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So What Do You Do, Dan Savage, Nationally Syndicated Sex Columnist?

'You don't walk away from an advice column. It's just too much fun.'

By Marcus Vanderberg - April 25, 2012
The words in Dan Savage's nationally syndicated "Savage Love" column are similar to how many people like their sex: raw, crass and in your face.

Savage has been fascinated by the topic of sex since his days as a gay teen reading his brother's stolen copies of Penthouse (for the articles, of course). So, when a chance meeting with the founders of Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger led to a job offer for an advice column, the recent grad quickly packed up his things in Madison, Wis. and headed west.

Now, with a mix of Ann Landers meets Xaviera Hollander, Savage has been doling out sex advice for young and old, gay or straight for more than 20 years. His column is syndicated in over 60 newspapers and featured in a weekly podcast, his It Gets Better Project has helped countless gay teens cope with bullying, and even MTV tapped him to bring his trademark wit to college campuses for Savage U.

Surprisingly, getting young people to discuss their sex lives is a lot easier than you might imagine. "Try not to get them to open up about their sex lives on camera," Savage told us. "That would be the real trick."

Name: Dan Savage
Position: Editorial director of The Stranger, host of MTV's "Savage U"
Resume: Debuted "Savage Love" in The Stranger in 1991. Got initially syndicated by just a few newspapers before slowly expanding to over 60 titles. Launched the podcast "Savage Lovecast" in 2006. Named editorial director of The Stranger in 2007 and host of MTV's Savage U in 2012.
Birthday: October 7, 1964
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Education: B.A., theater, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Marital status: Married
Media idol: "Let's say Sean Hannity because it will piss him off."
Favorite TV show: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report
Guilty pleasure: Stale cake
Last book read: Martyrs and Murderers: The Guise Family and the Making of Europe by Stuart Carroll
Twitter handle: @fakedansavage

Since The Stranger launched in 1991, how do you think media coverage of sex and homosexuality has changed?
Hopefully, a lot has changed since when you could get fired as Surgeon General for mentioning that people masturbate. I feel like people are much more realistic when they write about sex in the media, and talking about sex is much more of an acknowledgement. It's still a little schizoid. When I started writing "Savage Love," one of my goals was to write a column about sex using the language and the sense of humor that people typically use when they talk about sex with their friends. There seemed to be one way we all discussed sex privately and amongst friends and another way it was written about. People weren't writing about the sex we were actually having but this kind of pre-agreed-to idea of the sex that everyone ought to be having even though anybody wasn't.

I think there's a lot more realism out there about sex then there was 21 years ago. When I started the column 21 years ago, The Village Voice wouldn't pick it up because it was too dirty for New York, which was saying something. I was writing this column for kinky, rainy Seattle, and the then editor of the Chicago Reader told me that if I wanted to be in the Chicago Reader I had to write less about anal sex. I think that has changed and the Internet helped change it, because suddenly there was this place for sex writing without the gatekeepers and this paranoia that some child somewhere might pick up this newspaper.

Newspapers are in serious trouble right now. Why do you think alternative weeklies like The Stranger will fare any better in the digital era?
I don't! The print media is in trouble everywhere and is having to transition and transition fast to the new economic models. Like I said earlier, I have a degree in theater and I actually think what's happening to print media is kind of what happened to the theater 100 to 120 years ago. There were lots of jobs in the theater. There were legit playhouses by the score in every major American city. There were lots of jobs out there for actors and directors and theater technicians. That all came apart. Radio and television, a new technology, came along and just decimated -- destroyed really -- the profession.

"Advice columnist is such a sweet gig that it will be pried from my cold dead hands one day just as Ann Landers' was pried from hers."

Suddenly, if you wanted to be an actor, you had to be willing to work for free and often for years before anyone would pay you to do it. That's kind of what writing has become. Reporting now, people will do it for free before anyone will pay them to do it. You have to have a blog and already be on the beat that interests you before anyone will think about hiring you. When I look around and listen to people in the journalism field, or journalism students, or journalism professors complain about what newspaper and print jobs are like now, for me, it echoes the history of theater classes I took in the '80s when they were talking about the coming of radio and television and what that did to live performance.

At what point did you decide to branch out into radio, TV, speaking tours, etc? Were those ventures deliberate moves on your part or did other outlets just start coming to you?
People began reaching out to me. I get letters every day from people asking me how to syndicate a column -- because obviously I must know since I have one -- and I have no idea how you syndicate a column. I started writing a column and people started contacting me, asking me if they could run it too. I never got out there really and marketed the column. The person I'm doing the television show with, Brian Pines of Hypomania Content, he was trying to get a meeting with me for two years before I would have lunch with him. And even then, he had to fly up to Seattle to meet with me -- I wasn't going to fly down to L.A. I'm too lazy and self-hating and self-loathing to run around in circles and saying, "They ought to put me on television." Brian had to convince me to go out there and do this, and I'm glad that he managed to do that.

Since you didn't study journalism in college, what advice would you give a college student looking to become the next Dan Savage?
[Laughs] That position is currently filled. Advice columnist is such a sweet gig that it will be pried from my cold, dead hands one day just as Ann Landers' was pried from hers. You don't walk away from an advice column. It's just too much fun. It's good work if you're doing it right. But it's just such a blast. If you want to be the next Dan Savage, I don't know how to help you. And if I did know how to help you, I wouldn't, because I'm interested in being Dan Savage for as long as I can.

You've said that Savage U aims to counter the fact that young people don't get good sex education. How much do you think the media is to blame for that?
I don't think the media is to blame for it. I think politicians are to blame for it. I think there's cowardice. There's not a lot of good sex ed. on television, but television I don't think is the venue. I don't think television, the medium, is charged with providing young people with good sex education. I think that's parents and schools and [students are] failed by it. There was just another bill passed in Tennessee; any kind of sex ed. is abstinence-only, and this new abstinence-only education in Tennessee has to encourage children from gateway sexual activities like hand holding. I read about it and said they should just start calling these bills the "Dan Savage Employment Protection Act of 2012." I will never be out of work so long as politicians keep churning out kids who have no info and don't know their holes from asses in the ground. I will be employed. We need good sex ed. in the schools. That's about parents and teachers, politicians and churches. I don't think that's about the media.

"I will never be out of work so long as politicians keep churning out kids who have no info and don't know their holes from asses in the ground."

How do you and your producers at Savage U get college students to open up about their sex lives on camera?
Try not to get them to open up about their sex lives on camera. That would be the real trick. Anyone who wanted to come on the show and do a one-on-one had to nominate themselves, volunteer and be pre-interviewed by producers. We wanted to make sure we were talking to people that weren't making stuff up to be on television. We also wanted to make sure we were talking to people who were going to be comfortable being on television talking about this stuff. And we wanted to make sure we weren't talking to people who might regret the stuff they wanted to talk about in five to 10 years. We didn't want anyone to look back on the show and regret it. I will say, there are kids that I sat and talked with about sex issues, or problems, or relationship problems that I, if I were suffering similar problems, wouldn't talk about on TV. But young people have different ideas about privacy and what's public and private. They live their lives online, and they kind of broadcast a lot about their personal lives and sex lives in ways that old farts like me almost can't wrap our heads around. Sometimes, I would get uncomfortable, or I would have to be reminded by myself usually or the kids that I was talking to that they were fine with this and this for them was normal.

After 20 years of hearing about other people's sex lives, is there anything you think is absolutely weird or abnormal in the bedroom?
I think if you're doing things in the bedroom that you don't enjoy, that's weird. That you shouldn't do things that you don't enjoy. You should advocate for yourself. That doesn't mean there won't be times when you'll do things for your partner that your partner really enjoys but that you could take or leave. They don't scar you emotionally, or you're not sobbing on the floor in the fetal position afterwards. But you take some pleasure in giving pleasure. There are so many people out there that have really unfulfilling sex lives, who are going through the motions, who can't bring themselves to articulate what turns them on and really are wasting so much of their lives, because they're afraid of opening their mouths and telling the truth about who they are, what they want and what turns them on. I think that's weird. I think that's freaky. There's not a kink in the world that's as freaky. I think boring, vanilla intercourse with someone who bores you is freakish.

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Marcus Vanderberg is co-editor of FishbowlLA.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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