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Sex Columnist Dan Savage Has One Thing in Common With Christians: The Golden Rule

Sex Columnist Dan Savage Has One Thing in Common With Christians: The Golden Rule
Rachel Robinson
click to enlarge Dan Savage will record his podcast Savage Love live at the Kessler this week. - RACHEL ROBINSON
Dan Savage will record his podcast Savage Love live at the Kessler this week.
Rachel Robinson
Dan Savage will speak tonight, Thursday, May 11, at The Kessler Theater
Longtime sex-columnist and LGTBQ activist Dan Savage is this generation's Dear Prudence, his sage advice delivered with the confident bluntness of Judge Judy.

Through his podcast Savage Love, which is in its 11th year, Savage has literally redefined the language of sex and relationships. His acronyms have taken off with the same unstoppable force of "YOLO."

The political provocateur is leading an anti-Trump effort by selling ITMFA (Impeach The Motherfucker Already) merchandise, proceeds from which go to fund Planned Parenthood and other causes.

Tonight, he will be taking questions in front of a live Dallas audience. He spoke with us via phone from Seattle, and discussed his views on everything you've been told not to talk about in front of fine company: religion, sex and politics.

Dallas Observer: First off, can you tell us what to expect at your event tonight?
Savage: Well, it's a Savage Love Live, which means that it's sort of an advice column, but live onstage. I take questions anonymously on cards, but also from people in the audience if they're brave enough or exhibitionists enough to want to ask questions about their sex life in front of a crowd. And we have a conversation. You know, I've always called Savage Love a column, even when the podcast came along, a conversation I was having with some friends at a bar about our sex lives after we've had a few drinks. And the Savage Love Live is literally that. Hopefully everyone's had a few drinks, myself included, and we talk and shoot the shit. The one thing that happens, and I think it's fun for an audience in live shows, is that in an advice column you appear to have all the answers because you don't print questions you don't have answers for, and during a live show you get questions that you don't have answers for, and sometimes it's fun to get stumped and get outed as not having all the answers in front of a crowd.

Are you ever concerned about speaking in predominantly conservative areas?
Well, Dallas is a blue dot in a red sea, the same way Seattle is. It's just Seattle is a big enough blue dot to flip the state. There's really not such a thing as a blue state; there's only red states, some of them have blue cities in them, and less successful voter suppression efforts on the part of the Republican Party so the state looks blue on a map. So Seattle is surrounded by red areas the same way that Dallas or Austin or Houston is. People talk about Utah and Texas being rabidly conservative states, but yet Houston elected Annise Parker twice and the current mayor of Salt Lake City is a lesbian, so the big cities in these red areas are not hostile territory to lefties and progressives; they're as much our home as Seattle or San Francisco is.

But do you stay away from the red areas?
I'm a city kid, so I'm not gonna go hunting or anything while I'm there. I do like to go for hikes and I do like to go snowboarding, so I'm sometimes in rural areas, but only usually with my husband who's from a rural area and is more comfortable in those places than I am. But that doesn't have anything to do with me being terrified of conservatives. My dad's a Republican. It just has to do with me growing up in the city of Chicago, and having lived in a city. I get out in the countryside and I'm like, "What do you do for food?"

Your porno festival Hump! took place last weekend in Dallas. How many submissions do you have to sift through?
Hundreds. And we call it "porno-palooza" at the office. There's usually room in the program for 25, maybe tops 28, 29 films, and we'll get a few hundred submissions, each five minutes of length, and we book a conference room and we lock ourselves in there with a bunch of snacks for a couple of days and we watch every film, and then we watch them all again and then we debate each film on its merits and decide what goes in. It's, you know, nice work if you can get it.

How often do you stumble upon a new sex act that baffles you, or at this point have you heard it all?
Well, until this year's Hump! I'd never seen toast buttered in quite that way, so it is possible to shock me. There are new sex acts under the sun. We are a fetishizing species, and everything that comes along, someone somewhere is jerking off about it.

Latex and rubber clothing was only developed after the second World War and now there's a whole fetish industry built around latex and rubber garments. And, this is dark, but you think of the burka porn that exploded onto the scene after 9/11, and a lot of what we think of as BDSM, S&M and archetypes are kind of a reaction to WWII.

So there's always something new that's being eroticized by humans, and so look around at what's new and what wasn't there 10 minutes ago, and it's turning into a kink in someone's erotic imagination. I mean, when Avatar came out, then suddenly there was this kink for 7-foot-tall blue aliens, where there hadn't been that specific kink before. Yeah, we're weirdos. Humans.

You've talked about there being a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" attitude toward non-gay people, for instance, who show support for the LGBT community and are criticized for it. What can an outsider do to help LGBT causes without appearing to be capitalizing on a trend or condescending to a group?
You know, not oppressing people doesn't take a lot of work. It takes some thought. Sometimes oppression is so blended in the culture you're not aware that you're participating in it. But it takes effort to keep your foot on someone's neck and when you've done it for so long that you don't even realize you're doing it, it feels normal. And sometimes when you take your foot off people's necks there's a sense of relief you didn't anticipate.

And so what can people do? People can not be shitty. People can not be assholes, people can let other people be who they are without feeling like it takes anything away from them, and once you get to that place, it doesn't require a lot of sustained effort. It does require some thought every once in a while but the liberation of gay people doesn't really require anything from straight people except taking your foot off our necks.

Your dad was a cop. What are your feelings on the current climate of police violence, and the Support the Blue groups?
My dad was a cop in Chicago in the '70s and the '60s, and he's proud of the fact that he never once pulled his gun. It does seem that in the last couple of decades there has been this militarization of the police force and the sense that it's us against them and citizens are citizens and cops are this military force when cops are not military.

Cops are also supposed to be citizens. Instead of de-escalating, cops escalate. There's that op-ed by a cop – I don't remember where I read it –  that said: "If you don't want me to shoot you, do everything I tell you to." What the fuck is that? We're all fit for summary execution? You're not allowed to argue with a cop, you're not allowed to say anything? I just don't ... uhhhh (Savage grunts).

I long for the "What's a butt-plug?" days sometimes.

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But you know, my dad's a cop, my uncles are cops, my brother is a cop in Iowa. Everyone who knows a cop or is related to a cop likes to think that they happen to be related to one of the good ones. I like to think that I'm related to some of the good ones and I don't necessarily see cops as essentially and inherently oppressive – recognizing that there is systemic racism and a police brutality problem, and also there are studies that show and prove that.

The combo of that kind of racism and that kind of lethal force and license is killing people, killing people of color. And I'm out of my area of expertise by a lot, my despair of the new administration and Jeff Sessions, and the progress that we felt we might be starting to make on this issue is losing ground.

Impeach the Motherfucker Already originally started out as a campaign against George W. Bush. Looking back now, who was the worst president, W in his two terms or Trump in his first few months?
(Savage laughs) Trump. Well, yeah, the horror of Trump is the existential dread that there's a madman in the White House. We talk about how I'm pushing ITMFA and selling these hats and T-shirts which are fun, and people are like, "Oh my God, if you impeach Trump then it's President Pence." I said well, Pence, as awful as he would be, oscillates in a relatively narrow band of predictable Republican awfulness. And with Trump you just don't know what the fuck is gonna happen. That's why we all wake up every day and rush to Twitter to see if, you know, we've nuked Nebraska.

If I'm summarizing correctly, your career started when you suggested to a friend that he include an advice column in his upcoming publication. Do you ever daydream of the parallel universe in which he would've said no? What do you think you would've done with your life instead?
I do daydream about that universe at times. Sometimes it feels like I've had a very silly life and a very silly career, but it's kinda awesome to have this gig. There's a reason people who write advice columns have to have them pried out of their cold, dead hands one day. Except for Emily Yoffe at Slate who walked away from Prudence, it's not a gig that not a lot of people walk away from.

You know, in a parallel universe I did theater and I had a theater here in Seattle and it was pretty successful, and writing kind of pulled me away from it. And I like to think that if I hadn't sort of stumbled on this advice column thing, which I've always treated like a theatrical project in some ways, I would've pursued a career in theater. I mean, it's crazy to say that a career in theater is my fallback career if writing doesn't work out. They're both unlikely careers where success is difficult to obtain and sustain.

Do you ever get tired of questions about relationships? What's one unrelated subject that you would feel completely at ease giving advice in?
When the column started, half the questions were, "What's a butt plug?" or "Where's the swingers club?" in the city where I live, and those are easy questions to answer. "Definitions and referrals," I called them. And now because there's the internet, which didn't exist when I started writing my column, butt plugs have a Wiki page and every swingers club has its own website.

You just have to Google the name of your town and "swingers club" and you'll find it. You don't need me. So all the questions I get are relationship questions, situational ethics. "This is what I did, this is what they did, who's right and who's wrong?" And those questions are really hard to answer and it requires more thought and effort. It's exhausting. I long for the "What's a butt-plug?" days sometimes. But the question I would welcome that I don't get are questions about Shakespeare and questions about public transportation, two issues I'm very passionate about.

Are any topics off-limits for you?
Well, my column started in the '90s. There were a lot of sex columns then, and unlike most of the sex columns, mine is still around. And I think the reason why that is is that I don't write about my own sex life. And the reason I don't write about my sex life is because in 1995 or 6 I met Terry (Miller, Savage's husband) and he told me I couldn't write about my sex life and have sex with him. So I stopped writing about my sex life after a couple of years, so the column then became about my readers and not about me.

You know, I always answered questions, but I still did sort of auto-biographical digressions and personal experiences, and that just all stopped the minute I met Terry, and I think that's the reason my column's had the longevity it's had. A lot of the columns where the columnist writes about himself, eventually the reader – rightly or wrongly – begins to get the sense that these experiences can't all be authentic, that these relationships or experiments must just be just fodder at some point, and not the true-lived experience of this person. And I never hit that wall with my readers because after those first couple of years I met Terry, and it wasn't about me anymore.

Are there any particular moments in which you censor your opinion?
Um, no. If I go on public radio, on NPR, if I do a piece for that kind of broadcast I'm not gonna be so filthy-mouthed. And the jokes I make might be a little less blue. And that's not about not being myself in those arenas, it's just you are who you are with your friends, and you're still who you are when you're with your mother and her friends, but you're going to style yourself a little differently so as to not freak out your great-aunt. But you can still be your authentic self.

Sometimes when I do a piece for NPR I get angry letters from readers like, "You didn't use the F word once." Yeah, I also don't use the F word when I'm around my great-aunts who are nuns. I don't say anything I don't believe when I talk to my great aunts. If they ask me what I think about monogamy I'll tell them the truth, but I'm not gonna throw a lot of F-bombs around them.

In terms of advice, are you ever afraid you've gotten it wrong?
I know for sure I've gotten it wrong, and you can't let that paralyze you. It is advice. It's not binding arbitration. No one has to do exactly what I tell them to do. Usually people who are reaching out to you for advice are thoughtful smart people who are gonna weigh the advice you crafted for them with the limited amount of information that you had about the problem, against what they know about their particular circumstance and situation, and then make their own choices.

And usually people indicate that they're also asking family and friends for input, and if that keeps you up at night, "Oh my God, did I give the wrong advice? Did I get that question wrong?" then you can't be in this business. It's a quick-hit thing; it's not therapy. You're not sitting in a room with somebody for six months once a week, and really getting to the bottom of anything. You get a quick little sketch about what's going on, and they want a quick little sketch back about what you think. So yeah, I know I've gotten things wrong. I put the clitoris in the wrong place the first time I mentioned it.

Where did you put it?
Turns out it's not in the soft palate; that's where mine is and I just assumed that's where everyone's was. No, I thought it was up by the cervix. I literally thought it was at the top of the vaginal canal. I was 25 or 26 years old and gay, and hadn't thought about women's anatomies since I was 15 and trying to talk myself into being straight. And it was pre-Google; you couldn't google "clitoris" and get a map like you can now. I had to look it up in a book.

In that period when you talked yourself into being straight, who were your girl crushes?
Oh my god, Leif Garrett. He was a boy singer who was at the time very feminine, kind of my girl-crush. I was a young adolescent in the '70s so all those androgynous boys worked on me.

You're outspoken about religion, Christianity in particular, for its shaming attitudes toward sex. Are you an atheist, or what are your guiding philosophies?
I am an "agnostatheist," which is a sort of hybrid agnostic and atheist. I don't trust people who pretend to know things they can't know. And just as I don't believe we can know there is a God I don't think we can with certainty rule it out yet. I believe we may be able to rule it out someday.

There's this wonderful Tim Minchin song called "Storm" where he points out that every mystery humanity has ever solved, the answer has been "not magic." And I believe one day we will solve the mystery of our existence, the mystery of the beginning and ending of our universe, and what was here before and what was here after, and I don't believe the answer is gonna be some cosmic magician. Just as the answer to life wasn't spontaneous generation.

When do you feel you've had great influence or made a difference?
Oh my God, I don't know, when some stranger comes up to me in the airport and hugs me, and says my column saved their marriage, which has happened on an alarmingly regular basis. A lot of what I preach, for lack of a better word, is to make the accommodation to forgive, to stay together, to work it out and figure it out.

If you dump all of my columns into a pot and boil it down to its essence what you're left is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

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A lot of social conservatives have a problem with my columns and what I have to say, but if you dump all of my columns into a pot and boil it down to its essence what you're left is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Try to treat each other with respect, keep it consensual, communicate, accommodate, indulge each other. And forgive each other, keep your eye on the greater good.

I think me saying to people that if you're with somebody for 50 years and they cheated on you once or twice, they were good at monogamy – it's saved a lot of marriages when there's been a one-off incident, there's somebody who cheated once, and that can be worked through. You should stay together. And it's kind of a conservative message, despite what conservatives have had to say about Hillary Clinton.

How do you most want to be remembered?
As the guy who helped redefine Rick Santorum's last name. (In 2003 Savage held a contest asking readers to reimagine definitions of the politician's last name. The winning submission was: "A frothy mixture of lubricant and fecal matter as an occasional byproduct of anal sex.")

I'll have to explain that one for the readers.
Good luck to you. (Laughs)

Last question: What advice would you give me for my next interview?
One of the things that makes you a good advice columnist is knowing when somebody doesn't need your goddamn advice, and I don't think you need my advice. Sometimes you look at somebody's problem and they lay it out for you and you think, "You're doing fine, you're doing everything right, keep doing what you're doing."

Thank you so much, Dan. It was a pleasure.
Unless somebody kills me at the airport, I will see you on Thursday.

Dan Savage, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 11, Kessler Theater, 1230 W. Davis St., tickets $35 and up at
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Eva Raggio is the Dallas Observer's music and arts editor, a job she took after several years of writing about local culture and music for the paper. Eva supports the arts by rarely asking to be put on "the list" and always replies to emails, unless the word "pimp" makes up part of the artist's name.
Contact: Eva Raggio