Life, love and lust: the world according to sex columnist Dan Savage
When we are children, we are told that one day we will grow up, and – when we're ready – we will have sex. This is a lie, says Dan Savage, the American author, podcaster, activist and the world's most famous sex columnist.
"The truth is that you're going to grow up, and sex is going to have you." We are not in control, he says. Rather, the forces of sex control us. "Sex is a powerful ocean that we bob on. Sometimes it swamps us and leaves us to swim, but there is no shore. Our heads are above water, but there is no shore."
It's disarming to hear Savage speaking so poetically about sex; he's better known for his graphic, no-holds-barred views on the subject. On his weekly platforms – the newspaper column Savage Love and the 50-minute podcast Savage Lovecast – the 50-year-old answers the kinky, eyebrow-raising questions of those drowning in a sea of sexual confusion.
His advice has a pragmatism that can be divisive and, a lot of the time, funny. But Savage always explains himself and supports his messages with expert opinions, and people gobble it up – Savage Love is syndicated to more than 50 newspapers, and Savage Lovecast is ranked in iTunes' top 50 podcasts and gets more than 285,000 downloads eack week.
"There's nothing you can't ask on the Savage Lovecast," goes the podcast's theme song. Answering all those obscure questions has taught Savage that sex is stronger than any one person.
"We negotiate with sex from a position of relative weakness. To understand that, and to bear that in mind, should make us more forgiving of ourselves, and more understanding and less obsessed with what is and isn't normal, and also more forgiving of each other."
On the phone from Seattle, where he lives and works, Savage has the same straight-talking style you see in his sex advice. He doesn't mince words, and he doesn't self-censor, but there's an empathy to his brashness that precludes arrogance. "You just want to make the world a better place than you found when you were hitting puberty," he says. "That's all I want to do."
Dan Savage and Terry Miller on their wedding day at Seattle City Hall in 2012. REUTERS
SEX IN OTAGO
New Zealanders will soon get the chance to hear from Savage first-hand: he's heading to Dunedin in October to be the keynote speaker at a three-day Sex and Science festival at the University of Otago. As well as kicking off the event, Savage will take part in three panel discussions scheduled for the following day. One of the sessions has the sensual working title "Sex in Otago".
Associate professor of science communication Jesse Bering, who's organising the festival, says part of Savage's appeal is his non-judgmental, scientifically informed approach to sex. "He's willing to answer questions that I think a lot of other advice columnists would put into the rubbish bin and not publicly address – these incredibly squirm-inducing ideas and thoughts," he says. "He's able to somehow ease those ideas and those activities into the open, and show people there's a lot more diversity in human sexuality than appears at first glance."
New Zealand doesn't really have an equivalent to Savage – are we ready for his uncomfortably intimate brand of sex ed? "I think he'll make a lot of people uncomfortable," says Bering, "but that's part of his charm, really."
A recent (publishable) example of Dan's Savage Love column: Reader: "Mom came for a week and snooped. She found our bondage stuff, just a set of cuffs and a blindfold, and completely lost her mind. What do we say to her?"
Savage: "It's a hotel for you next time."
THE ONION CONNECTION
Savage was working as a video store clerk in 1991 when he met Tim Keck, co-founder of satirical news website The Onion. Keck was starting a weekly Seattle newspaper, and Savage said it should have an advice column, because everybody reads those. Keck agreed, and asked him to write it.
The off-handed suggestion turned into a career. Savage says he wanted the column to resemble a conversation about sex between drunken friends in a bar: "When you think about going to your friends for advice, you tell them what you did, and their first reaction is to make fun of you. They take the piss out of you, have a laugh, and then give you some advice." He sees sex as a serious subject we need to have a sense of humour about.
Savage accepts a special recognition Webby award for the It Gets Better Project, aimed at supporting LGBT teens. His T-shirt slogan refers to one of his more infamous campaigns. REUTERS
Readers may be familiar with some of his catch phrases. "DTMFA": Dump the Mother F..... Already (for those whose partners are clearly duds). "Pay the price of admission": Identify the things you can't stand about your partner – those things you will never change – and decide that's what you'll tolerate to be with them, then stop complaining about it. And "GGG", his regularly touted mantra, which means you should aim to be Good in bed, Giving of pleasure, and Game for anything – within reason.
Often, the subject of monogamy comes up in letters, and Savage regularly suggests that if a partner is not being satisfied sexually, they should look outside the relationship to fulfil this. "Monogamy is bulls...," he says unequivocally. "It's a myth that's peddled to us about love. We tell people, 'If you're in love, monogamy is easy.' And it's not.
"So much angst and discomfort is created in monogamous relationships as people blow up at each other because: 'You looked at that person'; 'You're obviously attracted to your personal trainer'; 'You watched porn'; 'I'm not enough for you'. You know what? You are not enough for him, and he's not enough for you. No one person is enough for any other one person sexually."
Savage isn't advocating that every dissatisfied person find themselves a secret lover, but believes letting the frustration fester will ruin your relationship. Rather, he says, people need to be open and transparent with their partners about why being in a monogamous relationship is leaving them unfulfilled – then they can try and navigate a way to ensure both people are happy.
A contentious argument, but one he sticks to.
KEEPING IT MONOGAMISH
Savage describes his own 10-year marriage to husband Terry Miller as "monogamish". In his book American Savage, he writes: "We are more monogamous than not, but there are times – certain set and limited circumstances – when it is permissible for us to have sex with others."
What's the best piece of advice the agony uncle has ever been given? He recalls some wisdom from his first boyfriend, Tommy Ladd, who has since died. "We were having sex and I would get upset or anxious, or self-conscious about it. He would laugh and just tell me to relax. He would say, 'It's not a big deal and it's the biggest deal.'
"It's those two things simultaneously, and keeping those two seemingly contradictory thoughts in your head at one time, as Tommy urged me to do, [it] really helped me. He was the antidote."
Savage and Terry Miller have a "monogamish" relationship. GETTY IMAGES
It's not just his sex advice that irks. Savage is behind several projects that have also grated on people's political sensibilities.
To the far right, he's a purveyor of filth; to the far left, he only cares about improving the lives of privileged queers.
One of his most notorious campaigns was back in 2003, after then-US senator Rick Santorum was accused of equating gay sex to incest, bigamy, bestiality and paedophilia. On a reader's suggestion, Savage held a contest for people to submit their own definitions of 'santorum'. The winning entry, picked from more than 3000 submissions, is a description you'll need to google to find out.
Years later, when he was making a presidential bid, Santorum found himself with a problem: when you typed his name into Google, the first result was the new, Savage-inspired definition.
In 2011, Santorum asked the search engine to remove the entry from its search results. Google said no.
But the campaign Savage is best known for is "It Gets Better", a project to help LGBT teenagers understand that no matter how difficult their lives may seem, and no matter how vicious the bullying, things will improve. The website is a collection of more than 50,000 user-uploaded videos, giving teens strategies and advice on how to persevere until they can make their own life decisions. Even president Barack Obama has contributed a clip.
Savage started the initiative in 2010 with his husband after a pattern of suicides among bullied LGBT teenagers started to emerge in the US. "[It Gets Better] was about speaking to the bullied, to put the bullying into perspective. Which is something that kids who are bullied because of their race or their faith or their class get from their parents," he says. "African American parents in the United States have very frank conversations about what it means to be an African American in this country, and what racism is, and how to sidestep it, defeat it, overcome it. A gay boy who goes home to a family with no gay people, he's not going to get that message."
COME OUT CAREFULLY
The message is practical but diverges from the usual "out-and-proud" view. Rather than targeting the problem of bullying, the campaign tells LGBT teenagers to be cautious and meticulous about coming out, and if doing so is going to put them in danger, then maybe it's best to hold off. "You don't get that kind of nuanced message from the LGBT community. Who says "wait"?
"[If] you're 15 years old, your parents are fundamentalist Christians, you live in Utah and your entire extended family is nothing but shitty, awful people, yeah, maybe not coming out when you're 16 would be a better choice for you."
Savage isn't bothered by the politicians who say his advice is smut, or the conservatives who label him a heathen. But when he's criticised for not caring about issues that are close to him, he despairs.
"Somebody did this performance art piece accusing me of not caring about the fact that 40 per cent of homeless youth are LGBT youth who have been thrown out of their houses, which is something I have written about and talked about constantly. Forever," he says. "For somebody to do a piece where they're informing me of this fact, which I have pushed into public consciousness myself, is galling."
It may come as a surprise, but this profane, pro-adultery sex writer is strongly pro-marriage. That may be a hangover from Savage's upbringing: he's the son of a Catholic deacon father and a lay-minister mother. As a child he flirted with the idea of becoming a priest and attended an all-boys Catholic school, but later transferred to a public high school and stopped attending church altogether.
Savage came out to his parents around the age of 16. His mother called the local priest, Father Tom, who helped her see it was a positive thing, much less painful than a life lived in the closet.
He met Miller in a nightclub when he was 30, and the pair married in Canada in 2005. Three years later, they adopted DJ, the son of a homeless teenager. He wrote about the open adoption in his book, The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant.
THE RIGHT TO MARRY
Savage has long advocated for marriage equality, but when the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage nationwide in July, the news truly floored him. "I never thought I'd see that in my lifetime. I really didn't," he says.
"When I told my parents I was gay in 1980, telling your parents you were gay meant ... telling them you'd never marry or give them grandchildren, and that you would have a very marginalised existence. You were picking a life of discrimination and limited opportunity.
"To read [Associate Justice Anthony] Kennedy's decision, which was all about the autonomy and the dignity of lesbians and gays, and the profoundness of our bond, acknowledging our devoted love – it meant the world."
Still, the decision only passed by a 5-4 vote. Savage knows the struggle for LGBT rights is not over in the US. Women are still defending their abortion rights, and minority activists resist electoral law changes they believe undermine their hard-won right to vote. As with these fights for human rights, the marriage equality victory needs to be defended, he says.
What does Savage say when he encounters steadfast homophobes? He used to have a profane, unprintable response, but: "Increasingly, what I've been saying to them is nothing, because they're irrelevant. Let them say they're idiots."