It’s impossible to talk about contemporary advice columns without mentioning Dan Savage. The author and activist has been penning his column Savage Love for more than 25 years — doling out advice about sex, relationships, kinks, and everything in between. Savage is also the host of the podcast Savage Lovecast, an extension of his wildly popular column, as well as an activist for the LGBTQ community. On August 8, he’ll be adding yet another line to his already impressive resumé — he’s producing a new audio series for Audible called Hot Mic with Dan Savage, in which he’ll feature stories about sex, love, and relationships.
There is, perhaps, no better person to talk to about how the conversation around sex and relationships has changed than the man who gave us the terms “GGG ” and “monogamish.” So, ahead, I quiz Savage on what he considers “good” sex, how open we should be with our partners, and where, exactly, he used to think the clitoris was. Read on, and make sure to check out Hot Mic, which premieres on August 8.
You’ve been giving advice for 26 years. How has the conversation around sex changed since you started writing your column?
“So much has changed. We’re having a conversation about gender now, and how we understand it is markedly more advanced than conversations we were having 25 years ago. We’re also having conversations about monogamy and talking about monogamy differently than we did back then. I like to think I had some role in reshaping those conversations. And we’re talking more about kink and difference. I get a lot fewer questions from people about whether they’re normal or not these days. I still get them, but back in the day, almost every other question was, ‘This is what I want. This is what I am. This is what turns me on. Is this normal?’ Or they’d ask ‘This is what my partner wants. Is this normal?’ And I think people have gotten it through their thick heads that, when it comes to human sexuality, variance is the norm. Difference is the norm. So if you’re different, you’re normal.”
“There’s a time and a place to talk about this stuff. I’m pretty open about sex, but when I’m having lunch with my great-aunt in Chicago, I’m not talking about the awesome sex toy [my husband] Terry got me as a gift. Maybe with my friends I would. There’s some people who come up to me in airports and talk to me about their sex life, and I think ‘This is not the time!’ I’m with my kid, or I’m off the clock.
“So on the one hand, I want to say that people should be open and free to talk about their sex lives and their identity and gender. But on the other hand, with that power, comes the responsibility to know when to talk about those things. To know when it’s going to be welcome or appropriate, to know when it’s going to be unwelcome or uncomfortable or harassed. If your boss is talking to you about the best 10 blow jobs he ever got, that’s probably going to make you feel uncomfortable and unsafe — especially if you’re a person who works under him. So I don’t want to say ‘We should be able to talk about this shit whenever, wherever, and to whomever we want,’ because that’s not true. We all have to be considerate and use good judgement and know when you’re with people with whom those conversations are welcome.”
“‘Good sex’ can be within a marriage, or it can be swinging from the chandeliers of a sex club with somebody in a latex gimp suit.”
On Hot Mic, you host personalities and they share stories about their sex lives and their sexuality that they may not have felt comfortable sharing 20 years ago. Why do you think people have become more comfortable with the discussion of sex?
“Because of the sex-positive movement. Because of columns like mine. Because of TV shows like Sex and the City or Girls. Because of the internet, online pornography, the gay rights movement. Straight people looked at gay people who were giving themselves permission to be fully out and thought ‘Why can’t we do that?’ A straight person would go to a gay pride parade and see that there were a million different ways to be a gay person or a queer person. And they would leave thinking ‘Why is there just one way to be straight?’ In a way, the queer rights movement didn’t just liberate queers — it liberated a lot of straight people.
“So I think the last 20, 30 years has really forced a conversation. The HIV/AIDS epidemic forced us to stop talking about the sex we thought everybody ought to be having, and forced us to start talking about the sex people were actually having. And the internet, in a big way, was a driver of this. Suddenly everyone had access to porn and erotica, but also had access to private spaces where they could anonymously open up and ask for advice and seek out resources that would help them. All of these things working in concert just drove the conversation and created a new kind of openness — and also a new expectation that people should be able to seek fulfillment and that whatever it is that you wanted, as long as it was consensual, it was good.
“The standard used to be ‘penis in vagina, within the bounds of matrimony, is good. Everything else is bad, sinful, awful, sick, depraved.’ And a married couple can have P-in-V [penis in vagina] sex, but have a terrible relationship that’s abusive or unloving and they just loathe each other. But the sex was ‘good’ because it was P-in-V and happening in a marriage. And that’s no longer the yard stick that we measure ‘good’ sex versus ‘bad’ sex. ‘Good’ sex is consensual and joyful and fun and with some respect and consideration of the feelings and autonomy of your partner. Period. The end. And that can be within a marriage, or it can be swinging from the chandeliers of a sex club with somebody in a latex gimp suit.”
What do you hope to accomplish with Hot Mic? How do you hope it differs from your podcast, Savage Lovecast?
“Well, it’s really different because it’s not just me. It’s not a dialogue I’m having with others about their sex and relationship issues. These are stories from storytelling shows all over the country. We’re finding the best of these sex and relationship stories, sharing them, and adding a little bit of commentary. There’s not a grand goal. These are just great stories that we wanted to share to entertain people, titillate them, alter people’s live a little bit and educate them.”
You always stress the importance of communication in your advice columns. So when do you think it’s important to bring up certain things in relationships. Like, when should you mention a kink, or if you’ve been treated for an STD?
“Zooming out for a second, one of the things I talk about a lot on my podcast is that people are intuitively looking for a partner with good judgement. And so disclosing something too early can demonstrate bad judgement, which can turn people off. For instance, let’s say you have some intense kink. If you you start rattling on about this on your first date, even if the person sitting across the table from you is into that, they’re going to think, ‘Wow, that displayed poor judgement — to just blurt that out so early. Also, why are we talking about this before we talk about anything else?’
“So when it comes to kinks, I talk about the time when you need to lay all your kink cards on the table and share them. You should share the news like Christmas presents, not like cancer. I think it demonstrates good judgement to get to know a person first, especially if you met them in a more ‘vanilla’ context. So, like, you’ve hung out or hooked up a few times, and you’re getting to have conversations about your sexual history or the life that you want to lead. Then you can, in a sexy way, start to roll out kinks.”
One of my favorite parts of Savage Lovecast is when you allow listeners to call in and give their opinions on your advice in previous episodes. Is there anything you’ve learned from doing this podcast or writing your column?
“I’ve learned a lot. The column is as much an education for me as it is for my readers. I learn from them, too. One very important thing I know now that I didn’t know when I started writing Savage Love is where the clitoris is. The first time I wrote about it, I put it in the wrong place. I’d put it at the top of the vaginal canal, near the cervix. Turns out, it’s not on the soft palette, which is where mine is, so I just assumed everyone else’s would be there. It was a 26-year-old rookie sex columnist’s mistake. In my defense, this was before the internet, before Google, and if you wanted to find out something about anatomy, you had to grab an anatomy textbook. The clit did not have a Wiki page back then.
“But there’s lot of other things. I think of the first time I wrote about Buck Angel, the trans porn star, and I couldn’t wrap my head around a trans man porn star whose porn was all about having a pussy and putting it into service. And Buck helped open my eyes to the fact that lots of trans individuals don’t get bottom surgery.”
If there was one thing that you wish people would know about sexuality, what would it be? Like, what is the one thing you want etched on your tombstone when you go?
“Well, the first thing I want etched on my tombstone is ‘He Ruined Rick Santorum’s Name.’ [ Laughs.] The takeaway I wish everyone would wrap their heads around is that sex wins. Sex always wins. Sex is more powerful than you are. Sex is 500 million years old. It built us and it will build whatever comes after us. People like to pretend that they’re in charge of their desires or their sexuality, and they’re not. You’re in charge of how you act on them, but you can’t dam it up. You can’t pretend that you can stick a cork in it without it exploding in your face one day.
“There’s a lie we’re told when we’re kids, which is ‘One day, we will grow up and we will have sex.’ The truth is, sex will have you. And so many people are in denial about the power of sex and desire, and they want to pretend it’s something trivial or something that can be walked away from or dismissed. Whether it’s somebody who is gay and closeted and struggling with shame, or it’s someone whose partner has a particular kink and they’re like, ‘Can’t you just not do that?’ It persists because sex wins, and there’s no way around that.”
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Maria Del Russo