One of the worst things about sex is that it involves more than one person. Unfortunately, this is also its chief appeal. An impossible problem that unites us all, the fact that most people want to mash themselves against other people, by diverse methods and to varying degrees, both of which depend endlessly on known and unknown factors, means we depend on some combination of assumption, suggestion, implication, and approximation to get through each day.
That the negotiation of this awful situation might be fun — or at least interesting — is the basis for a significant portion of art, as well as Dan Savage’s career. Best known as an advice columnist and gay rights advocate, Savage has written the Savage Love advice column since 1991, when it appeared in the debut issue of the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger. “It was going to be a joke advice column that treated straight people with the same contempt for heterosexual sex and revulsion that straight people always treated the idea of gay sex with,” Savage told the journalist Mark Oppenheimer (who is, disclosure, a friend of mine) in 2011. Straight people, then as now, were desperate for help, and Savage’s harsh yet actionable perspective, usually delivered in a few lines, was just what they needed.
Twenty-six years later, he’s become both a tight-T-shirted emblem of changing mainstream attitudes and a pioneer of them. Along with a slew of other projects, he’s still giving advice, in written and podcast form and geared toward people of uncountable sexual persuasions, and along the way has coined or popularized several terms and concepts related to sex. Among them: monogamish, to describe committed relationships in which occasional sex with other people is permitted; GGG, or good, giving, and game, to describe what a partner should be, ideally; and pegging, to describe the act of a woman fucking a man with a strap-on dildo. (Santorum, named after the homophobic senator, did not quite catch on as “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex,” though santorum.com still directs to a page promoting Savage’s definition.)
I like Dan Savage, though I’m a little ashamed to admit it. Not because I’m embarrassed of my infinite fascination with the willingly divulged details of other people’s sex and love lives — I believe many people feel the same way, or are only pretending they don’t — but because Savage’s approach to advice feels weirdly passé, though the topics he covers are often so classically taboo that they probably would never occur to the vast majority of people. On November 28, for example, Savage answered a letter from someone who had found “a pair of browned diapers” in their boyfriend’s backpack, even though the boyfriend had “never expressed” a desire to do diaper stuff. The letter writer suspected the boyfriend was cheating to engage in diaper play in another city. What should they do?
Ever pragmatic, Savage discouraged over-reaction and encouraged asking hard but necessary questions. “[I]f we’re talking worst-case scenario here—he’s into diapers (which isn’t a hugely popular kink, but it’s not anything he should be ashamed of) and he’s cheating on you with a diaper pal in another city,” he wrote. “Is that something you can tolerate? Could you forgive him? And retroactively give him your blessing to do his diaper thing with others?”
His pieces are not bloated for inclusion in some future essay collection, and they don’t attempt the concomitant sweeping claims about “what makes us human” that make other advice columnists unbearable.
That he is well known but not considered particularly cutting edge among liberals these days is evidence of both the success of his project, and of an authoritarian shift in those same liberals’ attitudes toward sex and intimacy. Though he’s adjusted to the changing times — until 1999, advice seekers were encouraged to address their letters “Hey, Faggot,” a term, the Stranger noted, that Savage claimed “in strength and pride” — he still writes like a blogger, offering glib observations and often making jokes at a letter writer’s expense if they are being delusional, or attempting to abdicate personal responsibility for feelings or actions. (He sarcastically refers to the latter class of writer as HTHs, which stands for “How’d That Happen?”)
He does not indulge sentimentality or even, particularly, feelings, unless those feelings suggest that someone may want out of their relationship but is afraid to admit it. His pieces are not bloated for inclusion in some future essay collection, and they don’t attempt the concomitant sweeping claims about “what makes us human” that make other advice columnists unbearable. Though patterns emerge, he prescribes in specific situations and avoids the general, except when it comes to politics, where all Republicans are scum.
He is also unafraid to comment on issues that he could never experience firsthand as a wealthy, white, cisgender gay man, and he is uncowed by complaints about this tendency that he considers made in bad faith. While writing this piece I took a long detour down Savage’s extensive entry on the anonymous, now-defunct Tumblr “Your Fave Is Problematic,” which aimed to “document problematic things celebrities have done.” As I scrolled past what the blog presents as examples of Savage’s transphobia, biphobia, homophobia (he “called Gay Conservative group GOProud ‘House F-----s’”), racism, fatphobia, ableism, and insensitivity to sexual assault, asexuality, women’s right to say no to their partners, and bullied children, I regretted ever pitching the idea for an essay on his surprising relevance.
Not because I was suddenly enlightened to all the ways he is morally questionable — I was familiar with many of the incidents briefly noted — or because I believed he was guilty of all the prejudice of which he was accused on a blog of vague and misguided premise. I clicked on the examples I wasn’t familiar with and was pleasantly surprised to find they weren’t as damning as the selected quotes suggested; those that seemed actually quite stigmatizing took place years ago, and Savage has since apologized, or at least adjusted. I regretted saying I would write this piece because it reminded me that if I did not discuss how Dan Savage is “problematic” in an essay about why I like Dan Savage — he is not my fave! — I would be accused of condoning the problematic behavior or even of being problematic myself. The blog states pretty clearly that anyone reading is “still allowed” to “like” any celebrity featured on its list, “so long as you recognize that they do have problematic issues.”
Like most people, I don’t enjoy being told what I am “allowed” to do or what I should think, and I especially don’t enjoy it when I have no way to assess who exactly is ordering me around. But in the last few years, voiceless declarations of projected universal truths like “Your Fave Is Problematic” have become a popular strategy for conveying a single person’s opinion or recommendation. Though this is partially just the way internet headline style works today, it has been especially true of the writing on the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein and ensuing #MeToo movement; the prevailing style of discourse there seems to be righteous proclamation that smooths over the crucial nuances of what sex (or attempted sex) between two people is like.
In New York, Rebecca Traister recently declared, “I was never serially sexually harassed. But the stink got on me anyway. I was implicated. We all are…” While she successfully illustrates how the effects of sexual harassment extend far beyond the person being targeted, the confidence with which she’ll use personal anecdotes to make sweeping generalizations about lives and experiences she can’t possibly know about is, frankly, annoying. Who is “we all”? At Vox, Mimi Kramer noted, “What goes through the mind of every woman who has ever been sexually harassed in the workplace— and what working woman has not? — is, ‘Who will survive this? And who will control the narrative?’” I don’t doubt that most women have had experiences that may qualify as #MeToo stories, and I believe that many of the situations described have concerned behavior that does not fall under the category of “sex (or attempted sex),” but rather assault and abuse. But the choice to speak on behalf of all adult women, everywhere — and to portray as unquestionably grave what sometimes amounts, in those adult women’s views, to the merely uncomfortable — is infantilizing. As former Savage Love guest Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker, conversations about sexual harassment seem to be veering towards sex panic, so much so that we “may be willingly transporting ourselves back to a more sexually restrictive era, one that denied agency to women.”
Another Vox writer, Jennifer A. Drobac, responding to the very specific allegations against the Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who is accused of preying on and molesting underage girls when he was in his 30s, suggested a new system of sexual consent for people between the ages of 16 and 21. Under Drobac’s plan, young people in this range would be allowed to “assent” to sex with a “significantly older person” but could revoke that choice at any time. That this is how traditional consent is supposed to work was not discussed; instead, Drobac presents the scientific finding that teenage brains don’t “finish maturing until sometime in the mid-20s,” which means they can make rational decisions in “cool” situations but not when pressure or newness come into play. (That this is true for many adults is also not discussed.) “Teens are often allowed to change their minds about purchases,” Drobac notes, before ending the piece with an injunction: “No adult needs to have sex with a teenager,” which is both obvious and beside the point, unless your point is that no adult should.
Dan Savage would be the last person to argue that 20-year-old brains are fully developed, or that any adult “needs” to have sex with a teenager. But he would also never suggest that all sex could or should be merely transactional, or necessary, or that all sexual activity of a certain type — here, between older adults and young people of consenting age — should be stopped because some or even much of it is harmful. His “campsite rule” — that older adults should leave young people better than they found them — manages to account for adult responsibility and allow for variable teenage agency. Those who break it may find themselves the subject of one of his rants. But he reserves condemnation for people who manipulate, at the expense of others, the combination of assumption, suggestion, implication, and approximation that will always, inevitably, enter any activity two or more people engage in.
Grandstanding pronouncements about what all women do or think or experience as “victims” are designed to eventually root out any and all harassing behavior as unacceptable. But Savage’s more practical approach offers a model that neither condones abuse nor relies on a totally sympathetic reader who is willing to overlook gaping holes in an argument because she supports its ultimate premise. What feels old-fashioned about his perspective is that it remains, obviously, a perspective, something he directs at specific situations; he presents what he thinks about a given problem, and his audience is invited to think what they think in response, preserving the agency of his readers and listeners as well as that of his letter writers and callers. In his first Savage Love column, a self-described “intensely horny” woman asked if it was OK to have sex with a guy she wasn’t into until she could snag another guy she had her eye on. Instead of telling her “yes” or “no,” Savage presented her with a series of conditions, qualifications, and implicit questions:
“If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with. If you don’t want to hurt number one, be honest with him about your intentions. He probably won’t mind getting laid, but don’t let him think that it could become more than that. If you are upfront and honest with him, he won’t get hurt. It will be his own fault if he does.”
Whether she took his advice is, also, up to her.