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What Should We Make of Dan Savage’s Legacy?

Is he the transgressive trailblazer of his early days? The defensive reactionary he seems to be today? Or a mixture of both?

By his own admission, Dan Savage’s career as a sex advice columnist started as a joke. “Twenty-seven years ago I met a straight guy who was going to start a newspaper [Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger], and I told him, ‘Oh, you should have an advice column because everybody reads those,’” Savage explained to an audience at A-Fest Ibiza in 2017. “And this straight guy looked at me, the gay guy, and said, ‘I want you to write the advice column.’” Savage insists he was never angling for the gig — that he was simply a fan of the genre — but when it landed in his lap in 1991, he expected it to last just six months. Almost three decades and more than 3,600 columns later, Savage Love lives on. 

In fact, Savage Love, a column about sex, kink and relationships written by a gay man, was so successful that it’s now syndicated in several dozen newspapers in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. It also spun off into a weekly podcast, the Savage Lovecast, which is frequently one of iTunes’ top 50 podcasts. All the while, Savage has published six books and frequently appears as a pundit on The Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher. He may not quite be a household name, but few are untouched by his influence, as he’s coined terms like “monogamish” and “pegging,” and co-created It Gets Better, an award-winning, highly influential nonprofit project to uplift LGBTQ youth and prevent their suicides, with his husband Terry Miller. 

To understand why Savage thought his column would be a joke despite its astronomical success, you need to consider how different the cultural climate was when it began in 1991. “I was going to treat, in print, straight people and straight sex with the same contempt and revulsion that heterosexual advice columnists had traditionally treated gay people and gay sex with,” Savage explains. “I was going to go, ‘Oooh yuck, straight sex, why would anyone do that? You must have broken your mother’s heart when you told her you were having straight sex — now here’s some advice, go away,’ which is how gay people were treated by the Playboy Advisor, by Ann Landers, by Abigail Van Buren — by all the agony aunts that I read growing up.” 

To Savage’s surprise, though, straight people loved being treated with mock disdain by a gay sex columnist, and flooded his inbox with letters. Part of the appeal may have been the novelty of having a heterosexual dilemma mediated by a gay man, especially at a time when there were far fewer gay public figures. But Savage proved to be more than a novelty. He wrote succinct, punchy, considered advice and quickly became a trusted, almost revered, voice. His style is direct and unsentimental, and he often looks at a problem from two or three angles — “zooming out” and then back in, as he puts it. And despite his professed contempt for straight people, he seemed to be invested in solving the problem before him. 

“His pieces are not bloated for inclusion in some future essay collection,” Lauren Oyler writes in The Outline, “and they don’t attempt the concomitant sweeping claims about ‘what makes us human’ that make other advice columnists unbearable.” Savage can be acid-tongued and no-holds-barred, and his animated, confrontational style is typical of the 2000s, like when he addresses letter writers with cutesy acronyms summarizing their problems, like BALLS and SISTER, or else calls them “morons.” “He still writes like a blogger,” Oyler continues, “offering glib observations and often making jokes at a letter writer’s expense if they are being delusional, or attempting to abdicate personal responsibility for feelings or actions.”

A lot of the advice is very good. “I used to listen to his podcast every week when I was in university, and I’ve read his column occasionally too, for at least a decade,” Kate Sloan, a sex educator and journalist, tells me, saying the ideas of his she most often thinks about or references are: 

  1. Your presence in your parents’ life is the main leverage you have over them as an adult, so you can use it as a bargaining chip if they’re shitty when you come out [as LGBTQ].
  2. You’ll never find “the one,” but you can find a 0.64 and round them up to a 1.
  3. A sex toy is a tool, so an orgasm a partner gives you with a sex toy is given by that partner and not the toy, in the same way as a hammer doesn’t build a house.
  4. Sometimes cheating is the best option to keep a family together (I don’t agree with that one, but I can see why lots of people do).
  5. The concept of “monogamish.”

Regarding the last point, among Savage’s most lasting contributions is his promotion of ethical non-monogamy and his calming of the cultural hysteria about jealousy and infidelity. “Listening to the Savage Lovecast was a huge reason I worked through jealousy and insecurity in my relationship,” Melody Thomas, creator of the sex podcast BANG!, tells me. “It’s embarrassing to mention now, but I used to get so upset when my boyfriend checked out other women.” Thomas credits Savage’s level-headed approach to jealousy and infidelity for the increased communication and reduced jealousy in her relationship (the “boyfriend” she mentions is now her husband) and says he helped inspire her to become a sex podcaster herself. 

Because of the volume of advice Savage dispensed over the years, a whole vocabulary developed, such as the encouragement to be Good, Giving and Game (GGG), to abide by the Campsite Rule and to view human flaws as the Price of Admission. One of the most useful and potentially revolutionary pieces of sex advice Savage routinely gave was that straight people in particular needed to be better about asking the Four Magic Words (“What are you into?”) after they establish that sex is taking place. “These ideas indirectly introduced more kink and sexual adventurousness into the world by encouraging people to be open to trying new things sexually,” Sloan tells me. “I’ve heard it said that if you want to normalize a behavior in society, you have to make that behavior seem cool and sexy, and I think Savage has achieved that.” 

This liberating advice was immediately popular, and Savage came to be seen as a guru. However, because he was a figurehead of the sex-positive movement who sometimes encouraged readers to push their own boundaries, Savage’s advice had the potential to be misused — and was. “At the time, [this advice] seemed sensible, but ultimately his sermonizing about being ‘GGG’ with sex partners just reified the old, shitty, coercive sexual systems in hetero couples or indeed anywhere one partner was capable of using the GGG edict as a cudgel,” remembers Eliza Gauger, an artist in her 30s who grew up in the Seattle area. “My abusive rapist exes absolutely used Savage’s general contributions to the sexual attitudes of the city as pressure.”

Charlotte, a 30-year-old manager from Belgium, tells me she had two older, male partners use Savage’s advice to pressure her into less than egalitarian arrangements in her early 20s. “Both of them had a very different idea of the kind of relationship they wanted, and both of them came back to me after a couple of weeks with ‘proof’ that Dan would approve of their version of relationship,” she says. “Dan was used as an authority in the ‘what will our boundaries be’ debate.” 

She adds that one of her exes used Savage to justify an arrangement in which they could both sleep with other women but not other men, even though they were both straight. “He was seven years older than me, loads more wealthy and he used the campsite rule as an argument that he’d leave me in a better state.” He didn’t: “He was very good at using the language and tools that Dan Savage developed, but didn’t follow through.” 

Savage isn’t responsible for coercive men using his advice as a cudgel, but it’s perhaps unsurprising that he became a cult figure for insensitive men. Savage is often blunt and sometimes reductive. He’s occasionally in thrall to evolutionary psychology and the gender essentialism that results (“Why are women so loud during sex?”); he calls non-urban parts of the country “knuckle-drag America”; and he often treats the idea of the liberal urban environment as a panacea for bullied gay teens, simplistically encouraging them to “just move.” Savage has been declared a problematic fave and accused of misogyny, racism, transphobia, biphobia and relentless bullying of fat people, among other things, which has resulted in several of his public appearances being protested and glitter bombed

Shiv, a 26-year-old kindergarten teacher now based in Tokyo, tells me they protested Savage’s appearance at Haverford College in late 2013. “We were protesting his legacy of racism, transphobia and generally distasteful comments,” Shiv says. “We experienced a lot of taunts from him, and he name-dropped us on some podcast afterward,” apparently claiming the protesters called him an “asshole.” “None of us spoke,” Shiv continues. “We silently stood in the back of the auditorium with our signs. During the Q&A he was answering a question and then said something taunting toward us in the back. I can’t remember what he said, but it was enough to make my friend Rhett, one of the organizers, sigh and leave the auditorium out of frustration.”

Lorena, a 32-year-old writer based in Chicago who read Savage Love religiously as a teen, thinks Savage’s comments about trans people and bisexuality in the past were particularly damaging. “He messed me up so bad,” Lorena, who is bisexual and non-binary, tells me. “He introduced me to the concept of ‘rounding up’ or ‘rounding down’ bisexuality. He frequently pushed his belief that anyone who is bisexual, but who doesn’t date and have sex with women half the time and men the other half of the time, should just pick gay or straight and not ‘confuse’ people with their fluid attractions. I’ll also never forget the one about the [transgender] parent he urged to stay in the closet and keep living as a man until her child turned 18.” 

Savage has vigorously denied accusations that he is transphobic. (He didn’t return a request for comment for this article.) He describes himself as “rabidly pro-trans,” trots out his trans friends — “Buck Angel and Kate Bornstein have been guest sexperts” — and points to multiple fundraisers he spearheaded for trans individuals as evidence. “If I’m the enemy of trans people everywhere,” he writes, “trans people everywhere could use more enemies like me.” (It’s a refrain he repeats.) 

He often responds to his critics to deny that he harbors any bigotry or malice toward any group, usually with a large dose of defensiveness. He’s doubled-down on some of his controversial views on bisexuality and responded to accusations that he fat-shames by saying he’s being “fathateshamed” by his critics. He writes that “false accusations of engaging in hate speech are themselves a form of hate speech” and that “people who claim that they’ve been bullied by me or my column are full of shit.” 

In this way, Savage increasingly postures like one of the formerly beloved and allegedly “cancelled” public figures on the “You can’t say anything these days!” money-making circuit. He’s not as shameless as Louis C.K. and Ricky Gervais, but he cites Jonathan Chait on PC culture approvingly, says you “can’t have a sense of humor about anything” now and casts his critics as “crazy” lefty queers. He admits, albeit in a slightly different context, that he’s “kind of conservative” these days.

Still, his influence is undeniable. “The best thing about Savage’s career is the way that he brought taboo topics like non-monogamous relationship structures, gay rights, pornography and sex work politics to the fore, pushing people to discuss them with their friends, thus ultimately moving the needle in terms of socially acceptable public discourse,” says Jessie Sage, a sex columnist at the Pittsburgh City Paper who was hired to write her column in Savage’s place when he moved his to another local alt weekly. “I feel like Dan Savage has been so influential in terms of the way that we think about sex and relationships that it would be hard to imagine what public discourse would look like without his influence.”

It’s a good sign for social progress that a public figure like Savage can be seen as transgressive at the start his career and unremarkable, or even reactionary, as he nears the end of it. One generation shifts the Overton window and then ideally takes a seat — or at least takes notes — as others with more useful perspectives shift it further. “Not to sound catty, but I’m not sure Dan Savage’s experience is really relevant anymore,” Shiv tells me. “I think young people can find more valuable advice from strangers or even their own peers on Twitter.”

Still, Shiv, who is a lesbian, is grateful for aspects of Savage’s legacy. “I will say that when I came out in 2010, during the peak of the It Gets Better thing, it did feel kind of nice,” they say. “It was a good beginning for me.”