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the mb q&a

the mediabistro Q&A:
Dan Savage, syndicated sex columnist and editor of The Stranger

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Age:
37
First job: Working at a print shop, half a block from his Chicago home, which printed the neighborhood newspapers and restaurant menus
Career highlights: "Editor of The Stranger; Randy Cohen praising my column in his interview with mediabistro.com; my upcoming dinner engagement with Katha Pollitt; seeing something I wrote for The Stranger on Iraq praised in National Review; dating a really hot German guy in Berlin in 1989 who had a cage in his bedroom."
First Sunday Times section he reads: Front section. ("Then Week in Review, then Sunday Styles, then the Magazine. I'm pretty methodical.")

BY ADAM WASSERMAN | Under a woozy, Benadryl-spiked haze, Dan Savage spoke to MB from his office at The Stranger, the Seattle alt-weekly he's worked as a writer and editor since its conception in 1991. What did the author of "Savage Love," the nation's sauciest syndicated sex column, whose beat includes vomit fetishists and man-thongs, have to say? Surprisingly passionate and astute political observations, contentious reflections about the current crisis in the Catholic church, and the word on a possible Dan Savage gig on... NPR?

How did you start writing "Savage Love"?

I was the night manager at a video store in Madison, Wisconsin, and one of my coworkers was moving to Seattle to start a weekly newspaper [The Stranger]. I said, "You have to have an advice column. Everybody hates them, but everybody reads them." I was advising him because I'm a pushy busybody, which apparently qualifies me to write advice. He said, "Why don't you write it?" I had never written anything before in my life. It sounds disingenuous now, but I really wasn't angling for the gig.

What makes you qualified to dispense sexual advice to the American public?

The amazing thing about advice is that you don't need any qualification. If you look up advice in the dictionary, it says "opinion."

I think people respond to my advice because I know something about sex. Gay people know more about sex, have more sex, and are better at sex than straight people. In gay sex, everything is negotiated; nothing is assumed. I get it from straight people a lot saying, "Where do you get off giving advice to straight people?" It is possible to be a straight person who is completely ignorant of homosexuality. It is not possible to be a gay person who is ignorant of heterosexuality.

You seem to have a strong understanding of fairness, though.

Well, there's the golden rule. Then there's "don't be an asshole," which is my mother's version of the golden rule. A large part of it was being raised Catholic and dealing with guilt. With guilt, you put yourself in the other person's shoes. It makes you careful about the way you move through the world.

Were you wary of having to tone down your style in your ABC News online column?

I did tone it down, but I didn't say anything that I didn't believe. I had columns on ABC News where I wrote about how three-ways aren't the end of a relationship. I didn't ever say, "You must have monogamy!" I told women who'd been cheated on that if a straight guy cheats on a woman only once or twice in 50 years, he did a really good job with the monogamy thing and you should thank him. [Laughs.] I couldn't entertain questions about beer enemas or gangbangs, but I didn't get questions about beer enemas or gangbangs at ABCNEWS.com.

Are you ever shocked by some of the questions that people send you?

Once you get two or three letters from "mom-fucking poo-eaters," you are just not shocked by anything anymore. I get 2,000 letters a week now, so I've gotten kind of jaded.

What's with the obsession with tighty-whities?

Somebody sent in a letter bitching about tighty-whities, and I pointed out that on the right guys they look great. It was surprising; I got tons of mail pro– and anti–tighty-whitey underwear. I thought that there is obviously something to this. So I decided to throw it open to a contest for fun. One of the things that I've always tried to do with the column is keep myself entertained. One of the ways that I can keep myself entertained is by getting a lot of pictures of good-looking guys in their underwear. Why not?

How does your family, being Catholic, respond to your column?

My family reads it and loves it. I held a contest for my readers to come up with a name for a woman fucking a man in the ass with a strap-on dildo. That's quite a mouthful, when it should just be a butt-full. Tens of thousands of people voted and one of the suggested terms was "pegging." It's actually perfect, because I have an Aunt Peg. So I mentioned her in the column.

Does your family respond favorably to what you write about them?

The one thing that was kind of ugly was when The Chicago Reader picked up my column. My mom was really thrilled. She works at a university in Chicago, and she ran around telling all of her students, "If you ever pick up the Reader, Danny's column is in it now." She doesn't believe that it was an accident, but that week we got the question, "What is the difference between blowjobs, cocksucking, and fellatio?" So I said, "Blowjobs are what my sister gives, cocksucking is what my boyfriend does, and fellatio is something that my mother performs." My mother wasn't too happy with that.

What can you tell us about your upcoming book, Skipping Toward Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America?

I take each of the seven deadly sins, and I go hang out with the people who are doing it. And I defend them. It's sort of a response to the virtue crap and the mealy-mouth liberals who refuse to defend the American sinner the way they should. The right to engage in activities that some other people believe are sinful goes to the heart of American democracy. We have this class of moralizing busybodies — Bork and Bennett — who never stop wagging their fingers, and never shut up about the drug war and infidelity. Most Americans ignore them, but in the public arena, because they're "good people trying to do good things," no one ever tells them to shut up and fuck off.

What do you read in your spare time?

[Laughs.] National Review, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Republic, The American Prospect, The New York Review of Books, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly. Those are my subscriptions right now. I'm a news and politics junkie.

It's a surprise to people sometimes when they ask me what I am reading and I hold up the National Review. I don't give a shit about Penthouse Letters. I would rather read the Misanthrope's Corner by Florence King, which is my favorite column. I think she rocks!

What political figure do you dislike most in America today?

Good lord. It's strange for a gay guy who was really politically active in the late '80s, early '90s to see how feeble Jesse Helms has become. I want to say George W. Bush. I hope he gets his ass handed to him in two years. But I'm all for the war, which puts me to the right almost as much as Ann Coulter. [Laughs.] When she said we should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity, I'd been running around saying that we should invade the entire region and depose everybody. The woman who wrote the constitution for Japan, she's still alive. We should fly her into the Middle East, bang out 30 or 40 constitutions and then sit there for 50 fucking years, just like we sat there in Germany and Japan. We were sort of benign imperialists, and we should do that again. It would be the best thing that ever fucking happened to the Arabs!

What is your take on the Catholic church crisis?

I think the problem is gay priests. People get mad at you for saying that. The problem isn't gay people. The kinds of gay men who would be attracted to the priesthood are, by definition, conflicted, fucked-up, self-hating psycho priests. Of course those are the kinds of gay men who will act out in inappropriate ways. Going to work for an organization that tells you that you suffer from an intrinsic moral disorder says something about what you think about your own desires and the kind of person you are.

The kinds of writing that you do in The Stranger are paradoxical. On one end is "Savage Love," and on the other is very political editorial writing.

I love having the platform. "Savage Love" is more lucrative, but writing in The Stranger about Seattle city or national politics feels more rewarding. It's also more difficult. So it's not like, "I couldn't give a shit about 'Savage Love,' and I just bang it out." But it is much more casual, conversational, and easier to do than the meatier stuff.

How would you describe your style?

Kind of Irish-Catholic-schoolboy-gonzo.

So I hear you're getting a radio program?

I recorded a couple of chats with people about their sex lives for an NPR pilot. As far as I know, it hasn't gone anywhere.

At an awards ceremony a few weeks ago, you got a bunch of alt-weekly publishing poobahs to down shots and take their clothes off. Did you really want to see all those industry folks naked?

No, I didn't. I just sort of tore through it with a bottle of booze. I get really uncomfortable when I speak in public. The flip side is the more uncomfortable I am, the funnier I tend to get. So I thought, If I am going to be up here uncomfortable and miserable, I'm going to make them uncomfortable and miserable. I was brought in as the junior varsity after someone from NPR backed out at the last minute. Which speaks to the insecurities of the alt-weekly universe. A couple of years ago, they had Cokie Roberts host it. Cokie Roberts hasn't cracked open an alternative weekly in 30 years. Cokie Roberts is a dumb-ass blowhard and yet the alternative weeklies paid her all this money to come and blow at them and make them feel like they're players or whatever.

From what I've read, it seems everyone was grateful and had a good laugh.

I think it reminded them that it's fun and alt-weeklies are alt-weeklies for a reason and we don't want to be these other papers.

What can we expect in the future?

I'll keep writing "Savage Love," which I enjoy. I would much rather write a three-times-a-week op-ed column, but it's sometimes fun to surprise people with a piece about politics that's actually kind of informed. "Whoa! That loopy sex guy? Where'd that come from?" But I don't want to be 54 years old, and writing about fist fucking. I want to be 54 years old and fist fucking.

Adam Wasserman is in the editorial department of mediabistro.com.


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