‘Oh my god … You should see what didn’t get into the column!’

by David Holub

Since the inaugural issue of DGO last fall, when Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” column first hit the streets of Durango, a conversation started about what is appropriate when discussing sex publicly, especially when it comes to free publications available to anyone on the street. While there has been a swell of positive feedback, suffice it to say, Savage’s column has been at the top of criticisms DGO has received from the community, both from people who have read “Savage Love” and from businesses that refuse to carry the magazine because of its inclusion.

This type of reaction is nothing new for Savage, who in the early 1990s first began writing for and is now the editorial director of Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger. In the 25 years he has been writing “Savage Love” which spawned the wildly popular “Savage Lovecast,” one of the 20 most popular podcasts on the planet, his celebrity has ballooned. He has become an outspoken critic on a range of political issues, many involving sex, sexuality and LGBT rights, appearing regularly on shows such as HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” public radio stalwart “This American Life” and a number of cable news shows, including MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” He also hosted a Q&A-style show on MTV in 2012 called “Savage U.”

And at every turn, Savage has drawn sharp criticism, especially from the political right and conservative Christians.

DGO reached out to Savage to get his take on how his column and views have been received over the years. Savage spoke about how the public conversation about sex has changed over time, the nature of the criticisms he receives, his process as an advice columnist, the value of advice columns and what he hopes to achieve through “Savage Love.”

I was curious to get your perspective on how your column has been perceived over the years, positive and negative.These days there’s a funny, hypocritical schizophrenia about how the column’s received or perceived because the idea that by pulling the column from a print paper, you can keep frank or even sometimes really explicit conversations about sex out of your community is ridiculous. There’s this thing called the internet [laughs] and anyone with a phone in their pocket, which includes most 12-year-olds, can find in an instant, my column on other sites, and much, much worse things than my column. My column discusses sex in the language that people use when they talk about sex with their friends. Some people aren’t used to seeing that kind of language or discussion in print. But if they think for a second, it’s exactly the kind of discussions that they’re used to having. There’s been this convention that my column has helped to erode, that there’s one way you discuss sex in print and then there’s the way you discuss sex basically anywhere else – with your friends, with your colleagues, on television, everywhere else – but in print you have to switch into this kind of sexual Sanskrit and you’re not allowed to use the language people use when they talk about it. Which is crazy. Everything else in newspapers, everything else in print, you’re allowed to be conversational. A sports columnist doesn’t discuss sports with sort of high-minded, academic language. They discuss sports conversationally. And I think that’s hard for some people. They see that conversational discussion of sex and they’re shocked. Because that’s not how we talk about sex in public where other people can see it.

So the reception of my column over the years, I’ve been writing it for a long time. Twenty-five years ago there was an effort in San Francisco to get my column thrown out of the paper there because I used the word ‘faggot’ and my column was called a hate crime. It didn’t matter that I, myself, am a faggot [laughs] and comfortable with the word. There were a few years where the Village Voice wanted to pick it up but they thought they couldn’t or didn’t want to because I talked too much about anal sex and [that] my column was too out there for New York City – this was when it was running in Vancouver and Seattle and San Francisco and a few other places – and it was just too dirty for New York, which is crazy. That was 20 years ago.

The column these days is a lot less crazy than it used to be. Because I used to get a lot of questions about how to do something. “How do you fist?” for example. [laughs] And now fisting has a wiki page. So anybody who wants to learn how to fist will find a much more detailed answer with diagrams and sometimes pictures with a Google search than I could ever provide them in the column. So I don’t get those questions anymore. The questions tend to all be about relationships: This happened, that happened, this is who I am, this is who the other person is, what do I do? So to me, the column today is a lot milder for that reason. It’s not, “What’s a cock ring?” “What’s a butt plug?” “How do I do this, how do I do that sex act?” It’s all relationship stuff. So when people are angry or shocked by the column now, I just always wonder, “Under what log are you hiding? And what is it about the complexities of human relationships that unnerves you?”

As your column has grown and progressed, and with the prevalence of the internet in the last 10 years, why do you think what you do is important?[laughs] That question assumes that I think what I do is important. I think what I do is fun. And I think what I do is titillating, and I think what I do is interesting. And advice columns, broadly, it’s not an honored genre in the media. There is no Pultizer Prize for advice columns. So it is kind of a low-rent corner of writing and publishing. But I do think it has an impact. People want to know what’s going on in other people’s lives so they can measure their own against them. There’s some rubber-necking with readers of advice columns who read other people’s problems and go “Wow, my life’s a mess but at least I’m not THAT person.”

The benefit of advice columns, the good that they do, is that they can set social norms, and I think a lot of my column is setting social norms around consent and dialogues about sex and discussing sex, broadly but also within a relationship. And, you know, something will come up in advice columns … when you think about it, who is the advice column for? Is it for the person with the question? Well, no. Because millions of people, in the case of a column like mine, are reading the answer, so all the questions are a good hypothetical for every reader but one. The benefit of reading an advice column – and I know this from doing it for such a long time and hearing from people years later – is that they’ll read a question and answer that has nothing to do with them at the moment, but then 10 years later they find themselves in that exact circumstance and they recall the advice. It comes to mind, and it helps them out. So I think there’s some filing away that people do with advice columns that is a benefit. So that when someone finds themselves with a person who seems like a lovely person but engages in certain behaviors that make them uncomfortable or feel unsafe, they’ll recall a column where you unpacked the red flags of an abuser. And they realize, “Oh I’m getting into a relationship with someone who’s abusive” because they’ve benefited from the experience the other person had and shared and the advice that was given to that person, 10 years ago. So do I think what I do is important? Ehh. I think what I do is helpful. I think what I do is entertaining. I think what I do has an impact. But it’s not curing cancer and it’s not rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure [laughs] or anything like that.

Unpack your approach. When you get a letter, how do you read it and start to formulate your response and think about the questions?Oh my. This is where advice columnists are exposed as the frauds they are [laughs]. You’re not really trying to help because if you were really trying to help, you’d run the same question basically week after week. Because you get very similar questions week after week from people who are in terrible situations and what they need is someone to run around with their hair on fire saying “Call the police. Call the police. Get outta there. Get outta there.” But you don’t run those questions week after week because that would be a very boring advice column. So you look for questions you haven’t answered before. You look for questions you haven’t answered recently. You look for new situations and circumstances to address. And then you address those, which means you often set aside really good questions from people who may be in real pain or in real dire circumstances and you just think, “Well, can’t answer that one because I JUST answered that one.” [laughs]

And hopefully, they’re reading the column. They can’t write you if they don’t read you. Hopefully, they’ve seen your advice for someone in their circumstances. So, it is a bit crushing writing an advice column, especially – if I may say so myself – a successful one, where you get a lot of questions. Because you get a lot of questions you can’t answer; you don’t have time to answer every question that you receive, which makes me feel a little bit like failure. And you have this window into sometimes really dark parts of people’s lives. And you get a lot of questions from people who can’t be helped, which makes you feel useless.

People sometimes say there must be a bias at play in the advice business, giving advice publicly like this, performing advice. “You must choose letters that you think politically or advance some sexual agenda that you’re on the side of.” And that’s just not true. If there’s a bias at work in advice racket columns like mine, it’s a bias towards a solvable problem, where there’s something that could be done, something that can be done, where there’s actually some advice you could give this person. Because so many of the letters are like “Well, you’re fucked, there’s nothing you can do. That is an un-unscrewable pooch. You have screwed the pooch and there is no unscrewing that pooch.” So you might want to have a funeral for that dog, because it’s over. But you couldn’t run those questions week after week. I could fill the column with them but people would then just read your column in despair and then would stop reading your column. I think one of the things you’re supposed to traffic in when you write an advice column is hope. And you get so many letters from people whose situations are just hopeless, where there’s no solution and no way out. And readers don’t want to read those questions, week after week after week. I think subconsciously, all of the people I know who I’ve talked to, everyone who writes advice columns, is subconsciously just looking for that question where there’s something you can say to that person that might help. That rules out probably 40 percent of the mail. Forty percent of the email is like, “Yeah, I can’t help you. You need a police officer and a priest and a fireman. You don’t need 300 words in the back of the paper.”

How and when should we push people’s comfort zones? Where is that line for you?You know, I don’t know where that line is. When I talk to people who are offended by my column in the back of the paper – and that passes usually after a while; people can get used to anything. But when I talk to them, often it’s this hypothetical person that they’re concerned with: “What about a child who reads or finds this?” “You can be very rough on people and sometimes you’re very dismissive. A vulnerable person could read that and be harmed by it.” And it’s always – they’re reading it or they’re fine or they’ve read it but they’re not bothered. But they create some person who might be bothered in their imaginations. And to protect that person, who may or may not exist, the column has to go. And usually it’s a cover just for sex negativity and discomfort with any discussion about sex that acknowledges that sex is a thing that people have and it’s not a thing that everybody has in the exact same way. Because I would always hear from people, like, “Someone is going to read about what you said about X and be harmed by it,” but I never hear from that person who read about X and was harmed by it. And when it comes to protecting the children, again, your child has a phone in her pocket. The age at which a child would be interested in reading my column [or] might be interested in reading my column, correlates very strongly with the age which a child has complete free access to the internet, and there’s nothing you’re going to read in my column that is worse than what you can read on the internet [laughs]. Sometimes I talk to people who are religious who object to the column and I challenge them to read a hundred of them, and if you boil them down to one idea, if you put them all in stockpot on the stove and boiled them down to their essence, what you’re left with is Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You. Now there’s more things in my universe that can be done unto a person [laughs] but you’re left with “Is this consensual? Is this pleasurable? Is this healthy? Is this respectful? How do you do this in a way that is human and humane and non-exploitative and in your best interest and the other person’s best interest?” It’s just that sometimes those discussions of the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you involves genitals and sex toys. You would want, considering the trauma that can be inflicted on a person in a sexual situation that made them feel devalued or uncomfortable or dehumanized – you want a conversation about sex that emphasizes the Golden Rule, that puts the Golden Rule in the middle of that encounter, considering how vulnerable people are at that time. I think there are just some people who are uncomfortable with the idea that there are people out there having sex, or who are turned on by things that aren’t missionary position-, heterosexual-, within-the-bounds-of-matrimony, open-to-procreation intercourse. And for a long time, that sex – missionary-position, heterosexual, marital, open-to-procreation – was held up as normal and natural and good. And it ain’t normal. It’s actually – some religious people will say, “Being gay isn’t normal.” And you have to say, “Well, OK, it’s not normative.” Alright, we’ll concede that. It’s not the norm. Normal sex is not the norm. Most of the sex people are having on a given Saturday night is not that. But some people have a problem with that truth, and some people have a problem with seeing that truth laid out so explicitly and barely in front of their eyes. They want the conversation in public to be a conversation [about sex] we all agree everyone ought to be having, not a conversation about the sex people are actually having.

Are there letters that you get that are just too crazy? Like the Nazi fetish one comes to mind …[Laughs] That one didn’t strike me as too crazy. People have transgressive and taboo fantasies. And sometimes what gets people’s
uices flowing are things that just are so transgressive, so taboo. And then what do you do with that? How do you live with that? How do you incorporate those impulses and those fantasies into your sex life in a healthy way? And I went and got Mark Oppenheimer, who’s a prominent Jewish author, to field that question for me, and he pivoted right away from sex to politics. Because the politics in that question was much more interesting and much more problematic – her politics. Her self-loathing as a Jew was much more interesting than what turns her on.

So is there a question that’s too out there? Yeah, sometimes. But I feel like those questions are the ones that are fake. You know, people who read the column, you aren’t seeing what’s coming into my email inbox [laughs]. Sometimes people get upset about what’s IN my column. I’m like, “Oh my god … You should see what didn’t get into the column!” If what’s in there is upsetting you, holy crap. You would die if you spent a day in my email inbox.

So, you know, I don’t think there’s any question that shouldn’t be able to be asked. And I’ve never gotten a question and thought, “I can’t answer that.” The only ones I think, “Oh, I can’t answer that,” are the ones where I think, “Oh, that’s bullshit.” That’s just somebody making something up to be disgusting or for attention. And I have a lot of enemies on the religious right; they’re always coming after me and there are some questions I think, I sometimes read them, and “Oh, this is a trap. This is a trick question. This is somebody from Family Research Council wanting me to give my blessing to something insane so they can then run around waving it over their heads like a bloody shirt to prove that I’m a monster.”

Has your attitude changed over the response your column gets as the column has grown over the years?Twenty years ago … if I was in a paper and lost a paper I’d be really morose, because, Oh my God, oh my god, you know; it felt very perilous. And now, if I’m in a paper and lose a paper, I think, “Well that’s how it goes.” [laughs] The column isn’t the perfect fit for every publication.

But the reaction, you know, I’m bemused by it, particularly now with the internet. Because I started writing the column 25 years ago. Twenty-five years ago when I wrote the column, there was no Google, there were no blogs, there was no wiki, there was no Tumblr, there was no online pornography. And in some communities, really “Savage Love” was one of the only places you could read about something like whatever it was I wrote about that week. Or you could be forced to contemplate a sexuality or kink or a sex act or type of relationship that you’d never really given any thought to, really would be my column; that would be the place where you’d read about people peeing on each other for pleasure or people in dom/sub relationships. Where else would you hear about that before “Sex in the City,” right? “Sex in the City” famously did an episode about people peeing on each other and everybody kind of lost their minds. In the same way when I first answered those questions, people kind of lost their minds. But now with the internet, my column, it might as well be a bridge column in the back of the newspaper. It’s so tame in comparison to what is instantly accessible everywhere by everyone, including the people who someone says they’re trying to protect by getting my column removed from a newspaper or publication. Do they know my column’s on the internet, too? [laughs] Do they know the internet, unlike Jesus, is everywhere?

This interview was edited and condensed lightly for clarity.


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