Dan Savage
by James Crotty
September 15, 1998


Seattle, WA

here is a dark streak in this good-natured, yet Scorpio-ruled city: the clean, WHITE, Seattleite's need to be bad .

We interviewed sex advice columnist Dan Savage because he is the brutal mid-wife for the pent-up Seattle darkness lurking beneath the perpetually courteous Seattle smile.

When you talk to Savage you feel as if he has taken on this role reluctantly, almost out of some perverse vision of public service, or, rather, sadism. As he told one young woman seeking job advice, "I didn't pick this career, it picked me." You get the feeling he'd be just as happy at home caretaking the young child his male lover and he just adopted, or fleeing such cutting edge domestic bliss for the life of a European bohemian, which was exactly what Savage was prepared to do when he learned a Madison, Wisconsin friend was heading to Seattle to help start an alternative newsweekly called the Stranger. Dan's words of advice were simple: "make sure your paper has an advice column--everybody claims to hate 'em, but everybody seems to read 'em."

Those weren't idle words, but reflected both our culture's avid interest in the advice column (the popularity of Dear Abby and Ann Landers attest to that) and Savage's own personal love of the genre. Growing up an Italian-American kid in Chicago's Rogers Park, he enjoyed overhearing his mother, the informal neighborhood counselor, give out sagely advice. As a "sensitive" gay boy, ostracized from normal hetero pursuits, he spent hours with his mom, as she explained to him the reasons for her counsel. In addition, Dan spent hours clandestinely poring over the columns of Xaviera Hollander in his brother's "hidden" copies of Penthouse. It was Xaviera that opened up Dan to the possibilities of not only his own gay sexuality, but the panoply of sexual styles and fetishes.

Fortunately for Savage, his Madison friend took Dan's advice to heart. When asked what kind of advice column he had in mind, Dan suggested a raunchy, frank, even rude sex column, written, for a change, by a young man (well, Dear Abby. is often written by a man, but readers aren't supposed to know that). More precisely, a young gay man. Savage had himself a job.

At first, Dan used his Stranger platform as a vehicle to insult, mislead and prank his readers, chastising anyone who took his opinions literally. But as so often happens in Seattle, his words were taken to heart by a largely straight audience desperate not to appear uncool or, God forbid, homophobic. Suddenly, this most improbable of counselors, this caustic entertainer, was foisted into the role of avatar, advising eager readers on a whole range of sexual topics. But what made the column stick out was its bold reclaiming of an old homophobic epithet: Savage asked all readers to begin letters with "Hey Faggot."

Over time what was patently obvious to Savage became very clear to his audience: this gay guy knew more about heterosexuals then heterosexuals knew about themselves. Savage's analysis of this phenomenon today--gay people are defined first and foremost by their sexual orientation and, as a result, are naturally more curious, open and thus knowledgeable about sexuality--sounds a little ex post facto. It is doubtful Dan was this theoretically clear when he began. However, what was clear when Savage began, in 1991--at the height of ACT-UP, Outing and queer chic--was that America's young--raised on Boy George, La Cage Aux Folles and the gender-bending antics of Madonna and more--were ready for an acerbic advice column from a brazen out of the closet fag.

We spoke to Savage just before the release of his first book, Savage Love--a collection of letters and responses culled from his best columns--which is bound to catapult this reticent queer-centric firebrand onto the national stage. Move over Dr. Ruth.

Hey Faggot, let's talk about your entrance into the advice column scene here in Seattle.
Savage: When I got to Seattle in the early 90s I wasn't getting paid to write the column. So it certainly wasn't paying the rent. And for a couple of years I got twelve bucks a column from the Stranger. I did the usual artsy fartsy liberal arts degree white person white collar ghetto jobs, or service industry ghetto jobs.

Monk: When you got to town what was your view of the Seattle sexual climate?

Savage: It was a pretty wild place. In addition to the music, alternative culture scene, grunge thing explosion, at the same time all that was going on, there was this big S & M scene going on in Seattle. There was a sex toy store called Sin that sold S & M sex and fetish clothing to club kids who were then getting dressed up in it and going out in it and doing it at big S & M rave parties. And it was mostly straight, but gays and lesbians were there too. It became a pansexual sadomasochistic party that went on for about two years. And that was really interesting--to get to go into this sexually charged environment to see straight, gays and lesbians all being sexual together without it meaning that straight people had to worry that they were gay. It was permissive in a really empowering way. It gave people permission to be who they were.

Monk: Sometimes group sexual encounters like that can challenge your identity. The worst thing you can do is to talk about it. Especially for men.

Savage: We don't do that to women. We just do that to straight men. We don't say to women, "what do you mean you had a three way with two girls and a guy and you ate her pussy a little bit. You must be a lesbian." But we say to guys, "you mean you [touched a dick]. You must be a fag."

Monk: Why is that?

Savage: Straight male sexuality is all about this paranoia about am I feminine or am I gay. So the man who allows himself to do something perceived as womanly or faggoty is not a man anymore. Straight guys think that if you derive pleasure from having your butt played with that's something that only gay men like and do. I get letters at the advice column from guys who are like, "my girlfriend fingered me, rimmed me, touched my butt, does this mean I'm gay?" And it's like, "no." What do you think about when you jerk off? That tells you exactly who you are sexually. Because at that moment you cannot lie to yourself. You know what tapes are playing in your head. If what you're thinking about is women, then you're straight. But identity is really complicated. I always say, identity is three things... it's behavior, desire and choice. The more accurately your chosen identity reflects your desire and behavior the less conflicted you're going to be. The more accurately your behavior reflects your desire the less conflicted you're going to be. So you want to look at your desire to figure it all out.

Monk: What is the state of sexuality now in Seattle?

Savage: I don't think there's anything necessarily very unique about Seattle except for the things that make it distinct in general--it being a very white place, a very polite place. But [in Seattle], Chicago or New York, you'll find all these straight identified queer people. People who take what would have been a very anti-straight attitude about sex, who are straight. A generation ago straight people grew up, fell in love and got married. The only people out there having a lot of partners and [exploring] their kink were gay people. And now there are straight people too. And I think what really caused it to accelerate and flip over was the AIDS crisis. Straight people watched gay people finesse the AIDS crisis and still have sex.

Monk: So what you're saying is that what happened in the last decade is the triumph of the queer approach to straight sexuality.
Savage: Which is a user-friendly, recreational, functional approach.
Monk: Is there such a thing as bisexuality?
Savage: I think there's such a thing as bisexual practices. I think just the fact that if you pair off, if you go into a couple scenario--and that's what most people do; most people want to settle down with one other person--that just undermines bisexuality as an identity because you either end up with the same sex or an opposite sex partner and then what are you? You're gay or you're straight. Because identity isn't just what's inside and what you feel, it's also behavior. And sexual identity is behavior, desire and choice. There's a whole new different kind of straight guy happening. Not homophobic and not scared of women and not scared of their own buttholes.
Monk: But some would say that men are losing their virility. That they're becoming too feminized.
Savage: But virility is violence.

Monk: Yet in many ways there's been a lot of castrating by women under the guise that all men are violent and all men are pigs.

Savage: But I think it's good that we be able to say men are pigs because I think men ARE pigs. I think men should embrace being pigs. I think it's very empowering for me to say I am a pig.

Monk: What's pig-like about it? Just because you want to make love with somebody makes you a pig?

Savage: It means I am a horny motherfucker and I would fuck four thousand people in two days if I was attracted to all of them and I could.
Monk: But aren't women like that?
Savage: No, women are not like that.
Monk: Even with the sexual revolution.
Savage: Even with the revolution. I believe that biology isn't destiny, but I believe that biology has an impact and if you look at the male in every other species but our own [how can you say] we're not subject to those same impulses.

Monk: Guys just want to spread that seed baby.

Savage: I think that's what's great about being guys. Women are wired almost in the opposite. Women are biologically wired and then socialized to be sexually incompatible with heterosexual men. Monk: Because heterosexual men are not monogamous by nature, is that what you're argument is?
Savage: Yeah. I don't think male mammals are monogamous by nature.
Monk: And so in some ways marriage as we know it is a completely social construct.

Savage: Right, and it can be very frustrating for men. Because men don't understand that their desires are natural. They think there's something wrong with them for wanting to fuck everything that's walking down the street. And then they feel guilty. If you're going to have a monogamous relationship, the woman needs to understand that the man is making a sacrifice in being monogamous.

Monk: So women need to have more tolerance of this side of men.

Savage: Yeah. And women need to be grateful. If a guy is willing to give up this "spread-the-seed-around" for her, that's not a minor thing for a guy to walk away from. And the guy who can do that is rare. But women expect it of all of them. Though there are female non-monogamous sluts out there who feel hardwired to have sex with lots of people, and there are male monogamists. There's always exceptions.

Monk: What are the big no-no's you would tell to straight guys looking to meet women? The big no-no's and the big to-do's.

Savage: The big no-no's are don't be a fucking asshole and don't be a stalker and don't assume because a woman talked to you for two minutes that she owes you anything. The to-do's are really easy. The to-do's are don't be a homophobe, in terms of picking up women. More and more women understand that homophobia is misplaced misogyny. Straight guys who have a problem with gay guys don't like gay guys because they're like women. They get fucked. They suck dick. They're like women. More and more women understand that a guy who's homophobic is also a guy who's misogynistic. The best way to meet women is to have women friends. Women in general want the guys that they date vouched for by other women. Because there's so much violence. Don't be a stalker, don't be a rapist. I say that and it sounds like a joke but I totally mean it. It's a dangerous thing to be a sexually active straight woman because straight men can be so volatile and violent. Consequently a lot of straight women have problems trusting straight men because they probably have been harassed. So it probably makes more women gun shy around straight men because straight men are a source of grief for them. So if you're a guy that is a friend of one of their girlfriends or part of a social scene, that's just the best way to meet people. If you're going out and you want to go out on the town to meet women, go out with women to meet women. Don't go out with ten other guys to meet women. Anybody who's going out to a singles bar, pick-up joint, gay or straight, the loner or the stalker never gets picked up unless its a leather bar. They want to see you interacting in a large group of people because it's sort of like a way of being vouched for. This person has friends. There's consequences. There's some restraint implied on boorish behavior because there's other people around. So if you're going to go out and try to pick up women go out with two or three guy friends and two or three girl friends.

Monk: Don't just go out with four women?

Savage: Don't just go out with four women because they'll think you're a fag. The other women in the bar that you might want to pick up might think you're a fag.

Monk: That's such incredibly good advice.

Savage: Practical.

To reach Dan Savage write to savagelive@aol.com