Rules of Misbehavior: Dan Savage, the brilliant and foul-mouthed sex columnist, has become one of the most important ethicists in America. Are we screwed?
By Benjamin J. Dueholm
After twenty 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 across the world in more than seventy newspapers—mainly alternative weeklies in the United States—with well over one 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 on MTV is said to be in the works. His podcast has a higher iTunes ranking than those of Rachel Maddow or the NBC Nightly News, and his four books have sold briskly (a fifth is due out in March). 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’s desk—Savage offered advice to a thirty-year-old woman who wanted to sleep with a seventeen-year-old coworker (“It would be illegal for you to GO AHEAD”), 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, 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. While he built his following by talking without fear or euphemism about the technical aspects of intimate life, Savage has moved inexorably over the years toward focusing on the moral ones. In so doing, he has carved a unique place for himself in the culture’s discourse about sex. For years, there have been moralizing voices on the right standing athwart the rush of sexual freedoms yelling “Stop,” and there have been others whose policy is to remain nonjudgmental toward sex as a form of expression. Savage yields to no one in his sexual libertarianism, but he has not been content to relegate the ideas of right and wrong to cultural conservatives. Wading deep into the free-fire zone of modern sexuality, he has codified a remarkably systematic—and influential—set of ethics where traditional norms have fallen away. The question is, into what kind of world do his ethics lead us?
s 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 away 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. He also eavesdropped on his mother, whom he called “a one-woman support group” for neighbors with problems that couldn’t be taken to a priest. The sexual revolution was well and truly on, but in the Savage household, it seems, the distinctions of mid-century American propriety still held. Newspapers casually cluttered the front room, while dirty pictures lurked under the bed. There were problems for priests and problems for sympathetic neighbors, questions for Ann Landers and questions for Xaviera.
These distinctions will be at least vaguely familiar to most Americans over the age of thirty. Savage came of age in the Indian summer of American prudery. Before Savage was born, Alfred Kinsey had begun to vex the identification of moral and behavioral norms in a way that would reverberate through the coming decades. Upon close examination, the zoologist reported, it turned out that the sexual behavior of the human animal—the term is Kinsey’s, and the choice is significant—is a good deal more varied than previously assumed. According to Kinsey’s sensational research, Americans were a lot gayer, more prone to cheating, and more sadomasochistic than the Archdiocese or the Tribune would ever want to acknowledge. Perhaps it was not the conduct of a few on the margins that had failed our moral norms, these findings suggested. Perhaps it was our norms that had failed us.
The ground beneath American sexual conventions was shifting dramatically, but the tremors only registered in mainstream culture with a considerable lag. In a 1967 column, Ann Landers published a “teen sex test” that posed a series of questions (“Have you ever been kissed while in a reclining position?” “Ever gone all the way?”) and assigned points to each one according to its gravity. By tallying up their scores, teens could find out whether they were “pure as the driven snow,” “passionate and headed for trouble,” or “condemned.” As time went by, however, more and more kids drifted toward the “condemned” end of the scale, and Landers had to update the test—first in 1978, then again in 1996.
Landers made her accommodations, but she never did start addressing the emotional and practical difficulties of, say, having a husband who insists on dressing up as a woodland animal when making love—or who wants to deviate from strict monogamy with his wife’s consent. Indeed, it was long difficult to find any cultural medium that navigated successfully between bashfulness and outright smut. Unless, that is, you lived in a city with an alternative weekly. Here was a publication format with one foot in the Tribune and one in the tattoo parlor. No dirty pictures, most likely, but plenty of news and events from the counterculture, an uncensored style book, and a bunch of personal ads aimed at gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals, all available for free at bookstores, coffee houses, head shops, food co-ops, and bohemian-friendly bars. A better setting and a more receptive audience for Dan Savage’s style of advice giving could not have been designed.
What was rather less obvious in 1991, when Savage took his place in the advice game, were the ways in which the explosion of online culture would finally break 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 no longer get 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 the sex columnist to perform a higher function. To those correspondents who still simply wanted to know where to find other people who shared their special hankerings, or who inquired after the meaning of some obscure sexual term, Savage impatiently pointed out the existence of Google. Instead, 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.
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