Interview: Dan Savage
The author of new book American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics talks to us about the clitoris and snowboarding.
Tue May 21 2013
Illustration: Elliot Thoburn
Author and activist Dan Savage is best known for spearheading the Emmy Award–winning, anti-bullying campaign the It Gets Better Project (itgetsbetter.org) and his two-decade-old sex-advice column, “Savage Love” (thestranger.com/savage)—as well as redefining Rick Santorum’s last name. The Seattle-based scribe is in town for two appearances this week, including a sold-out conversation with political blogger Andrew Sullivan at the New York Public Library. We asked America’s most famous gay sex writer about his long-running column and family life.
You’ve been doing the sex-advice column for 20 years and the Savage Love podcast for five. How have the questions changed?
When you wrote an advice column 20 years ago, before the Internet, you got a lot of reference questions, like [where to find] a BDSM club in Atlanta. Most of the questions now are situational ethics. I’m parsing what the right and wrong thing to do is in a given situation and who the asshole is. It’s a lot more complicated than just explaining to somebody how to give a good blow job.
How do you choose which calls to feature on the podcast?
Nancy Hartunian, who is the producer, whittles them down to a manageable pile and then I just pick through them and answer the ones I have something to say about. It’s one of the dirty little secrets of the advice business: You appear to have all the answers because you only select questions you have the answers to.
Do people come up to you in inappropriate places and ask for advice?
When you write about sex, people feel they have the license to talk to you about anything, anywhere. My husband, Terry, and I were in L.A. a few weeks ago hiking in Runyon Park and this car did a U-turn and screeched to a halt in front of us. A woman jumped out and said, “I’ve been listening to your podcast forever. I have a sex problem, I need your help!” I ended up talking to her for half an hour.
Why do you think you get so many calls from straight guys asking about sex with women?
Straight boys feel like, as a gay man, you have this secret inside scope on what girls are doing and thinking. I’m like someone who’s never been to London but could draw you a map of the Tube. I’ve never seen a clitoris up close, but I can tell you exactly where to find it.
People usually think of you in terms of sex and politics. What are some of your other passions?
I think one of the reasons the column has lasted as long as it has is that it comes across as written by someone who doesn’t only think about sex. I’m a history junkie and a theater junkie. When my kid was six years old and began snowboarding, Terry and I took it up also. It isn’t something people would necessarily associate a musical-theater–obsessed homosexual with, but we are snowboarding musical-theater fags.
You have a degree in musical theater. Did you ever consider moving to New York?
When I was a kid, New York was where I wanted to live and where I thought I would end up. I grew up in Chicago, so anywhere that wasn’t Chicago or New York felt like some dinky backwater. In 1991, I met a few people who were moving to Seattle to start a paper and I had nothing better to do for a year. It turned into a real job, the column took off and a couple years later I met my husband. A couple years after that we had a baby, and then all of a sudden I was trapped in this fucking shithole for the rest of my life. Terry is from Washington and never wants to live anywhere else, so as long as I’m stuck to his ass I’m stuck here, and it looks like I’m going to be stuck to his ass for the rest of my life.
Terry often posts revealing photos of himself on Instagram. How does your 15-year-old son feel about that, and about your being a sex columnist?
Of course he’s embarrassed, but everyone is embarrassed by their parents. D.J.’s biggest complaint is not that Terry suddenly became an exhibitionist at 40, but that when he has his friends over, his house looks like three little old ladies live here. Our house is very Ozzie and Harriet with all of my grandparents’ furniture.
Dan Savage appears at the New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Fifth Ave at 42nd St (212-930-0855, nypl.org). Tue 28 at 7pm; sold out • Bryant Park Reading Room, W 42nd St between Fifth and Sixth Aves (212-768-4242, bryantpark.org). May 30 12:30pm; free.