Almost 30 years ago, Dan Savage started writing a sex advice column for Seattle upstart The Stranger, an independent newspaper that has become a benchmark for alternative weeklies around the country (including this one, which has been running Savage’s column for years). What started as a lark rapidly became a mainstream phenomenon, as Savage Love was syndicated in newspapers here and abroad.
By now, Savage — who makes regular appearances on national television and has been praised by former President Barack Obama for his activism and progressive politics — is an institution, a celebrity who over the years has lost none of his outspoken edge. In 2010, for instance, he and his husband Terry started the It Gets Better Project to address suicide among LGBT youth.
Eugene Weekly caught up with Savage last week to talk about everything from the early days of Savage Love to how bad it sucks to be a straight guy.
EW: You’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, right?
Dan Savage: [Laughs] Yes.
It is crazy.
Why did you start doing the column in the first place?
I started doing it as a joke. I met (The Stranger publisher) Tim Keck and told him we should have an advice column in his paper because everyone reads them, and he thought that was terrific advice and asked me to write it. And, you know, it was 1990 and Queer Nation and ACT UP were sort of at the height of their cultural influence and we started joking about what an advice column written by a gay guy in a straight newspaper giving sex advice to straight people would look like, and basically it looked like a joke: I was going to treat straight people and straight sex with the same contempt that heterosexual advice columnists had always treated gay people and gay sex with.
Wow [laughing], that’s great![Laughs] What was ironic was it didn’t take long for the column just to take off. Straight people, never having been treated this way, thought it was hilarious, and began sending me real questions. And so, when I started the column it started as a joke, and it quickly became a real advice column by accident.
Did a learning curve kick in where you were like, ‘Oh shit,’ flying by the seat of your pants, realizing this was the real deal?
Yeah, it took about six months for me to realize it was for real, and in about a year other papers started picking it up. This was pre-Google, so I had to look stuff up in books. The first time I wrote about the clitoris, I put it in the wrong place. That was a good lesson. Turns out it’s not on the soft palate, that’s just mine [laughing]. No, that’s not where I put it — I just thought it was at the top of the vaginal canal. What did I know? It all sort of changed. The most significant change, though, was that half the questions at the beginning were definitions and referrals. Someone would hear the term “butt plug” and not know what that was, and not have anyone else to ask.
And now, of course, butt plugs have a Wiki page, and so the questions all went from definitions and referrals — “How can I find a swingers’ club in my neighborhood or my city?” — and I would have these kind of specialty pulp-print magazines with listings of swingers clubs, and I would let someone know what the PO box was. And now all the swingers’ clubs have websites and all the butt plugs have Wiki pages, and so every question is situational ethics. Every question is: “I did this, they did that, who’s right, who’s wrong? Who’s more culpable?” And that kind of sawing-the-baby-in-half shit is so much more stressful than half of what I used to have to do.
Once that kicked in, things get more serious, right?
Yeah, things get more serious, especially these days, in the social media and Twitter era, where putting one foot wrong on one issue will get you accused of doing violence or murdering people. The stakes seem so much higher.
Have you ever had an ‘oh shit’ moment where you were like, ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘I shouldn’t have told them that’ or ‘I shouldn’t have said that’?
Oh, all the time. You know, sometimes I’ll be digging through archives looking for something and I’ll find something I wrote and I’ll be thinking, “Yeah, I don’t necessarily think that was terrific advice. I wouldn’t give that advice now.” But you can’t take it too seriously, or you can’t do it. It’s a conversation you’re having with people. I’ve always thought that Savage Love is a conversation I’m having with my friends in a bar about our sex lives after we’ve had a few drinks. And it’s advice, not binding arbitration, so if I get it wrong, hopefully that person was also sounding out other people or using their own fucking brain, their own critical faculties, to make up their own mind in the end.
You know, most of the complaints about the advice I’ve given isn’t from the people I gave it to, it’s from people who are writing me angrily because the person I gave that advice to might have been harmed by it. I never hear from the person who I allegedly harmed. You can’t let fear of giving shitty advice once in a while stop you, because everybody does.
How much of what you do is education and research versus attitude and intuition?
You know, I always go and look up stuff. The dirty little secret of writing an advice column is it lets you appear omniscient because you don’t print the questions you don’t have answers for. Or you go and get the info you need and you present it as though you knew it all along. [Laughs] One of the things I’ve always enjoyed doing in the column is punting to people who know better than I.
I’m always bringing in guest experts, I’m always bringing in people who, in the much-overused expression these days, have “lived experience” that’s relevant as opposed to my gay, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, been-privileged experience. It’s intuition, mostly, hopefully informed intuition at this point, after 30 years, nearly, of writing this thing.
What’s the most surprising or revealing thing you’ve learned about human sexuality?
It sucks to be a straight guy.
Yeah. Wait! What do you mean by that?
I started writing the column when I was 26 years old, and it was only less than a decade since coming out fully and completely, and I had not very pleasant experiences with straight guys growing up. You know, it just sorta felt like the straight guys were the worst. And there’s a lot of people out there who still make that argument: “Straight guys are the worst.”
And… when I started getting their letters, when I started hearing from them, when I started really trying to help them with their problems or slap some sense into the ones who were full of shit, I started to experience this thing — I think it’s called empathy — that you’re not allowed to experience for straight men, particularly on Twitter. Straight guys are just so paranoid and paralyzed because so much of what it means to be a straight man is just a bundle of two negative impulses.
To be a straight man is to be not a faggot and not a girl. And so anything that’s vaguely faggy or vaguely girly is not allowed you. And it’s not just straight guys doing that to each other; it’s also gay guys doing that to straight and straight girls doing that to straight guys. The mail I get from women who believe their boyfriends must be gay because, you know, he likes to have his nipples played with or a finger in his butt, or he had a feeling once in front of her, they just come in a torrent every day.
And straight guys are constantly paranoid about losing their straight-guy bona fides, and they live lives that are really constrained by that and warped by that. And it hurts them first, and they turn around and hurt other people. So I’m not letting straight guys off the hook that so many of them are rightly dangling from these days. But, you know, I’m free, as a fag — I can say, “Yeah, I had sex with girls, and I’m done with that, it wasn’t for me and I didn’t like it.” And the straight guy can’t say, “Yeah, I sucked a dick.”
There was a study that was done in the UK where they were going to measure the stress hormone cortisone in gay men and straight men and try to figure out who was more miserable. And the theory going in was, of course, it would be gay guys who, you know, with homophobic violence, religious persecution, workplace discrimination and everything else — that gay guys would have higher levels of the stress hormone. And they found the reverse: That straight guys had higher levels of the stress hormone. And I think that’s because straight guys walk around every day consciously or subconsciously aware that straight can be taken from them.
What’s the solution to that?
Well, straight guys have to own their shit and be better. But we need to be better — queers and women — we all need to be better about straight guys. We need to make room for improvement. We need to accept people when they’ve made a good-faith effort to be better.
Half of Twitter seems to function or be dedicated to the proposition that you should yell at people when they suck and tell them to do better, and then when they try to do better you should keep yelling at them for when they sucked. You know, we need to address toxic masculinity, we need to address the different ways men and women are socialized, we need to address all of that shit. It’s a big, long project, but I agree with Laura Kipnis who said that, you know, as we ask men to unlearn the ways in which they have been socialized, we need to ask women to unlearn some of the ways they have been socialized also.
And policing straight guys isn’t just something that straight guys do. You know, I have gay friends who refuse to believe that somebody isn’t gay because they want to fuck you [laughs] or because they saw you once at a party make out with a dude. Terrorizing straight guys about straightness, making them perform it constantly, makes them worse straight guys, and let’s not contribute to that dynamic. We allow women to have a girlfriend in college for two years and eat 4,000 pounds of pussy, and then be straight identified when they grow up without being dogged about it all their lives, and we should allow straight guys the same latitude.
What’s your idea of sexy?
Um, hot guys? I’m really eternally grateful that I am one of those gay guys who think gayness is hot. I think effeminate guys are hot. I think guys who are obviously gay are sexy, and I just think there is something dangerous and brave and masculine, paradoxically, about that kind of gayness, and not performing some idea of masculinity.
Which is not to say that there aren’t gay guys out there who are authentically masculine in their expression, that they are performing masculinity to try to seem more masc for masc. But, like, that sizzle when somebody’s kind of a sexy guy and has, you know, a slightly gay voice or a very gay voice, you know, or is stylish or maybe a little swishy, and that combo and clash I just think is so fucking hot. I always have, and I’ve always been so grateful for that!
Compared to where we were when you started out in the early ’90s, where are we now as a country, in terms of sexual openness, acceptance, homophobia, sexism, morality?
The big difference between the letters then and the letters now is that people seem to have let go of normal. That people seem to have it in their heads now that, when it comes to human sexuality — and it’s what I’ve been banging away at for 30 years — variance is the norm. So the more different and unique you are, the more normative you are.
That that’s what’s normal — not missionary position within the bounds of matrimony with the opposite sex with the lights off in the dark once a week. That’s freakishly rare. When you look at all the sex that all the humans are having on any given night, that sex is not normal. It’s been held up as normative, so that anybody who had sex in a different way, at a different time, with a different kind of partner, under different circumstances, was made to feel that there was something terribly, terribly wrong with them.
And people finally have it in their heads, I think — give credit to the sex positivity movement, which my column was a part of but not all of — they have it in their heads, because now people are telling the truth about sex, and you have the internet now, where people can tell the truth, and people can see how varied human sexual expression is, that people don’t feel quite as shamed. People don’t feel quite as freakish if what they want isn’t what they’ve been told they’re supposed to want.