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Dan Savage

Photo: Alicia Solsman

The Savage Directives

Dan Savage offers modest advice: When the fundies get you down, keep on gettin’ it on

By Josh Potter

Just last month, syndicated sex advice columnist Dan Savage called upon his readers to help resolve a pressing issue. You may have followed the thread in the nether pages of Metroland. Evangelist minister Rick Warren had been selected to give president Obama’s inaugural invocation after having outspokenly supported Prop. 8 (the bill that effectively banned gay marriage in California). Savage wondered what sex act the term “saddlebacking” (after Warren’s Saddleback megachurch) could refer to. In light of a recent study that found a considerable number of abstinence-only-educated Christian teens were having anal sex to preserve their holy virginity, Savage found his definition.

For Savage, who’s been writing the column Savage Love since 1991, and who serves as editorial director at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, mockery can be a great tool for highlighting the sexual hypocrisy that bubbles up from socially conservative segments of the population, but it’s not the only trick in his bag. At his Tuesday keynote lecture, headlining UAlbany Sexuality Week, the lanky, frank, and seemingly-espresso-addled pundit delivered all the sordid candor for which his column has earned a widespread and dedicated readership, set within a surprisingly modest and common-sense moral framework.

“What’s so marvelous about sexuality is where you choose to disclose it and who you disclose it to,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

It’s this sexual sanctity—based on personal need and desire rather than abstract morality—that lies at the root of Savage’s advice. He lectures in a way that mirrors his column, fielding questions that were anonymously written on index cards, thus creating a sphere of neutrality in which to address all the icky business. There’s nothing exhibitionist about it. On principle, Savage does not answer questions about his own sexuality because—duh—it’s personal and often beside the point. While puritanical conservatives would like to view him as a free-love-dispensing libertine, his goal seems, rather, to clear the air of taboo and misinformation without granting the topics so much sunlight as to make sexuality boring.

This is not to say that talking about sex can’t be fun; in fact, fun is kind of the point. When asked if vaginas really “get loose,” he replied, “You have to be careful to latch the gate.” Having fielded every kinky inquiry over the years, there are few places Savage won’t go, and few topics for which he doesn’t have a handy analogy or one liner. “If you break up with the honest foot fetishist,” he advised, “then I guarantee you’ll marry the dishonest necrophiliac.” Addressing the risk factor of engaging in anal-to-oral sex, he offered a simple answer: “Yes, it’s risky to stick something in your mouth that was in your ass. I don’t think the university needed to bring me here to tell you that.”

As fun and important as this type of conversation is, Savage will have you know that he never brings up the gross stuff. Everything edgy has its basis in human psychology, so when addressing whether booty-call-based relationships can ever exist without “feelings” getting involved, he was quick to say no. But rather than condemn the practice outright, he acknowledged that many loving relationships are born from booty calls, so whatever helps someone find real love should be considered healthy. Generally, he said, he’d rather talk about politics and urban planning, so even the most twisted material has a topical relevance to which Savage can faithfully digress.

In a way, talk of the kinky stuff is really just a clearing of the sexual table. Savage is at his most astute when discussing subjects such as same-sex parenting, something he has firsthand knowledge of. He sees the fact that he and his partner have never faced direct hostility on this front as a sign of the great strides our culture has made toward “tolerance.” Tolerance—in the way Savage himself “puts up” with Mike Huckabee, the Mormon church, and its “steaming pile of bullshit”—is a ground-level concern, but he sees our culture approaching a point with gay rights that echoes that of racial civil rights where homophobic discourse will become as illegitimate as that of segregation.

The intersection of race and sexual orientation is a place where Savage has taken one of his more radical positions, citing statistical evidence that black homophobia is a bigger issue in this country (in light of African-American support for Prop. 8) than white gay racism (in light of stronger white gay support for Kerry than Obama). He made the point, though, to highlight how black homophobia is an epiphenomenon of emasculation rooted in slavery, and how deeply black gays suffer for this.

As optimistic as Savage is about political battles stemming from matters of sexuality, he echoes most progressives in saying we can’t rely on Obama alone to make things peachy. The best way, he said, of getting Republicans to stop their bellyaching and Democrats to get on with more important national business is to give advocates what they’re asking for and so clear the headlines. But until then, the fight must be waged in a rational way. When virulent homophobe and bigot Fred Phelps and his entourage arrive at UAlbany on March 6 to picket “fag enablers,” Savage wonders if their hate should even be given the pleasure of a counterprotest.

The prospect of full sexual openness and equality might not bode well for Savage’s job security, but the relevance of what he does is probably the first thing he’d like to part ways with. Until then (and probably afterward), there will be plenty of people who just want to talk about what gets them off.


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