Your Own Personal Savage
Someone to hear your prayers, someone who caresû
By Shannon Finnell
øThings on your chest, you need to confess. I will deliver, you know Im a forgiver…” Reach out and touch an alt weekly sex advice columnist? Since launching his øSavage Love” sex advice column in the early 90s in The Stranger, a paper he now co-owns, Dan Savage has become the go-to guy for relationship dilemmas of all sorts. He helps readers navigate relationships (from asexual to polyandrous) and fetishes (feet to feces), tells readers its time to DTMFA (dump the motherfucker already) and rebukes people for being jerks. Hes less of a forgiver and more of an unusual moral compass.û
Savage is øone of the most important ethicists in America,” Lutheran pastor Benjamin Dueholm writes in Marchs Washington Monthly. øSavage Love” and Savages other projects tackle tough life decisions and moral dilemmas in addition to political and public issues, but Savage makes an unconventional ethicist, if he is one.
Savage simultaneously embraced and mocked the social and moral politics of writing an advice column from the beginning ‹ for six years he began the letters addressed to him with øHey Faggot” ‹ but social conservatives continued focus on limiting gay rights (and the rights of anyone whos extra fun) has more and more steered him toward the outright political.
Savage continues to reclaim ‹ or just claim ‹ other terms, like the name of a certain homophobic former senator, making him synonymous with the øfrothy” lube-semen-fecal matter mixture of post-anal coitus. (Said lube-semen-fecal matter is now weighing a presidential run.) Savages political viewpoints extend beyond matters of sex. He caused stirs by advocating and then rejecting the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and by dissing lefter-than-Democrat political parties for taking votes from the Dems in close races. He raised hackles when Eugene Weekly began to run his column in October 2006; letters poured in worrying how his words would affect øthe children” (see EW cover story March 15, 2007 at http://wkly.ws/121).
øSavage Love” grew to syndication in dozens of newspapers, and Savage embraced his role as a public figure, writing books entwined with his personal life (The Kid, The Commitment, Skipping Towards Gomorrah). Recently, he became distressed by the spate of suicides by young kids and teens bullied about their sexual identities. With his husband, Terry Miller, he started the øIt Gets Better Project” as a YouTube channel that outgrew its video upload limit and became a website and a book. A compendium of thousands of testimonies from adults across the spectrum of sexual orientation and identity, the project aims to deliver the message that the bullying, which might be unbearable or inescapable in youth isnt lifelong ‹ things get better, and theres enough cause for hope to keep surviving. Now hes been given the green light to develop Savage U, a late night advice show on MTV.
Between his anti-suicide advocacy and his leadership of the sex advice arena, Savage is one of the countrys most-consulted oracles, which often demands judgments of right and wrong. Like Emily Post, Dear Abby and Ann Landers, Savage has a personal code and a sense of propriety. But does that make him an ethicist?
øIve never thought of myself as an ethicist,” Savage told EW. øI think of myself as a fag.” He consults a professional ethicist, Randy Cohen, when a letter writer requests ethical advice. Hes asked Cohen about issues like disclosing positive HIV status, discussing sexual arrangements and what images are appropriate for masturbation.û
Tom Bivins, the University of Oregons John L. Hulteng Chair in Media Ethics, agrees that Savage is probably not an ethicist in the technical sense. But he says thats the case with most newspaper advice columnists. øTheyve historically come by their work because theyre good at it; theyre intuitive probably,” Bivins says. Rather than taking on the role of the ethicist, advice columnists play roles similar to friends: sought out for help based on their reputations and relationships with their readers.
Savage seems to take delight in pissing off people, not normally the mark of a so-called ethicist. øIn my opinion, if someone sets out intentionally to offend people, theres an ethical problem with that,” Bivins says. While Bivins says that he isnt familiar with Savages work, its clear that changing the meaning of a persons name to øfrothy lube-semen-fecal matter” was intended to offend. According to Bivins, thats where the important question comes in: Why publish something offensive?
It has to be øsomething of great community importance, social importance,” Bivins says. øEditorial cartoonists do the same thing all the time.” And while a lot of people might not like it, Savage often offends with pointed purpose.
Offending for a cause is all well and good, but Bivins says, øTo be an ethicist you have to have some background in moral philosophy and some understanding of how to apply that.”
Savage makes a lot of moral pronouncements. Sometimes his verdict itself is potentially offensive: Go ahead, cheat.
Savage says that people being sexually unfulfilled in long-term relationships and not knowing what to do about it is the ethical dilemma that he is most surprised he has to write about øconstantly.”û
øPeople want to honor the commitment that theyve made, but they dont want to live for decades and decades without any sexual fulfillment or even sexual release,” he says. Monogamy isnt the double rainbow or unicorn of Savages belief system, as others sometimes portray it. øI believe in monogamy,” Savage says. øI believe some people can pull it off.”
Dueholm, the Lutheran pastor, says the first rule of Savages øremarkably systematic” ethical code is full disclosure, which he says is Savages minimum standard. Savage, however, says that full disclosure isnt something that he always insists upon, even if it is something he usually promotes. Situations where, for one reason or another, no party can leave or get a divorce constitute one type in which Savage says he might condone no-tell cheating, in addition to certain situations of long-term care where a relationship has morphed into caretaker-patient.û
øIf youre getting some on the side discreetly and protecting your partner from that information and not getting permission because that would be too painful for your chronically ill partner, if doing that allows you to stay sane and be the caretaker that your partner needs,” Savage says, øthats a higher loyalty.”
The difference between Savage and the traditional Judeo-Christian perspective on commitment and monogamy isnt that Savage denies it has its benefits: He lists issues of paternity and safety from sexually transmitted infections as two big plusses. But he says theres a need to concede significant tradeoffs on either side. øPeople who elevate monogamy above all other things are unwilling to meet me halfway and acknowledge that there are things you lose in a monogamous relationship: variety, adventure, sometimes release at all, sometimes sexual fulfillment,” he ticks off.
In addition to those trade-offs, Savage says the way American culture regards monogamy can instill a lot of unnecessary guilt. øIts really kind of destabilizing,” he says, when a person believes that simple attraction to an outside party signals loss of love. Part of the problem with putting monogamy on top, according to the Savage philosophy, is that sexual satisfaction is so often completely ignored, and the relationship howls in agony while the libido suffers in silence.
Maybe its that America cant get its collective conscious wrapped around the concept that monogamy isnt the be-all and end-all for everyone, or maybe its the stereotype of the wild, promiscuous gays doing whatever they feel like, but a lot of people think Savage is much more permissive than he believes he is. Savage rejects Dueholms idea that he is a sexual libertarian, or even that hes scandalously sexually liberal.
Savage says that critics sometimes act like hes øthrowing permission slips into the street” when it comes to cheating, but a closer look will prove them wrong.
øIm often telling people not to do shit,” Savage says. øI make very clear distinctions in my column about when I believe cheating is permissible and when I believe its not.”û
Savage says that its not a complicated set of ethics and standards that guides him; its øa sense of right and wrong rooted in the Golden Rule.” He says he solves a lot of the dilemmas that readers present him by asking how they would feel on the receiving end of a behavior. His general sex advice is to be GGG: good in bed, giving equal time and pleasure, and game for anything reasonable. Usually, the answer to the cheating problem centers on what will cause the least pain and keep life bearable.
Dueholms interpretation of Savages ethical code ‹ disclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange and minimum standards of performance ‹ doesnt necessarily conflict with Savages ødo unto others” philosophy. The DAMEMSP, as Savage might refer to it, is more of a øhow to treat your partner with respect,” while the Golden Rule is more of an ideal that leaves individuals to sort out øhow” on their own ‹ or with a little help from Savage.
Dont shoot the messenger
øI guess Catholic guilt guides me,” Savage says. He grew up in a Catholic family and went to a school for young men considering the priesthood, but hes written that hes now an atheist whos been steeped in Catholic culture. Hes loudly critical of the religion that disregards his marriage with Miller. They officially wed in Vancouver, B.C., in 2005, and though the marriage isnt recognized in the U.S., their relationship has surpassed the 11-year mark that is the median for U.S. marriages. This begs the question: If a tree falls in a Canadian forest and no American federal government is there to recognize it, do two people still love each other?
Recently Savage criticized the hypocrisy of practicing Catholics who consider him unqualified to give advice to women øwithout first telling that old fag in Rome to STFU already.”û
For Savage, the moral responsibility of Christians in favor of gay rights like marriage is øto get in the faces of Christians who dont.” He says that assuring people who are gay that there are Christians who support them is a far cry from adequate; its important øto tell conservative, right-wing evangelical Christians who claim to speak not only in their own names but in the names of all Christians that they dont speak for you.”
Savages biting humor and sharp, defined sense of acceptable behavior have gotten him in trouble, and not just with those he makes namesakes of gay sex acts. Hes pissed off defenders of people who are bisexual, trans, fat, liberal, conservative, Arabs, African Americans, men, women, pit bull lovers and most of whos left over. Hes been in a Twitter/blog fight over disparaging fat people with one of his editors at The Stranger, who writes about vagina as well as he does, if not better.û
øI am not biphobic; I am not transphobic; I am not racist; I am not sexist,” Savage rattles off, familiar with the litany.
øI have written for 20 years a very joke-y sex advice column,” he says. øAnd some people are making a sport now of pulling things out of context and saying, *Oh look, hes a bully, he made this joke. I dont want to live in a world where people cant make jokes, and joking aint bullying necessarily.”
While a few people have posted YouTube videos expressing hesitancy over participating in the It Gets Better Project because its led by a figure whos not exactly sweet as pie, Savage says thats an even better reason for people of all backgrounds to contribute.û
øI may be an imperfect messenger,” he says, øbut the perfect messenger didnt come along and start this project. The more people who participate the more diluted my voice becomes.”