Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 09, 1998
Head: Dan Savage
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: When Dan Savage is asked about his professional qualifications as a sex advice columnist, he admits that he has none. But it's not like he lied his way into his job.
A friend who was starting a weekly newspaper asked Savage what kind of advice column he thought the paper needed. Savage replied, sex since people would risk anything to get their hands on a publication that covered sex.
They agreed it should be different from other sex columns; it should be written by a man, by someone young, and gay. Savage fit the description; he wrote a prototype, and then was surprised to find he had the job. His column which is carried in weeklies across the country now, is called "Savage Love."
That's also the title of his new book which is a collection of his columns. We're going to have an adult talk which you may find inappropriate for children.
Do you think judging from the letters that you get from your readers, do you think that straight people and gay people see sex differently in any fundamental way? I don't mean in terms of, like, the mechanics of it, but just...
DAN SAVAGE, SYNDICATED SEX ADVICE COLUMNIST; AUTHOR, "SAVAGE LOVE": I think men and women see sex in different ways.
SAVAGE: I think gay men are men, and lesbians are women, and straight men and straight women are men and women. And when you have two gay men together you get sort of male sexual dynamics cubed, and when you have two women together you get female sexual dynamics cubed.
Camille Paglia did some interesting writing about in "Sexual Personae," and I think she was right on the money. I think there are different hard wired genetic differences -- different attitudes toward sex.
We look at -- when you look at the sexual behavior patterns of every other vertebrate mammal on the planet, practically, and there are repeated sort of dynamics of the male and female of all these different species.
How we can look at all that and say, well, that doesn't apply to us -- is beyond me. I do think it does apply to us, and it plays out in same sex relationships in sort of an almost comically exaggerated manner that, you know, there -- in a lot of opposite sex relationships, female sexuality acts as a check on male sexuality.
And in gay sex relationships -- for gay people, sometimes that female check is absent and it can run riot, and it can be problematic in the lives of gay people.
It's not the business of straight people to worry about it but it can be cause problems for gay men, and I address that honestly in my column. And then you see the same thing on the other side with too much reserve, I think, in some lesbian relationships.
GROSS: You write that the idea some heterosexuals have that sex should be natural, makes for some confusing thoughts. What do you mean there?
SAVAGE: Straight people think that they shouldn't have to talk about sex to have sex. That, since, straight sex is obvious -- you've got slot "A," and you've got slot "B," and you know exactly what to do -- that there shouldn't have to be any conversation about likes and dislikes, and preferences, and anything else.
Gay people don't have that attitude because when you've got a tab or a slot, you have to have a conversation about what's going to happen. A lot of straight communication about sex ends with consent. Both people agree, and then sex happens and there's no discussion because it's natural, and there shouldn't have to be a discussion.
And that negatively impacts, I think, the quality of heterosexual sex a lot. With gay sex you don't -- once you say "yes," that's the beginning. Once there's consent, then you talk about what you like, what he likes or what she likes and she likes, and it's a long drawn out conversation so that you can find a way to sexually gratify each other that isn't, you know, dictated or wasn't taught to you in a high school Sex Ed class.
And that takes -- that takes communication, and straight people can sometimes skip the communication stage -- or skip communication entirely because straight sex is vaginal intercourse, what's there to talk about?
GROSS: What are some of things that you think people confess to you, as a sex advice columnist, that they wouldn't tell other people?
SAVAGE: Anonymity is a powerful drug.
SAVAGE: People don't have to sign their letters to me, and I will answer them, and I will put them in the paper. And there are things that I think that straight people can admit to me because of anonymity, and also because I'm a gay person.
Whether they consciously or subconsciously realize it, I think a lot of straight people own to it that if I have given myself permission to be gay -- in this culture -- if I've been myself permission to come out and then I'm probably well positioned to give them permission to do whatever it is they want to do.
You see a lot more sexual expression in the gay community around fetish and kink, and out there sexual practices, and fun stuff that is not hurting anybody. Because if you've given yourself -- as a boy, if you've given yourself permission to kiss boys; turning around and giving yourself permission to get a spanking isn't so scary.
But for a straight person, you know, who never reached a point of conflict around sexual identity, that spanking is the scariest thing in the world because they never had to climb the mountain of rejecting and impose sexual orientation. I'm -- and I hear from -- a lot of my mail, you know, may I -- I call it my "Mother May I" mail and I put it in my "Mother May I" file.
I want to dress up like the Queen of England and smear peanut butter on my butt and get a spanking, what should I do? And my answer is invariably, dress up like the Queen of England, smear peanut butter on your butt, and get a spanking. Who cares? It doesn't hurt anybody except for you, and you want it. So, it's not really a hurt, is it?
Permission is what half of my mail is, I'm granting absolution and permission; I feel a lot like a priest sometimes.
GROSS: What have found some of the most typical sexual insecurities are?
SAVAGE: Jumping back a little bit, am I normal? Is this normal? And, invariably, it's people with abnormal desire that want to be reassured that it is normal. People have to let go of that, and that's something that gay people let go of early, you know, teenagers -- that's when I let go of being normal.
Straight people sometimes have -- what makes straight people better than gay people is that straight people are normal. So, the straight person who is confronted with desires that are regarded by their friends or family as abnormal sometimes has a little identity crisis on their hands.
And, you know, that's the other half of my mail. Half of it is "Mother May I," and the other half is "Is This is Normal?" They want some reassurance that it's okay.
GROSS: Apparently, judging from your mail, a lot of people have these powerful sexual fantasies that involve some kind of abuse like being spanked or, you know, some kind of sado masochistic imagery that they're not at all comfortable with, they're not sure whether they should give in to the fantasy or fight it.
I'm wondering if you've given a lot of thought to why so many people's sexual fantasies have to do with some kind of risk, or pain, or sense of, you know, degradation?
SAVAGE: Because it's sexy. I don't know, risk is sexy. A large part of often what makes sex erotic is the feeling of risk.
GROSS: Why do think that's true? I mean, you're just saying that as, well, we all know that that's true. Why do you think that that's maybe true?
SAVAGE: God, no one's ever quite asked me the question that way. I don't know why it's true, but I don't think maybe -- I wonder what values there is in questioning it, you know what I mean? These things turn me on, and I want to know why. But once you know why, what difference does it make?
GROSS: I'll answer that. I think it's particularly true for women, you know, at the same time that people are being much more open about their sexual fantasies, you know, you also have the women's movement and women have, you know, really stood up and say that they refuse to be degraded by men or in a sexually degrading relationship.
And at the same time, if they're having a fantasy that...
SAVAGE: But it's not sexually degrading if you're play acting, if you're pretending to be degraded. If it's...
GROSS: But at the very least it can be confusing for somebody.
SAVAGE: It can be confusing from the outside. It's not -- I don't know anyone who engages in SM practices who is confused by it. I know people standing outside of it who may not understand it, and feel at once titillated and repulsed -- can sometimes be confused by it because of what it looks like.
But when you watch little kids play -- you know, I always compare grown up S&M to cops and robbers, and cowboys and Indians. It is play, I mean, I think there's a reason why folks in the leather SM fetish community which is just a horrible thing to say -- it sounds so unsexy to say that -- there's a reason why they call what they do, they call it play.
And play is exciting, and it's fun, and it's these roles. And I don't think you can divorce power from sex, and I think it was one of the mistakes of the -- the sort of the feminist movement in the early '80s, especially the lesbian feminist movement, was trying to strip power dynamics out of sex.
Power makes sex sexy. And power is always there whether, you know, you're just rolling over on top of your partner forcefully, there's like this erotically charged expression of power in that or if you're taking the power roles and exaggerating them with props and costumes, and cages, and masks, and whatever; and then inhabiting them in this, like, ridiculously blown up performance.
Even then it's still -- I think it's the same thing as, you know, a back scratch or, you know, a playful slap and tickle -- it's just blown up. And I don't think you can divorce power from -- and pain from human sex.
Look at the role that power and pain plays in the sexuality of lower animals, and you see it all over the place.
GROSS: You do. I have -- I mean, handcuffs and leather.
SAVAGE: Well, you'll see the boy animals beating up the boy animals for the right to mate with the girl animals. So, it's not just a human thing were you see power and violence in sexuality, it's just present and we can't run away from it. Better we should approach it in a healthy way which is to compartmentalize it.
You know, the problem is when power dynamics are unspoken or -- when they're unspoken they can become abuse or, you know? I would rather have my boyfriend slap me during sex for fun than slap me during an argument. And I think sometimes it's the same impulse that can cause the slap.
GROSS: Do you think that sado masochism has been entering the mainstream, in other words that it's much less underground and practiced by many more people then...
SAVAGE: Yes, I do. I mean, there are these -- in the state that I live in there are these chain of sex shops, like for non-shameful sex shops for grown-ups. And you can buy restraints, and handcuffs, and stuff, and little paddles, and blind folds; and certainly SM imagery has become much more mainstream.
It was on "L.A. Law" like eight years ago; somebody was handcuffed to a bed. I mean, imagine that 20 years on television, you know, the Republic would have collapsed. And I certainly think that people recognize that, you know, that what's important his consent.
Did you see the movie "Thelma and Louise," a few years ago?
SAVAGE: I had a big argument with a friend because, if you remember, the rape of Gina Davis in this one scene where she was put up on the hood of a car and raped, and then Susan Sarandon came and shot the guy. Whoo-hoo, that should happen every time someone is raped.
And then later in the movie, Gina Davis had consensual sex with Brad Pitt -- with Brad Pitt's character, and it was -- and it looked the same. Brad Pitt's character, Gina Davis is up on a dresser, but it was like the same position. It was the same sex, basically.
And my friend thought that that was terrible because it was referencing the earlier rape, it was, you know, it was just like the rape. It wasn't beautiful, it wasn't bunnies, and in a bed, and rose petals, and crap like that.
I thought it was a really powerful statement about what's important, is consent. She wanted to have sex with Brad Pitt, who wouldn't? She didn't want to have sex with that guy on the truck, so didn't matter that it looked the same, what mattered was consent; and her character had consented.
GROSS: My guest is Dan Savage, he writes the nationally syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love." We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Dan Savage, and he has a syndicated sex advice column called "Savage Love." And "Savage Love" is also the name of his new book.
You are from a Catholic background, and went to a Catholic high school. I'm wondering if it was difficult for you to start writing about sex. You know, writing very explicitly about sex in your column. Maybe you were very inhibited and had to get over that.
SAVAGE: I was very inhibited when I was young because of my Catholic upbringing, I think. And then when I came out to my family, I sort of injected a conversation about sex into our family life that has -- in my immediate family -- that has been healthy.
And so, by the time I started writing the column, many years later, I was used to having these sort of blunt conversations about sex with people I was related to. And my family is not from the quiet passive aggressive Catholic tradition. We're from the loud, argumentative, let's have a drink, Catholic tradition.
So, when I came out, it did initiate, like, this ongoing debate about human sexuality. And relatives would come to me and say, so, what do you do in bed? How do you do that? You know?
And I was -- I went from feeling guilty and shameful to being really aggressive about saying, this is how I do it. This is how it's done, and get out of my face about it or I'll give you more gory details.
It was sort of a self defense mechanism to be that graphic, you know? You think you can shame me by implying that I have that kind of sex, well, let me tell you this is how it works, and this is how it feels, and I dig it. Get out of my face.
I would have those conversations with my uncles, you know, who were -- when I first came out were pretty homophobic, you know? And now are totally over it.
I think, you know, my personal experience interacting with my large extended Catholic family around my sexuality is that straight people are fascinated by gay sexuality.
They want to know how we do it, and if we don't tell them they make stuff up about gerbils. So, we should tell them, and we should answer their questions. A lot of gay people react in horror when somebody says, so, what do you do in bed? How do you, you know, isn't that gross? Won't that hurt you? Doesn't it hurt?
And gay people, you know, get all offended and puffed up, and say, I'm not discussing who I have sex with, and I don't want to just be a sex -- but then we don't answer straight people's most, sort of, burning questions about what makes us different.
I was always doing that with my family so that when I started writing the column, I started writing about straight sex, and the way straight people did it. It was sort of a natural extension of this ten year long conversation I'd had with my family.
GROSS: Now, is it true that your family was in archdiocese film about model Catholic life?
SAVAGE: Yes. My family was featured in a special that the Chicago Catholic television network did in the '70s. My dad was a Chicago cop -- a homicide detective who had never met a gay person, before I came out, who wasn't a murderer or a corpse.
And he was a Catholic cop, and he was a Roman Catholic Deacon in the First Class of the Permanent Deacnant (ph) which was sort of a priest shortage stopgap measure the church began engaging in about 20 years ago to get somebody up on the altar.
And my mother was a lay minister, and I was in the seminary, and we were all confirmed, and we were the perfect Catholic family. And, you know, now, a few abortions, a couple of divorces, and a gay son later we're not the perfect Catholic family anymore, you know?
But they haven't contacted us about doing a "Where are They Now?" special, and I doubt that they will.
GROSS: Sex is, it goes without saying, a very sexy subject. I wonder if you ever get tired writing about it?
SAVAGE: I do, actually. And sometimes in the column I will change the subject and write about something else. I've written movie reviews in the column, and sometimes I just write goofy nonsense in the column because...
GROSS: Because you have a headache?
SAVAGE: Because I have a headache, exactly. Sometimes, yeah, you just got to change subject. I do a lot of other writing. I do pieces on "This American Life" on public radio, and I do a lot of writing for my home paper in Seattle, "The Stranger," on politics and just stuff that has nothing to do with sex or gay sex or anything else -- or gay politics.
And that other writing, I think, helps to keep me sane. People say, oh, you're sexually obsessed, you write this column; and I always say, well, it's a sex column so, of course, I would appear to be sexually obsessed if all you ever read is my sex column.
But, you know, I have long conversations into the night with my friends about Kosovo and NAFTA, but no one's there to see them, and I don't write -- I don't write a Balkans advice column, I write a sex advice column.
GROSS: Dan Savage, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
SAVAGE: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Dan Savage writes the nationally syndicated sex advice column, "Savage Love." His columns are collected in his new book, "Savage Love."
I'm Terry Gross.
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Dan Savage
High: Nationally syndicated sex advice columnist Dan Savage has written a collection of his Q & A's in "Savage Love." He is also an associate editor at "The Stranger," a weekly alternative paper in Seattle.
Spec: Media; Lifestyle; Sexuality; Homosexuality; Dan Savage
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Dan Savage
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.