FIGHTING SEXUAL IGNORANCE
A Q&A with Dan Savage
BY SUZI STEFFEN
Tracking down Dan Savage takes some coordination. The man's a machine of work, flying hither and yon (mostly yon). Even on a recent East Coast vacation, Savage stayed busy writing for Slog, the blog of the Seattle-based alt weekly The Stranger (of which he is the editor), chatting about his snowboarding injury and keeping his fingers in the pie of Seattle's messy viaduct reconstruction proposals. He's constantly checking email, writing snarky snippets to the Slog about articles or advice columns he reads on his travels and sending ideas and blunt opinions to his staff.
Savage, who was born near Chicago and educated in Jesuit schools before heading to the University of Illinois, takes advantage of his opportunities to express himself. Though he started out in theater and has been involved in Seattle's theater scene, the man's now busy writing and editing. He's penned his sex advice column "Savage Love" since 1991, when he was friends with one of the co-founders of the satirical newspaper The Onion.
As he told The Onion's AV Club in 2006, he started the column because he was tired of reading straight advice columnists' answers to gay people: "Sometimes the advice was okay, but oftentimes it was clueless about gay issues or gay people or gay sex or gay rights," he explained. "I just thought it would be funny for once if there was an advice column written by a gay person where straight people had to get slapped around or treated with contempt." Originally, Savage wanted to call the column "Hey Faggot!" but was shot down by the nervous editor, so he started each letter off with that salutation for a few years. Though the column remained humorous, he says that he started to focus more on serious advice as he learned more about heterosexual sex. "Savage Love" now runs in more than 70 papers across the world, including papers in Canada, and even, to quote Savage, "Bei-fucking-jing." EW started running "Savage Love" in October.
With a collection of columns and three memoirs in print and more books on their way, Savage isn't a particularly shy person. He writes an occasional op-ed for The New York Times in addition to his lengthy weekly output in "Savage Love" and various pieces in The Stranger. He contributes on occasion to a variety of other publications and shows like "This American Life," and "Savage Love" is available as a Podcast. Savage and his partner, Terry, have an 8-year-old son through an open adoption; the process of adopting DJ was the subject of 1999's The Kid.
Savage and EW got in touch just before he popped down to Eugene. After the EW began receiving letters objecting to "Savage Love," Savage suggested to editor Ted Taylor that he fly down (on his own dime) to answer questions. Savage speaks at 8 pm Thursday, March 15 at the WOW Hall, and the suggested donation of $5 to $20 benefits the HIV Alliance, Planned Parenthood and Sexual Assault Support Services.
So Dan, have you had problems with "Savage Love" in other markets?
It's been a long time since we had a controversy! The biggest one was San Francisco, but that was like 1994-1995 because I used the word "faggot" in salutations.
Why are you coming down to Eugene?
I'd like people to actually hear me speak and see me with their own eyes. Oftentimes what I hear from people who've seen me speak is that they read the column differently after that; they hear my voice, and that makes it funnier. I'm not some scary drooling monster that's coming for your kids. If you read the column, I'm actually a pretty conservative person on issues of sexual morality and behavior. I don't think people should hurt each other. I'm much more offended by The Game, this book that teaches men to use women like a box of Kleenex, wipe them up and throw them away; that was a NYT bestseller and is probably in every bookstore in Eugene.
Eugene Weekly, like NOW in Toronto, the Miami New Times — all these papers in some places you would think would be much more conservative and socially backward than Eugene, like Nashville — they're papers for adults. Sex is something adults enjoy doing and enjoy thinking about it and reading about. The idea that a free publication is more accessible to children than a paid one seems bizarre.
We've gotten several letters from people comparing "Savage Love" to hardcore porn and saying that their kids can't get their hands on "other" hardcore porn.
I think now with the Internet pumping pornography into everyone's house, that stream of unstoppable filth makes anything I say in my column perfectly innocuous — and hard to come by! I mean, you have to read to see it. It doesn't jump into your inbox in the morning like offers for Viagra and offers for incest porn and animal porn. Parents whose kids have email accounts see that their kids are getting all kinds of porn.
[People's objections] betray a fundamental misconception about human sexuality and how it works. You don't automatically start doing things you read about; you don't see "cake" on a page and then adopt "cake."
My column is about how to bring an ethical compass to your sex life and how to navigate it in a way that's responsible. Most children don't understand and aren't interested in adult conversations about sex. Six-year-olds are not reading my column. Twelve-year-olds are not reading my column.
I've heard from a lot of people who feel like their 10 to 13-year-old kids are too young to be reading your column. They're horrified by the content of the letters and the tone of your responses, and they feel like the innocence of their kids is going to be compromised — that the kids should be learning about normal sex at this time in their lives.
Well, there's not such a thing as normal sex. Sex ed needs to be about variance, about how you talk people into having sex with you; otherwise, it's just reproductive biology. Where people get into trouble with sex is when their desires are considered not normal or they don't know how to navigate the shoals of a sexual relationships, what's consensual and what's not, how to be safe.
There aren't things online that aren't a million times worse, and on principle we don't restrict children's access to the Internet. Some parents want Internet filters, but we don't say we must burn down or censor the Internet. And newspapers are for adults, and sex is for adults and has a place in a newspaper which is for adults. It's completely irrational to say that there's no place in a free paper for sex. Children have access to every publication in the world online for free.
After so many years of writing the column, what do you think of as "normal" when it comes to sex? Does anything surprise you?
No, abnormality is actually the norm. Even most people, when you pin them down, which may be the thing they actually want, by the way, will admit to one or two things that turn them on that are "different." People tend to latch onto my columns about a bizarre fetish, but most of my questions are about the basics, about girlfriends and boyfriends.
You know, the first column we ran had a letter from a guy asking about sex with his German shepherd. Then there was one about necrophilia. And that started things off with, er, a bang.
But I came out very strongly against fucking dead dogs!
The idea that children who are into talking about sex haven't heard [about sex with animals] is crazy. Listen to the conversation in middle school where gerbiling is discussed as fact, where they're obsessed with gerbiling, which I debunk in my column.
Did your writing change at all when you became a father?
No, because my approach to sex hasn't changed. I wouldn't let my child read my column; there's certain ways you speak in front of children about sexual matters. I like to think the column is a conversation with friends about sex after we've had a few drinks.
Some people object to the language you use.
But it's the language people actually use about sex. And oh, the concern trolls: "I get the column, but I'm worried about people who aren't as mature or together as I am." They're always worried about the language offending someone else.
How does your background as an ex-Catholic Midwesterner affect your thinking and writing about sex?
I was educated by Jesuits, and I feel like I'm a very Catholic advice giver. I do feel like there's such a thing as right and wrong; I'm not handing down permission slips for anyone to do what they want.
For instance, I don't believe, as some gay columnists do, that we have total freedom to do anything without regard for the consequences. It's fine to say that you have the right to engage in unprotected sex whenever you want to, but you have to accept the consequences and not whine for free health care. It's like, "everybody with AIDS is innocent," but I think some [gay men] with AIDS are responsible. Either you had really terrible luck, or you did something really stupid. You fucked people without protection while you were on crystal meth? That's not everybody's health crisis. The real tragedy has shifted to African-American women who are being victimized by the closet and the black church.
What depresses you about your column and the letters you get?
What depresses me is the ignorance. I've really seen abstinence education take root and do harm. I got a letter very recently from a kid who didn't think he was wrong and just wanted me to back him up with his girlfriend; he believed that he couldn't get her pregnant if he stopped thrusting after ejaculation. Instead of getting real and accurate information, they make shit up that isn't true, and they get hurt.
Is my column snarky, and do I use naughty words, and do I sometimes stoop to make a joke? Yes, and those things keep people reading. But folded in is real information that people need. They're likelier to access it [if it's fun].
What are the big sexual health and/or sexual freedom issues that you see out there?
Reproductive rights, including the coming assault on access to birth control. It's gathering steam. The religious right is now equating all access to birth control with abortion. They argue that it severs the connection between sex and procreation, and the reason we have abortion is that we have birth control. They want to take the idea that any sex can be about pleasure and do away with that notion. They want to control all of our bodies, and we have to fight them.
How have you used your power as the editor of The Stranger to change Seattle for the better?
I believe a newspaper should be engaged and that we should craft arguments and come out for what we're for and against what we're against. We do advocacy journalism; we don't believe in objectivity, and readers don't either. They respect papers that are honest about it; that's why FOX and political blogs are as successful as they are.
What's next for gay rights? Do you think gay rights got sidetracked by the marriage discussion?
No, marriage is the most important thing that needs to be done.
Some people say, "Oh, it's so 1950s to want to be married; marriage is a patriarchal institution."
It's so 1950s if you haven't been paying attention. Marriage is no longer gendered, and there's no longer a built-in power imbalance. Marriage is what the two people in any one marriage say that it is. So people who believe that marriage is somehow sexist or patriarchal are living in the past.
It's not some elitist gay thing either. I could pay a lawyer to get my power of attorney and do my will, but a couple of working class dykes with blue collar jobs can't pay lawyers to do all that. It's much easier to have access to a $50 marriage license.
The idea is that oh, gay rights used to be about pushing the envelope, sexual freedom, blah blah blah. But we won that one. No one is trying to stop us from putting on assless chaps and a harness and going to a gay bar. We won that battle, and people who are nostalgic for it aren't paying attention. Once you secure a right, you move on to the unsecured rights.
People say, "Oh, we used to be hedonists." The religious right is only to happy to see us as hedonists. But one day even hookers and drag queens grow up and settle down. Maybe when you're a 20-year-old hustler, you don't want to get married, but when you're a 45-year-old retired hustler, you might want those rights.
Were you happy about the elections?
Yes! The 2006 elections! People are starting to see what the religious right is all about.
Who's your candidate for 2008?