Dan Savage | Interview

If you spot Dan Savage at O'Hare, careful what you ask him.
Photograph: Curt Doughty; Illustration: Jamie Divecchio Ramsay
By Novid Parsi |

“I don’t know where the fuck I am right now.” On a recent afternoon, we called a groggy-sounding Dan Savage after he’d just landed in “Greenburg or something, North or South Carolina” for a college speaking engagement. In the past year, fans of the shot-from-the-hip sex-advice column Savage Love have come to know the face behind the byline, as the Chicago native and editor of Seattle alt weekly The Stranger has turned pundit for Bill Maher and CNN. Savage has also authored The Kid, relaying how he and his partner, Terry, adopted their son, D.J., and The Commitment, about Savage and Terry’s marriage. He guests at a live taping of This American Life later this month.

Time Out Chicago: Now that your punditry has put your face out there, do strangers approach you more?
Dan Savage: Yeah, people see you and go, Oh, he’s with his family; I’m gonna ask him a question about anal sex in a loud voice in front of his ten-year-old.

TOC: Had quite a few of those?
Dan Savage: Yeah, they tend to be my fans. [Laughs] One of my deepest dark secrets is I’m pretty sexually repressed. I’m much more freewheeling when I’m alone with my computer. I don’t talk to my friends about rimming, and I certainly don’t speak of rimming in front of my child, and I don’t want to discuss rimming with strangers at O’Hare in loud voices when there’s other people with their children nearby. [Laughs]

TOC: Has being a sex columnist figured in your sex life? I wonder if it’s ever like a doctor diagnosing his own family.
Dan Savage: My boyfriend has waved my column in front of my face saying, “Yeah, you should do this. You should not be a douche bag, either.” He doesn’t read the column very often. He’s more sexually cold than I am. We have a great banging sex life. But he doesn’t like to talk about sex that much—unless he’s having it. When he’s having it, he never shuts up. Just put something in his mouth to shut him up when he’s having it.

TOC: You might want to give him a heads-up: We’re definitely publishing that.
Dan Savage: [Laughs] He doesn’t read interviews with me, either.

TOC: You say “boyfriend.” You haven’t gotten used to “husband”?
Dan Savage: I don’t want to round him up to husband in a country where he’s not. I almost feel like, when we use the word husband to refer to our partners and we’re not in Connecticut and Massachusetts, we’re alleviating the psychic burden on our straight allies. People say, “You’ve been together forever, and you have a kid. He’s not your ‘boyfriend.’ ” I’m like, “Great. Then you get out there and make sure I can get married.”

TOC: You’ve been writing your column for 18 years. Noticed any sexual trends?
Dan Savage: Stupidity is a big trend. I have seen the fruits of abstinence education, and they’re bitter—and stupid. [Laughs] Once upon a time, half the questions I got were, “I’m kinky, and I live in Kansas City. Where are kinky people here?” And I would just offer referrals. Now everybody can Google their kink and find the local BDSM club, the local shit-eaters association. Most of the questions I get now are situational, where there’s no right or wrong: What should I do in this situation?

TOC: You say there’s a lack of sex education, yet you’re describing a proliferation of sex ed on the Web.
Dan Savage: We’ve had concurrently this movement that has regarded sexual ignorance as virtue: The less prepared you are for sex, the better a person you are. You didn’t have condoms because it was bad to have sex, but it would’ve been worse if you were planning to have sex—Bristol Palin. To be carried away in the moment and shove a bottle in your ass is less sinful for a lot of people than to buy a butt toy. And it will keep me in business forever.

TOC: As your son’s gotten older, what’s his understanding of what Dad does?
Dan Savage: He knows I write a column that—the phrase in our house is “that is inappropriate for children.” [Laughs] So he doesn’t read it. But he’s 11; he’s not interested. Another 18 months, we’ll see. He may be very interested.

TOC: What does he tell friends his dad does?
Dan Savage: Just the other day, he said to his friend, “My dad writes a dirty sex column. He’s a sex columnist.” D.J. makes these faces when he says “sex columnist.” And his friend said, “He’s also a political pundit.” D.J. was like, “No, he’s not!” And his friend was like, “My parents watch him on Bill Maher, and he’s a political pundit!” Maybe my stock is rising in his eyes now that he knows I just don’t write about sex.

TOC: Did D.J. ask about that?
Dan Savage: Yes, he did, and I burst his bubble and told him that most of the political punditry I do is about sex.

TOC: In The Commitment, you feared that getting hitched would jinx your relationship. It’s been four years—did it change things?
Dan Savage: It changed things for D.J. It reassured him. We drive up to Canada, and at passport control they say, “What’s your relationship?” We say, “We’re a married couple, and he’s our son.” And they say, “Welcome to Canada.” We drive back from Canada: “We’re boyfriends, and this is our adopted son.” And the fucking bigot border guards who work for the American side will literally scoff, will make a face and shake their heads. And D.J. gets it; he knows the United States government is not on our side.

TOC: You also wrote of the prospect of legal gay marriage as pretty precarious. But recently, you’ve suggested it’s just a matter of time. Has there been a seismic shift in the past few years?
Dan Savage: Oh, absolutely. We’re all upset about California—we need to remind ourselves that when gay marriage was on the ballot in 2000 in California, it lost by 22 points. Last year, it lost by four. We are winning. It’s gonna take forever because this is the United States.

TOC: There’s debate in the gay community about why this issue has become the gay issue.
Dan Savage: It’s the defining issue. Who you love and form an intimate bond with goes to the heart of what it means to be gay.

TOC: The critique is that gay marriage and gay rights shouldn’t be conflated, that not everyone should marry in order to be seen as having—
Dan Savage: Well, of course not, and not everybody who’s straight has to be married. The self-appointed guardians of gay-sex radicalism always say the revolution is, like, the trannies and hookers and queers out on the streets and sucking a million dicks. That’s legal. No one’s trying to pry the cocks out of your mouth anymore. Let’s move on to the rights we have not yet secured, like marriage. And there’s nothing about being married that means you can’t put a thousand cocks in your mouth, if that’s how you want to construct your commitment.

TOC: Will we see you hitting up Boystown when you’re here?
Dan Savage: [Laughs] Yeah. I used to go to Sidetrack when I was 17 years old, with my ridiculous fake ID.

TOC: I’m sure lots of folks will approach you there, asking about rimming.
Dan Savage: And that is an environment where I’m happy to discuss rimming with strangers, in a gay bar when I’m hammered—not in an airport.

This American Life tapes at the Chicago Theatre April 19 at 7pm.