The Pro Boner: Pros will introduce you to fascinating individuals and organisations working in the field of human sexuality. To kick off this new segment we’re going to start with Dan Savage, my #1 favourite advice giver.
Dan Savage is a writer, podcaster, advice columnist, LGBT and straight rights activist, public speaker, and just an all round impressive babe. Most pertinent to the Pro Boner agenda, Dan is an expert on sex and relationships, as demonstrated by his nationally syndicated advice column Savage Love and podcast the Savage Lovecast.
In addition to his writing and broadcasting commitments, Dan has found time to set up some pretty cool projects. The Hump! Tour is an amateur porn festival that he curates, where anyone can submit a short porn film to be admitted for showing at the touring festival where they are entered to win cash prizes. No cameras or recording devices are allowed at the festival to protect the anonymity of the participants, and the copies of the movies are destroyed after they are shown, so allowing participants to be ‘porn stars for the weekend’, without ruining their lives.
In 2010 Dan also founded the It Gets Better Project with his husband, in response to the heart breaking events of young people taking their own lives after being bullied for their sexual orientation. The project, which is now a worldwide movement, provides hopeful communication to LGBT youth. To let them know that wherever they are and whatever they have to deal with right now, there is a positive future obtainable for them. Even President Obama has got involved with the project, submitting his own "It Gets Better" video, where he shared his message of support and hope for LGBT youth.
The good shit doesn’t stop there though. Dan is also rather politically involved, often at the risk of extreme negative backlash due to some of his more ‘controversial’ ideas. I say controversial in quotation marks as I don’t believe that things like advocating for access to contraception are all that controversial actually. For example you might’ve heard of the incident at a conference in 2012 where Dan got in a lot of shit for his anti-bullying speech. You would think that anti-bullying is a controversy free subject area, but when Dan suggested that people ‘ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people’ many students attending the speech walked out which he described as ‘a pansy-assed move’. Apparently some Christians really hate being called pansies because he had to make an apology.
More recently Dan hit the headlines again after suggesting that retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson suck his dick to prove that being gay was a choice. The “choice argument” is already completely redundant, and I can’t imagine a better response to it than the one Dan dished out. However not everyone was as impressed as myself, in fact, some people were really offended and called him a bully (amongst other insults). Ironically, despite his anti-bullying efforts, including the award winning It Gets Better Project, Dan is called a bully pretty regularly… more specifically a pro-gay anti-Christian bully.
A main source of Dan’s haters lies in his inclination to be a little vulgar at times. But that is also part of the draw for his fans. He’s honest, crude, and funny. And telling someone to suck his dick as a joke, as a means to make an important point, isn’t bullying by any measure.
His advice column Savage Love has been running since ’91, and his voice has maintained its unique mix of pragmatism and sassiness throughout. I’m not sure he will appreciate being called sassy, but it’s my favourite compliment. Anyway thank fuck the hate and backlash doesn’t stop him from doing his thing.
The Savage Lovecast is the number one sex advice resource that I recommend to anybody and everybody...even my mum is a fan. I discovered the call-in advice podcast about six years ago and devoured the first 150 episodes in a just a couple of weeks. Now I’m at the point where I can almost predict his advice each time before he gives it (although there’s still the odd surprising response). The Lovecast allows you an insight into hundreds of strangers' sex lives and romantic relationships, which alone is an invaluable opportunity. Hearing other peoples' struggles is always eye opening, often humbling and sometimes relieving.
The Savage Love column running for 20+ years so far, and the Savage Lovecast receiving so many calls he can only respond to a portion of them, are both real evidence of the lack of honest and reliable sex information, and just conversation about sex out there. But Dan's advice is always on point for those who feel they need to reach out to a stranger for help, and I hope that I can do the same in my work.
I had the opportunity to have a chat with Dan about infidelity, monogamy, what gay people can teach straight people about sex and relationships and two of his key pieces of advice. I was nervous as fuck because he's a legitimate role model of mine, but I just about held it together and here's the proof:
A Chat with Dan Savage
Is giving advice something you’ve always done?
It’s weird, as soon as I came out of the closet straight people would come to me (not just me, to their gay friends) for sex advice. And I think it’s because a lot of straight people intuit that gay people know more about sex and are better at it than they are. And… it’s true, we do know more.
Sex is what makes us not straight; it’s what makes us different, so we think about it and we have to reach a kind of détente with sex and how it has impacted our lives. We’re better at it because we’re forced to communicate. Just saying you’re gay is a kind of communication, but then with every sexual interaction you can’t default to the assumption of penis in vagina intercourse. Sex is what you make it, it’s something that you negotiate and talk about and figure out together.
And all that communicating, which is forced on us (that straight people can engage in, but also can avoid) makes us better at sex.
From young adulthood my straight friends were always coming to me for advice about how to approach somebody, how to tell the truth to a partner about whatever. Because you told the truth to your parents about being a cocksucker, what couldn’t you tell a partner?
Do you think gay people are better than straight people at relationships as well as sex?
Well there are studies that show higher levels of satisfaction in same sex relationships, and that same sex relationships are often more egalitarian. I think because we can’t default to gendered norms or expectations in our relationships, things are more of a choice. Almost everything is opt in, as opposed to being forced on you. In most gay relationships you have this conversation about monogamy and monogamy is something that you choose. It’s not something that is the default setting.
While monogamy is the default for straight relationships, it’s kind of acknowledged that dudes would maybe prefer to not be monogamous, but monogamy is popularly considered the ideal relationship model for women. Why would we evolve in a way that one gender wants one relationship model and the other gender wants the opposite?
There’s tons of research that shows that monogamy doesn’t work for all women either. There’s a lot of evidence from relationships and the plague of sexless marriages. If non-monogamy doesn’t work for most women, it would appear that monogamy also doesn’t work for most women.
I’m not a new evangelist for non-monogamy. I think that we should talk about non-monogamy as a relationship model. It should be acknowledged that there are people out there who are in non-monogamous relationships that are committed and loving and happy.
And that there are people out there who are incapable of being monogamous, but they feel like they are bad people unless they strive to be monogamous. I want to get the incapable of being monogamous people out of the monogamous pool, because they fail at it and make everyone miserable in the process, including themselves. There would be more successful monogamous relationships if those of us who are incapable didn’t enter in to making monogamous commitments.
That said, we need to stop selling people this lie. Stop convincing people that being in love means not wanting to sleep with other people. If love meant you had no desire for sex with others you wouldn’t have to make a monogamous commitment, you wouldn’t even need to talk about it.
It’s damaging to tell people that to be in love means you wont want to sleep with other people. To be in love and make a monogamous commitment means you will refrain from sleeping with other people. You will still want to sleep with other people. This lie hurts people in monogamous relationships, particularly those who believe it, because they will develop feelings for someone else, an attraction to someone else, want to fuck someone else. And even if they don’t act on it they will look at that feeling and identify it as evidence that they are no longer in love.
The number of people making these monogamous commitments, and the number of people cheating are so…
…identical? (Laughs) It’s not identical, but it is huge. Life is long, expectations change and what you value changes over time.
We have these conversations about non-monogamy and cheating and we always go with the assumption that the cheating is this colossal betrayal, and this thing that is pulling this person away from their relationship. We never talk about it in the circumstance where cheating is what’s making it possible for that person to stay in the relationship.
There are people who after 25-30 years of marriage, one partner is ill, bedridden, or suffers a chronic condition that makes it impossible to be intimate, or they’ve just lost all interest, they’re done with sex. And in those cases, the partner who is not done with sex will sometimes discretely go off, get their needs met, and then come home to their partner who they do not want to abandon. It’s perverse that we tell people in these situations that the right thing to do is to get a divorce, and walk away from that relationship. And only then are you allowed to have sex. That to me seems batshit. It seems just cruel and insane and unrealistic.
Why do you think that cheating is considered the ultimate betrayal, when there are so many things that are way worse?
There are things that are way worse. Abandonment I think is way worse.
It’s because that’s what people are told. People are told that infidelity is the worst and most cutting and horrifying betrayal that you can experience. We’re told that it’s a relationship extinction level event and then we react to it as if it were. And that is… I’m just gonna go back to batshit. It’s batshit. It’s just crazy.
Knowing what we know about the statistics around infidelity, (which are hard to get a hard and fast one on because people lie) you get everything from 30% to 70% of people in long-term committed relationships has cheated. We know that it is insanely prevalent. We know that it’s likelier than not to touch every single marriage, every single committed relationship. And then to also tell people that this is an unforgivable betrayal is to sign to the death warrant for a marriage before it’s even consummated.
We should tell people that adultery and infidelity, if you’ve made a monogamous commitment, IS a betrayal. It requires forgiveness and unpacking, but it’s something that a marriage can survive. And we should expect our marriages to survive it because it’s something that is likely to happen.
I think it’s safe to say that infidelity is an inevitability in almost every single marriage. So why do we tell people that this is something that a marriage can’t survive?
I’m sometimes told that I place too much emphasis on sex, and yet I’m not the one running around saying that sex is so hugely important that if your partner ever touches anyone else ever again with their genitals that that has to be given more weight than your marriage and it’s history. But that is the most important thing, your partner never touching someone else ever again with their genitals. It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been together, how much you like each other, how well knit together your extended families are, what properties you own together, that you co-parent together. All of that history, all of that value, intangible and tangible, that marriage can create, is meaningless and must be discarded in the face of “you got a blowjob… from someone who wasn’t me”. THAT places too much importance on sex.
I can’t remember the name of the researcher (I cite it in my book) but she said “every monogamous marriage is a disaster waiting to happen”.
You don’t have to be scared. You’re scared because you define infidelity as an asteroid flying in to the planet and extinguishing all life. If that’s how you define it, if that’s how you understand it, then that’s how you’ll react to it.
If you define it as something that the relationship can survive, then you’re relationship is likelier to survive.
When we talk about monogamy you get these black and white arguments, and it’s often very very grey. I’m not saying that somebody who six months after their marriage has slept with everyone in the bridal party, the brides sister, the brides mother, and the next door neighbour, that that has to be “oh well you should be able to laugh that off”. That kind of compulsive or serial infidelity combined with that kind of humiliation. Then you should divorce that motherfucker.
But if you’re with somebody for 15 years and there was a sallow period in that relationship, where neither of you were very interested in each other sexually, and it was high stress, and there’s so much going on and so much to do, and one or the other or both of you impulsively to feel alive, to feel sexual again, acted out in someway. Maybe you slept with your personal trainer, or maybe he on a business trip got a hand job at a massage parlour. Can’t we look at those incidents and understand them in context and forgive?
Did you always think this way about relationships and monogamy, or did you kind of learn?
I think I had to learn. One of the ways I learnt was that I made monogamous commitments that I couldn’t keep. Or I didn’t keep.
Most people don’t learn from that.
No they don’t. I did Anna Sales’ radio show Death, Sex & Money, she had me on to talk about infidelity. Her callers started calling in and leaving comments about adultery and infidelity. And one of the callers was this woman who had been married and divorced three times. In each marriage she cheated and that led to the divorce. But she now understood that monogamy was so important, and she was dating again and really she was going to do it this time. And Anna Sales (the host of the show) said “Isn’t this wonderful?” and I was like NO this is terrible.
This woman is going to do that again and you’re cheerleading for it. She thinks to be a good person you have to be monogamous and that’s why she’s going to go out and do what she should know by now she cannot. She’s only going to give it another try because she’s getting this praise from you and from the culture, and she believes that she’s not a good person until she makes monogamy work. Instead of believing ‘I’m a good person if I’m honest’, ‘I’m a good person if I don’t lie to people’, ‘I’m a good person if I don’t make commitments I can not keep’. What she should understand from her three marriages is that she cannot keep a monogamous commitment. Not if she just gives it just one more go.
The culture says monogamy is so important and that good people are monogamous people. And people want to be good people. And the culture doesn’t say that there are non-monogamous good people, or that you can have a loving and committed non-monogamous relationship.
I think the problem for a lot of people is that they don’t really know what other options there are for them.
And another part of the problem is people don’t know people who are in successful non-monogamous relationships. In my column when I tell people to have the three-way or have the affair, what I always get back is – “all non-monogamous relationships fail”. People have this skewed impression because their samples are distorted. When somebody cheats or has a three-way and it leads to a divorce we all find out about the cheating or the three-way. But when a couple, particularly a straight couple, is non-monogamous, and it doesn’t end the relationship, or even perhaps makes the relationship stronger, we never hear about it.
Most people in non-monogamous relationships are not out about it to their friends and family. So you know people in successful non-monogamous relationships, you just don’t know you know them. It’s sort of where gay people were 50 years ago. Everyone knew gay people, they just didn’t know they knew them because people weren’t out.
One of my favourite jokes to make is that when you look at the stats, almost all swingers are parents. But nobody’s parents are swingers.
Maybe we need a nice new family sitcom where the parents are swingers.
It’s really hard to. I’ve been involved with a couple of people trying to draft scripts for TV shows about non-monogamous couples. It’s really hard to portray it in a way that doesn’t squick out even me, and I’m in a non-monogamous relationship. I read these treatments or scripts and I’m just like ‘ewwww’.
Do you have a general piece of advice? What do you think is the main thing that people should know when it comes to sex and relationships?
Well, I guess really two things to make relationships work that I always go to for sex is GGG, or Good Giving and Game. Good in bed: you have got to acquire some skills and take some thought and effort. Giving; sometimes pleasure without the expectation of immediate return on it. And Game; for anything, within reason.
Sometimes when people talk about that they leave the ‘within reason’ off. No, you’re allowed to have limits, to have boundaries. You shouldn’t do anything that traumatises you, but you shouldn’t not do something just because it isn’t a kink of your own.
When you make a commitment to someone I think you’re committing to meet their reasonable sexual needs. There’s a now a body of research on this. Amy Mews (the researcher) calls it Sexual Communal Strength. It shows that people who do that, people who meet their partners needs tend to report higher relationship satisfaction. Both partners do, but the person is indulging that kink, even though it’s not theirs, is benefitting.
It’s terrible sex advice to tell people that you should never do anything in bed that you don’t want to do, that doesn’t turn you on. You shouldn’t do something in bed that traumatises you, you shouldn’t do something that turns you off. BUT, something that you’re neutral to? Or that you can kind of get in to because they’re getting such pleasure from it? You should do those things, to make your relationship happier and stronger, and you should expect those things to be done for you. GGG is a 2 way street.
The other general piece of advice that I give people is; you’ve got to pay the price of admission. In a relationship there are going to be things that you don’t like about your partner and that annoy you. At a certain point you have to look at those things and say “well, here is all the good that this person brings to the table and here is the bad, and I am going to put up with the bad”.
And to put up with it doesn’t mean to endlessly bitch about it. It means accept it and shut your mouth about it.
People have a hard time with it, people are always trying to fix their partner, with things that can’t be fixed. You just have to say “well okay am I willing to accept this thing for everything else? Am I willing to pay the price to ride this ride?” And if you are willing to pay the price, shut up. Don’t pay the price and then play the martyr and say “ohhhh look what I put up with, look what I put up with!” No. You shut up. And the angst and conflict that trying to fix it creates in relationships evaporates. I think if you want to de-escalate and have a low conflict relationship then that’s the way to go.
Do you think that we’re moving towards people having a better understanding of themselves and their sexuality?
I do think we are. I think there’s more info out there about sexuality and gender, and relationships and relationship models. There’s more conversation and discussion about it.
I do think that the gay rights movement has the lesson. There’s a lot of straight people out there who are taking cues from gay people. You go to a gay pride parade and what you see is, there’s the drag queens and the leather people, and the Christian groups, the professional organisations, burlesque dancers, the old lesbians, the bears. And the impression that you walk away with is “wow, there’s a million different ways to be queer”.
There’s not just one way to be gay. And I think we’re seeing now after 40 years of straight people having to deal with us and look at us, is that a lot of people are realising that there really ought to be more ways to be straight too.