might be more personal saying do this or try that. But here I just say, well this is what a blowjob is. Oral sex or fellatio involves using the mouth or tongue to stimulate the genitals. I’ll give a more technical explanation rather than saying, this is how you should do it with your boyfriend.
No sex tips, got it.
Yeah and there might be people and adults who think that is inappropriate, but it’s a judgment call. And for a person to be asking how to a give a blowjob, you know there is a level of sexual engagement. And I don’t have a problem answering that question.
Do you ever feel conflicted about how to answer a question?
There were times in the last 18 years where a question was about an abusive situation, or a sexual relationship with someone much older. I certainly answered the question, but I specified there are legal issues if they’re under 15. It’s not that I wouldn’t not answer the question, but rather suggest we change it so it’s really clear to the reader that there would be different repercussions depending on the age of the girl.
Do questions like that ever disturb you?
In the sense that it’s always distressing to hear about a situation where there is victimization or abuse, but that is the reality of working with people who are willing to confide in you. But the distress is around that person being anonymous and just really hoping they know how to get help. I suppose in the early days particularly I used to fret about what happens next, and how can we leave these people out there somewhere in the country when we don’t know who or where they are.
Do you ever come across a question you haven’t seen a hundred times?
Sure, when I did talkback radio someone called in about someone using their pet for sexual stimulation, which was more than a bit bizarre. But I just think, oh well, I’m sure that happens and people just don’t talk about it. That sort thing wouldn’t get into the magazine, but it’s quite possible that it’s out there.
Wait what? What did you tell them to do?
I would have said something about this not being a topic that people spoke about much, so it was difficult to know what to make of it. The caller's concern was whether this was 'abnormal' in relation to his girlfriend. More broadly it is comprehensible and likely that some people will find physical contact with animals sexually stimulating, whether that's a moral issue is a separate issue. I suggested that he should speak to his girlfriend about it. He saw it happening and went away without speaking to her. The same principle applied to all the questions I get about couples' sexual relationships. I just tell them to communicate.
I suppose no amount of TV or talks or media can get you ready for the head fuck of puberty.
That’s right, and the same could be said for your first sexual experience. I don’t think that any amount of education, or cool parents or teachers prepares you for that little bit of magic, or little bit of horror. And I kind of hope that never changes, it’s special to have those first experiences in life. I hope the load of information and media sexualisation continues to increase that level of confidence and curiosity so people don’t feel so oppressed.
Would you be 16 again?
Oh I don’t think so. I really don’t. I mean, my adolescence was okay, I went through all the same things a lot of the readers do in terms of the questions they’re asking, but no.