comScore

Dan Savage on #metoo redemption, the normalcy of odd sex, and butt plug question nostalgia

Roman Robinson

Roman Robinson

Since the early ‘90s, Dan Savage’s advice column, which started in Seattle’s The Stranger and grew to appear in numerous publications (including City Pages), has pointedly created a space about demystifying sex, and has drawn a loyal fandom of people who are sorting through the messy process of sexual relationships -- most of them straight.

Dan Savage

Pantages Theatre
$35; $75 with VIP meet-and-greet

Not bad for something that started as a joke.

“I was going to treat straight people with the same contempt that straight advice columnists had always treated gay people with,” says the openly gay Savage, “but straight people liked being treated that way because it’s a new and different experience for them.”

Savage’s sensibility is firmly grounded in his pride, and his Pride. As an activist during the AIDS crisis and beyond, his perspective -- that straight folks have a lot to learn from their gay neighbors and co-workers -- still resonates a quarter of a century later. Honest and clear communication is a fundamental part of Savage’s advice. Sometimes it feels like he’s fighting against a culture of unreasonable expectations.

“People go into relationships with fuzzy rom-com notions that two people are going to fit together seamlessly, and then there’s friction and ulterior motives or conflicting desires and people carve grooves into each other to fit better together,” he says. “The emergence of more openly gay people pressing for our rights to start families and marry really forced a conversation about sex and relationships, and that changed the way people talk about it. What straight people saw when they showed up to a gay pride parade was that there were so many ways to be gay. Look at all the different ways to be gay, why is there only one way to be straight?”

While people unfamiliar with Savage’s work might still be knocked back by his point of view, there’s very little provocateur in this Chicago-raised Catholic kid. Sure, he can quote controversial culture critic Laura Kipnis one moment and Margaret Atwood the next, but he’s far less interested in pushing buttons than just using common sense.

“Straight people are afraid to be honest with each other,” he says. “I don’t get questions from gay people that end with, ‘Is this normal?’ Only straight people are invested in this arbitrary, bullshit standard of normality... What we think of as ‘normal sex’ -- missionary position, hetero, in the bounds of matrimony, in the dark, no witnesses -- that’s not the majority of the sex that goes down any night in this country. Variance is the norm. The odder you are, the more normal you are, paradoxically.”

A lot has changed since Savage penned his first column, including gay rights and the rise of the #metoo movement.

“Most guys aren’t monsters and don’t want to act in a way that violates someone,” he says, “but a lot of guys are really clueless and dense about the likelihood that they might do that because of the confluence of the way men are socialized and the way women are socialized. Some men, like Harvey Weinstein, are predatory monster shitbags. I’m not talking about those guys; I’m talking about this muddy middle. That’s been an ongoing conversation on the podcast for a decade, and we’re pushing back against millenia of gendered socialization. It’s going to take time for people to get religion on this and be able to smell their own shit.”

But what happens to that muddy middle while it’s sorting itself out? Is it right to make a distinction?

“There needs to be some path to redemption,” he continues. “If you’re creating new social norms, and trying to break through a lot of assumptions and ignorance, you have to allow people to get religion. You have to allow people who ‘sinned’ to become converts.”

This is Savage’s Catholic-raised pragmatism showing. “It doesn’t make what Franken did okay, or what Aziz Ansari did okay, but it’s easier to see a path to clarity and insight and a resolve on their parts to do better than it is to see a path to redemption for [sexual predators like] Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump or Kevin Spacey,” he says.

That’s a lot of hope for progress from a guy who started out looking to make straight people uncomfortable. Still, there are some things he misses about the early days, back when the topics were less “who’s wrong here?” and more “how-to.”

“Google and Wiki changed everything,” he says. “I used to get, ‘How do I fist fuck? How do I do anal? What’s a buttplug?’ Now they all have their own wiki pages. The questions now are all situational ethics. Who’s right, who’s wrong, how to move forward. I miss those buttplug columns, they were easy to write.”