Is sex columnist Dan Savage a shock jock, a sagacious ethicist, or both?
Five months after the death of Esther “Eppie” Lederer in 2002, the bulk of her estate—a sprawling Chicago apartment’s worth of furniture, photographs, papers, and memorabilia—went up for public auction with some fanfare.
Lederer, who was better known by the pen name Ann Landers, had for almost 50 years written America’s foremost newspaper advice column. With an estimated 90 million readers, the self-described “nice Jewish girl from Sioux City, Iowa,” was often counted among the most influential women in the United States. What was most remarkable about that influence was its breadth: She advised teenagers about pimples and presidents about missile defense—and the presidents often wrote her back.
Before her death, Lederer made clear that the Ann Landers pseudonym, which she had inherited in 1955, would die with her. But that did not prevent would-be successors from seeking to assume her mantle in more symbolic ways. On the auction block that November were Lederer’s writing desk and typewriter, on which she had composed responses to correspondents like “Desperate in Denver.” When the bidding was over, an advice columnist named Dan Savage happily walked away with them. Today, the desk sits in Savage’s office in Seattle, where he serves as editorial director of the city’s alternative weekly The Stranger and writes his own hugely successful weekly sex advice column, Savage Love. His correspondents have included a woman signing off as “Fucking Asshole Idiot Losers” (FAIL), who faced a very modern problem. “My husband and I have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy when we’re apart,” she began.
“A few months ago, I hooked up with a guy on a business trip who said he and his wife have the same arrangement. He was lying. His wife found out and started harassing me on Facebook. I truly feel horrible. How can I know if someone is really in an open relationship when they say they are?”
Savage pointed out that “the only way to verify that someone is in an open relationship is to speak to that person’s partner—and as that would constitute ‘telling,’ FAIL, it would be a violation of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.
“But even a couple with a ‘please ask, do tell’ policy probably has a rule against 2:00 a.m. calls from drunken hotel-bar pickups. So you’ll have to trust your gut, FAIL, which failed you here. Just remember this on your next business trip: The further a married person is from home and the drunker that married person is, the likelier it is that that married person is lying to you.”
Suffice it to say, Savage is not the most obvious heir to Landers’ ultra-mainstream legacy. His columns answer a Chaucerian panorama of correspondents: gay Mormons, incestuous siblings, weight-gain fetishists, men yearning to be cuckolded, and otherwise ordinary Americans grappling with an extraordinary range of problems and proclivities. By the standards of a family newspaper, his advice is not only explicit but broad-minded to the point of being radical, encouraging people to embrace or at least tolerate previously unmentionable sexual inclinations in their partners, praising open relationships, and celebrating behaviors that might cause even the most intrepid reader to balk.
When he isn’t offering advice, the openly gay Savage has made a name for himself as a kind of gonzo avenging angel for the nation’s sexual minorities. In 2000 he went on assignment for Salon to cover the presidential campaign of the Christian right’s boutique candidate, Gary Bauer, while he was suffering from a bad case of the flu. After listening to one of Bauer’s harangues against gay marriage, Savage decided to pose as a campaign volunteer and infect the candidate by licking doorknobs and coughing on staplers around Bauer’s Iowa headquarters, making that the subject of his dispatch. Then, in 2003, Savage went viral in a different way, after Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum compared same-sex marriages to “man on dog” relationships. In response, the columnist held a contest among his readers to redefine the word santorum as a new term in the sexual lexicon. The winning definition—unforgettable and unprintable—quickly spread so widely online as to eclipse the Google ranking of the senator himself. Which was, of course, the point. Santorum lost his seat in 2006. Landers, who struggled with accepting homosexuality and whose idea of tough language was “kwitcherbellyachin,” probably would not have approved.
And yet, Savage took pains to clarify that his purchase of Eppie Lederer’s desk was not meant as an act of desecration. “While it’s highly ironic that the world’s smuttiest advice column will now be written at the same desk where the world’s most mainstream (and most popular) advice column was once written,” Savage wrote, “I intended no disrespect.” Indeed, he said, he had been a devoted fan of Ann Landers ever since boyhood. And strange as it may sound, Savage is increasingly playing the kind of culture-bestriding role that Ann Landers once did.
After 20 years of churning out Savage Love, the Seattle writer can lay a legitimate claim to being America’s most influential advice columnist. He is syndicated around the world in more than 70 newspapers—mainly alternative weeklies in the United States—with well over 1 million in total circulation. Online, he reaches millions more readers. He is a frequent contributor to the popular radio program This American Life, and a Savage Love television show is under discussion with MTV. His podcast has a higher iTunes ranking than those of Rachel Maddow or the NBC Nightly News, and his books have sold briskly. And when it suits him, the range of his commentary has become increasingly broad. In the space of one column—the one where he announced his purchase of Ann Landers’ desk—Savage offered advice to a 30-year-old woman who wanted to sleep with a 17-year-old coworker, fielded a question from a man with a childbirth fetish, and then, for good measure, advised the Bush administration to take a harder stance on Saudi Arabia.
Savage’s ability to mobilize legions of readers has also matured beyond the lobbing of incendiary Google bombs. Last fall, a streak of suicides by gay teenagers across the country inspired Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, to post a video testimonial on YouTube. The two men recounted their difficulties growing up bullied and harassed, then held up their adult lives—and happiness as a couple—as evidence that, for gay people living in America, “it gets better.” Savage encouraged other people to film their own testimonials and post them online under the heading of the “It Gets Better Project.” A torrent of videos poured in, first from Savage’s regular readers, then from various Hollywood celebrities, and then from leaders in Washington. Hillary Clinton was quickly followed by Nancy Pelosi and President Obama himself, who delivered the line “Every day, it gets better” from the White House.
It’s not every day that a sitting president takes cues from a sex columnist who once licked Gary Bauer’s doorknob. But for all his prowess as an advice writer and viral activist, Savage’s most lasting influence on American culture may ultimately register in a deeper and more enduringly significant realm: ethics. Wading deep into the free-fire zone of modern sexuality, he has codified a remarkably systematic—and influential—set of ethics in which traditional norms have fallen away.
As he tells it in the introduction to his first book, Savage Love: Straight Answers from America’s Most Popular Sex Columnist, Savage grew up in a home crammed with newspapers and porn. His grandfather, in whose apartment he lived, was a sportswriter for two Chicago dailies. His older brother stashed copies of Penthouse and Playboy in the bedroom. He attributes his trajectory toward the advice-giving business to the combined influence of Ann Landers and Xaviera Hollander, who wrote the Call Me Madam advice column for Penthouse.
In 1991, when Savage took his place in the advice game, online culture finally broke down the wall between the papers and the porn stash. Once adherents of every kink and fetish could find chat rooms, support groups, specially tailored erotica, and even social networking sites, two things happened: The culture suddenly appeared more sex-drenched than ever, and alternative media sources like the ones that published Savage Love could not survive by simply serving as a bulletin board and instruction manual for erotic explorers. Savage, for his part, seemed to relish this moment of creative destruction, which all but demanded that the sex columnist perform a higher function. In his second decade as a writer, he has increasingly addressed himself to those correspondents troubled by the questions of right and wrong on the new intimate frontier.
“Half my mail at Savage Love is from straight men and women who want to be reassured that their kinks—from BDSM to cross-dressing to fucking animals (!)—are normal,” Savage wrote in 2007, echoing a note of exasperation he has sounded a few times over the years. Savage has made clear he is not primarily interested in adjudicating whether people’s bedroom proclivities lie on the safe side of normality. Likewise, proud fetishists looking for blanket approval from a back-slapping fellow deviant are just as prone to be disappointed. Savage does embrace a whole host of kinks. But for him, what’s most important is that abandonment of inhibition should never entail an abandonment of personal responsibility. And as it happens, a column premised on its author’s willingness to say what others won’t has proven to be an ideal forum for probing the nuances of what we owe each other when the lights are off.
In 2000 Savage answered a letter from a 15-year-old boy who was using both meth and heroin and engaging in a regular ménage à trois with his girlfriend (age 19) and another man (age 24). The question the teen posed to Savage was not, needless to say, whether he should be having sex before marriage (or high school graduation). Nor, for that matter, was he asking whether it was advisable to take part in a legally risky threesome, or to dabble in hard substances. Rather, the boy’s question was whether he, “a big hippie,” had an obligation to tell the man, “an avid anti-drugger,” about his use of meth and heroin. Savage was not exactly affirming in his response:
“You are an idiot. The drugs you’re doing, young skank, are dangerous, and, however careful you are with needles, sooner or later they’re going to kill you,” he wrote. “What should you do about your drug-phobic, statutory-rapist fuck buddy? Well, I’d say that like any good hippie you should be open, honest, loyal, brave, and true. Tell him what the holes in your arm are all about, and give him the option of staying or going. You say you have feelings for this guy, and if that’s the case, you owe him the truth. If that’s not the case, well, then you might as well go ahead and steal his stereo and TV set now.”
Savage’s advice here faintly echoes the presumptions against hard drug use and teenage risky behavior that prevailed in Ann Landers’ day, but it pivots on the boy’s obligation to disclose any information of relevance to a sexual partner—the first ground rule of Savage’s ethics. Full disclosure is a minimal standard, but one that many who have sought Savage’s advice fail to meet.
The second rule in Savage ethics is autonomy. To a scruple-plagued “feeder” (someone aroused by the excessive eating of a partner, known as a “gainer”), he wrote that she and her boyfriend should “negotiate an explicit ‘power exchange agreement’ where his diet and weight are concerned” in order to keep their shared fetish within some reasonably healthy limits. Even so, he points out, “our bodies are our own . . . they’re ours to use, abuse, and since we’re all going to die one day, they’re ours to use up.”
Reciprocity constitutes the third rule of Savage’s ethical worldview. A heated contretemps in his column—one of many over the years—concerned the relationship between low libido and monogamy. “You can have strict monogamy or you can have a low libido, ladies, but you can’t have both,” he wrote, adding, “Oh, and guys? You need to accept those tide-you-over blowjobs and handjobs just as cheerfully as she gives them.” People who want to open up their relationships are told that the opening must work both ways, and Savage has spent more than one column teasing out what precisely constitutes a mutual departure from monogamy.
Fourth, Savage has consistently advocated a minimum standard of performance for each partner in a relationship. His knack for turning catchy maxims into acronyms and abbreviations struck gold with GGG, a bullet-pointed ideal of mutual sexual satisfaction: “Think ‘good in bed,’ ‘giving equal time and equal pleasure,’ and ‘game for anything’—within reason.” Obstinate failure in these areas is grounds for one partner to DTMFA (Dump the Motherfucker Already). His metaphors, always vivid, can become straightforwardly commercial on this point. “Oral sex is standard,” he has repeatedly said. “Any model that comes without it should be returned to the lot.”
Underlying all of Savage’s principles, abbreviations, and maxims is a pragmatism that strives for stable, livable, and reasonably happy relationships in a world where the old constraints that were meant to facilitate these ends are gone. Disclosure is necessary, but not beyond reason. “Honesty [is] the best policy and all,” he advised a guilty boyfriend, but “each of us gets to take at least one big secret to the grave.” Stuck with a husband whose porn stash has grown beyond what you thought you were signing up for? Put it behind closed doors and try not to think about it. Who knows how many good relationships have been saved—and how many disastrous marriages have been averted—by heeding a Savage insistence on disclosing the unmet need, tolerating the within-reason quirk, or forgiving the endurable lapse? In ways that his frequent interlocutors on the Christian right wouldn’t expect, Savage has probably done more to uphold conventional families than many counselors who are unwilling to engage so frankly with modern sexual mores. “A successful marriage is basically an endless cycle of wrongs committed, apologies offered, and forgiveness granted,” he advised one very uptight spouse, “all leavened by the occasional orgasm.”
All the same, behind Savage’s pragmatism stand some fairly strong claims about how sex relates to selfhood. Whatever else he ends up advising a correspondent to do, Savage tends to insist that sexual inclinations—from high libido and a desire for multiple partners to very rare kinks and fetishes—are immutable and even dominant characteristics of any personality. Some desires may be impossible to fulfill, others are flagrantly immoral, and most any can be destructive when they are pursued without regard for the kinds of ethical guidelines Savage lays out. But for Savage, no matter how we direct its expression, our sexual self is our truest self.
In recent years Savage’s moral elevation of sexual fulfillment has been bolstered by his embrace of popularized accounts of evolutionary biology, which purport to find our true human nature in our evolutionary cousins, the randy bonobos and aggressive chimpanzees. Last year Savage cowrote one week’s column with the authors of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, calling their book “the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey.” In a follow-up column, Savage continued, “What the authors of Sex at Dawn believe—and what I think they prove—is that we are a naturally nonmonogamous species, despite what we’ve been told for millennia by preachers and for centuries by scientists.”
Culture—represented here by hectoring, fanatical preachers and hectoring, misguided scientists—is a long postscript, an imposition on our true selves. People should live up to their monogamous commitments, which, after all, have the form of a mutually negotiated contract. But they should not expect anything unrealistic from themselves or each other, since such agreements, however binding, are unnatural. Sex will have its way with us one way or another—either by shaping our commitments or by making us miserable. For Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly do. For Dan Savage, we are what we enduringly desire.
It may be the case, as Savage likes to argue, that humans are not by nature sexually monogamous. The great apes aren’t, after all. But of course, neither are the great apes especially interested in negotiating power exchange agreements, engaging in long conversations about the contours of open relationships, or, for that matter, answering the anguished letters of anonymous strangers.
Benjamin J. Dueholm is a writer and Lutheran pastor working in Chicago. Excerpted from Washington Monthly, an independent magazine dedicated to uncovering what really matters in our nation’s capital.www.washingtonmonthly.com