Dan Savage Knows a Lot, but He's No 'Sex Moses'

Royal Oak Music Theatre Hosts 'Savage Love Live'

Picture this scenario: you're 18, you've been watching porn for a while and you don't know if your varied preferences are crossing the line. Now this: it's year 10 of a fairly sexless marriage, and you're seeking a third to spice things up. Lastly: you're a woman in her 60s who's ready to make the plunge into lesbian relationships, but you don't know where to turn. For each of these scenarios and more, Dan Savage has an answer.
And he should. He's been a sex columnist for 26 years now, and his "Savage Love" love, sex and relationship advice column has been syndicated worldwide.
Now, he's bringing his live show, "Dan Savage: Savage Love Live" to the Royal Oak Music Theatre on Sunday, March 25. Between The Lines caught up with the openly gay author, podcaster and director before his Michigan performance to chat about some of the things he looks forward to in live performances, to ask if he follows his own advice and why the idea of "the One" is "bullshit."

Have you ever gotten a question that really stumped you? How do you provide such measured responses to the questions your readers send in?
(Laughs) That's because I only print questions that I have answers for. I get plenty of questions in the column or in the podcast where I say, "God, I don't know what to tell this person. During a live show if someone asks me a question that I can't answer, then I can't answer it (laughs). Then I'm exposed as not being omniscient.

Do you ever feel imposter syndrome? Like you'll be found out at any moment for not being an expert?
Yeah! Absolutely. I feel imposter syndrome every day, and then I remind myself that a column like mine is just a conversation, and when you look up advice in the dictionary it says, "Opinion about what could or should be done." And, literally, the only qualification you need to give someone your opinion is being asked for it (laughs). When I remind myself of that I feel eminently qualified and the imposter syndrome evaporates.

Is it true that even though this column became very succesful, you didn't even plan on writing it?
I didn't even expect to write it. I was suggesting to this guy I met, Tim Keck, who was starting a newspaper, that he have an advice column because I like to read them. He thought that was a great idea and he asked me to write it. Initially, as a joke, I was going to treat straight people and straight sex with the same contempt and revulsion that straight advice columnists had always treated gay people and gay sex and gay relationships. But it kind of took off, and within a few months it was a real advice column by accident (laughs). And now, 26 years later, I'm still doing it.

So, in your eyes, looking for "the One" is bullshit?
Yeah, well it is bullshit (Laughs)! I think the myth of the one is really destructive. It causes people to look at the partner they've got now, and not assess them on their merits like, 'Is this person bad? Good? Am I sad? Or, am I happy?" But to judge the person that they're with against an impossible standard, and then go out in search of someone who doesn't exist.

Have you ever sought "the One?"
I don't think I was ever guilty of that myself. If anything, my problem was sticking in relationships too long and trying to make them work.

For a time in your life you lived abroad in Europe. Did living in another culture affect how you viewed sex and sexuality?
I think it was being gay that really affected how I view sex and relationships (laughs). It put me in a position to offer useful and practical advice to straight people. I would observe a lot of people who were struggling under rules that had been written for them, and a lot of them needed permission to do their own thing and write their own rules. I was in a good position — as a person who had given themselves exactly that permission — to give it to straight people.

Do you ever find yourself breaking your own advice?
Yeah, also in a position like mine, sometimes you get your column quoted back at you which is really frustrating (laughs).

You look at sex as a very deep, powerful force. Do you think most people don't see it like that?
Yeah, like the lie that we're told as kids is that you will grow up one day and have sex, but the reality is that you will grow up one day and sex will have you. Sex works through us and is older and more powerful than we are; sex built us. There was sex before there was human civilization by hundreds of millions of years, and this idea that this powerful force of nature that is something that is subject to our religious superstitions, subject to our will, to the stories we want to tell ourselves about how sexual relationships ought to work is ridiculous. Sex is more powerful than we are, and sex, in the end, always wins.
That doesn't mean that I think people should do whatever they want to without taking into consideration other peoples' feelings or others' rights to bodily autonomy, but we have to channel our desires and interests. You can't dam them up.

Did you grow up in a very sex-positive household?
(Laughs) It wasn't quite the opposite. My parents were Catholics. Nothing made my parents less comfortable than talking with their kids about sex, but they made themselves do it, because they wanted to be good parents and it just made us want to die (laughs). So, they tried to be sex positive, but they were kind of sex repulsive in their attempt.

Did you find you had a sexual awakening after your first time? Or were you really interested in understanding sex before then?
Oh, I looked into it before, but there wasn't a tremendous amount of relevant, useful information available to me (laughs).
Edmund White — a terrific gay writer — wrote that every working-class mechanic, it doesn't matter, a bus driver, schoolteacher, philosophy professor is a philosopher looking in the mirror and asking, "Why Me?" And that's who I was. I was very curious about sex in the same way that women are curious about gender and how it works, because it's the locus of their oppression. And people of color may do more reading and thinking and contemplating in their head about racial issues than clueless white people who never really had to think about it because it doesn't create friction, tension or conflict in their lives.

So it was that struggle that made you who you are?
Yes. Yes, exactly. I think a lot of straight people understand that to be true about their gay friends. Even when I was in high school, and even when I was in college, a lot of straight peers and friends came to me even about sex advice. I think because straight people just intuitively realize, 'Oh, here's a gay person. They know more about sex, because they've had to think more about it than I've had to."

What are you most looking forward to in the upcoming live performance?
I've learned as much from my readers and listeners as I hope that they've learned from me, from the dialogue and exchange, and I'm not a sex Moses coming down from the mountain top with my advice column carved in stone tablets (laugh). So, what I really enjoy is the back and forth.

More information about Dan Savage can be found online at Tickets for "Savage Love Live" start at $35 and can be found online at The Royal Oak Music Theatre is located at 318 W. 4th St., Royal Oak. 248-399-2980.


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