Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage has teamed up with illustrator Joe Newton to create a new book, Savage Love from A to Z: Advice on Sex and Relationships, Dating and Mating, Exes and Extras. The book is filled with essays covering all the letters of the alphabet, from A (anal sex, of course) to Z (Zilch, which is what you’re entitled to in bed from other people). The breezy and humorous book went on sale this week. In the course of writing his column, Savage has launched the It Gets Better campaign to prevent suicide among gay youth and may have prevented Rick Santorum from becoming president of the United States. The Weekly caught up with Savage, whose column has run in the Weekly for decades, to discuss the book and the changes he’s seen in the sexual landscape over the three decades he’s penned the column.
How did you get started as a sex advice columnist?
I met Tim Keck, who was creating The Stranger in 1990, in Madison, Wisconsin. He was telling me about the paper and I said, “You should have an advice column in the paper you’re going to start, because everybody reads those. You see the Q&A format, you can’t not read it.” And he basically said, “Excellent advice. Why don’t you write the advice column?” And while from the perspective of 2021, it seems almost a given that a gay man would write a sex advice column primarily for straight people, that wasn’t the case 30 years ago. So you know, this idea that we were toying with me giving sex advice to straight people was kind of a stunt then, and not something I thought I’d end up doing for the rest of my life. And the column started as a kind of a joke: I was going to treat straight people with the same contempt that straight advice columnist had always treated gay people with. And for straight people, this was a new and novel experience being treated this way. And they kind of liked it. And the column I thought I would write for six months, or maybe a year, as a joke became a real advice column. And by accident.
The straight folks enjoyed the humiliation, perhaps?
Yeah, turns out, but also the columns stumbled into something that’s sort of true about the way straight people feel about their gay friends: Straight people intuit, I think correctly, that their gay friends know more about sex and are better at sex than they are. And that’s true. You know, when sex is the primary conflict in your life, the thing that makes your life difficult or hard, you’re going to think a lot about it. As a gay person, you think a lot about sex, and you tend to know more about sex, because you’re trying to figure out who you are and how you got to be different in this way sexually. And gay people are better at sex, because we have to communicate with each other and straight people don’t have to, and so often don’t. Gay people really must communicate every single time and we get very good at communicating about it, which makes us better at sex. That’s what I tell straight people all the time. If you’re going to communicate and get better communication, you’ll get better at sex, as straight people or as gay people. We can’t have sex until we’re good at communication. Because you have to tell someone you’re gay, you have to ask for what you want. When two men go to bed together for the first time, what’s going to happen next can’t be assumed there are no gender roles to default to. No PIV to default to. You’re going to have to keep talking. And as I write in the book, that’s the big difference between gay people and straight people and where we function. Straight people get to consent, and they stop talking. And gay people get to consent and it’s the start of the conversation.
How have the letters you’ve gotten over the last 30 years changed?
I used to get a lot more how-to questions. I used to spend more time explaining how to fist someone, how to have anal sex, even just regular old anal sex. How to give blowjobs. I remember a column many years ago, where a guy who is a bondage expert—and this was before bondage experts all had blogs and Tic Tocs and YouTube and Instagram and Twitter accounts—explained how to do a little simple bondage if that was something you wanted to experiment with for the first time. All of that is online, though. You don’t need me to do a how-to column on tying a knot around someone’s wrist for the first time in your life, you can find instructional videos on the internet very easily. You know, how to give really good head, there are great instructional videos. So all my questions now are really situational ethics and not sort of nuts-and-bolts sex advice.
Your new book Savage Love: From A to Z really seems to distill down a lot of the advice you’ve given over the last few years. What was the inspiration to put it all together like that?
It was really Joe Newton’s idea. Joe Newton was the art director of The Stranger for many years and has been doing the illustrations for my column for 20 years. And his illustrations are always so funny and witty and charming. And kind of in contrast to a lot of what we talked about in the column, because illustrations look like children’s book illustrations. And so there’s some tension and humor there. And he came to me a couple of years ago and said, “Why don’t we do a collection of short essays to go with some illustrations and do a book?” And I looked at the calendar and thought, well, the 30th anniversary is coming up, maybe I could do a little bit of summing up on some of the major themes that we’ve touched on over the three decades I’ve been writing this column and distill it down into something fun and simple that people can reference.
The COVID pandemic just keeps rolling along. Is it OK yet to have one-night stands and hookups?
Well, if you’re vaccinated, yeah. If you’re unvaccinated? No, but what’s stopping unvaccinated people from showing us their asses in every other way. I think that’s yet another incentive to get vaccinated.
Do you think that Savage Love can take credit for the increased mainstream acceptance of the LGBT community since you started to write the column?
No. I like to think that I can look at the column and say it contributed. I don’t think I can claim credit for it. But certainly, when I started writing the column, there were a lot of young people who were reading the column who didn’t know a gay person. There weren’t as many out gay people 30 years ago as there are now and nothing undoes someone’s homophobia like knowing a gay person. And for folks who had no one in their social circle, or their high school, or even their college even was out, I was the gay person they knew and they kind of liked me. And I do think reading me opened some people’s minds up. I was an activist in college for gay rights and Savage Love was an extension of my activism, very much. First, because I wrote about straight people 85% to 90% of the time, the 10% of the time when I wrote about gay marriage or gay people adopting children or the HIV AIDS crisis, straight people who normally wouldn’t read writing on those subjects would read my column out a force of habit. And I like to think that that made a difference for some people, brought them around on our issues. You know, the kind of writing I was doing about gay marriage or HIV was the kind of writing you might find in a gay magazine or occasionally—rarely, especially then—an op-ed in a mainstream paper by a gay person or a gay rights organization. But because I was funny, and because the column was almost always about straight people having sex, straight people would read my columns about gay marriage or HIV and be educated—columns that were similar to opinion pieces they might find in The New York Times, but they weren’t going to read it.
What do you think led to the greater acceptance of LGBT people by straight people over the last three decades?
The secret weapon of LGBT people is that we’re randomly distributed throughout the population. We’re born into all families, mostly, almost invariably, into straight families. And the movement to encourage gay people to come out, you know, the ’87 March in Washington theme was “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are.” Harvey Milk’s message was that if he was taken down by an assassin’s bullet, he hoped he would shatter every closet door. Because if you knew us, you were less likely to lie about us. And what really changed everything was gay, lesbian, bi, trans people, average ordinary, everyday gays and lesbians and bi and trans people that no one’s heard of. People who weren’t on TV, those people coming out changed everything.
What do you make of the #metoo movement in terms of workplace harassment, even in places like Hollywood, which has always been famous for having a casting couch?
People would joke about the casting couch bitterly. A lot of the humor about casting couches was sour, ultimately, because it just felt like something that no one could ever change. But it wasn’t a good thing. I’m a fan of the #metoo movement. I think it was necessary and has done a lot of good. That said, people do meet at work. Whenever we think there might be a power imbalance in a relationship where one person can end up being exploited or manipulated because of that power imbalance, we need to be very conscious of it and attempt to address it and defuse it if possible. But we can’t have a blanket policy that no one can date at work. Forbidden love is enticing. Gays and lesbians were told we couldn’t love the people we loved and how did that work out? Your power like someone that Telling people that something they want is wrong and they can’t have it doesn’t make them want it less. And there’s a difference between two people dating at work and one person sexually harassing someone else at work. And we have to be able to make that distinction.
You’ve expressed outrage about this new Texas law that essentially bans abortion after six weeks and establishes vigilante bounties on anyone who has had an abortion or performs an abortion or assists in any way on an abortion. Were you surprised Texas lawmakers would go so far as to pass a law like this?
No, there’s no bottom for Texas lawmakers.
We’re seeing so much more acceptance of sexuality out there, yet the anti-abortion movement keeps advancing.
Canada got the French and Australia got the convicts and we got the Puritans. We will eternally be struggling with puritanical, sex-phobic, controlling, judgmental and those who want to control women’s bodies and punish people for having consensual sex outside of the very narrow window permissibility of their opinion. And we will have to fight them. Always and we may never deceive.
You also curate an amateur porn festival, Hump!. How has COVID affected submissions for the festival?
We had a festival in 2019 that was supposed to tour in 2020. We took Hump! online and began streaming it. But which we’ve never done before. Hump! was never online, it was only in theaters. And filmmakers were excited about doing that, willing to do that it, and it allowed us to bring Hump! to audiences all over the world. So we’re probably gonna keep the streaming online component. Also, bring it to theaters, but still be able to bring Hump! to people in Europe and Australia and Asia and places where people have never been able to see Hump! in the past. But we got just as many submissions and a lot of people had a lot of time on their hands and had phones in their hands and were home with their lovers and made films for Hump! during quarantine, during the shutdowns, and we hope people will continue making films for him.
I hear doctors are always being asked at parties about various ailments by the people they meet. Does that happen with you? When people meet you do they bust out with questions about problems in the bedroom?
They do often. Yes. It can be awkward, like when it happens in public, when it happens in bathrooms and airports. But I don’t mind. Sometimes I can’t help anybody, because you know, I’m busy. I’m going to catch a plane, I’ve got a flight to be on. But often I’m totally willing to help with impromptu advice. I actually enjoy my job. I enjoy what I do. And so, you know, when somebody collars me in a bar or a restaurant or at the airport and asks me to quickly discuss their problem with them, I’m always happy to.