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Dan Savage Looks At What Has Changed In The 30 Years He's Been Giving Sex Advice

Dan Savage, pictured in 2016, has a new book of essays. He talked with NPR about what he's learned over 30 years of writing sex advice.
Nicholas Hunt
Getty Images for Tiffany & Co.
Dan Savage, pictured in 2016, has a new book of essays. He talked with NPR about what he's learned over 30 years of writing sex advice.

It has been 30 years since Dan Savage started his column "Savage Love" to answer questions about sex, love and relationships.

He's celebrating the anniversary with a new book, Savage Love from A to Z, an illustrated collection of essays with one for each letter of the alphabet.

Things have changed a lot from when he started writing about sex in The Stranger, Seattle's alternative weekly newspaper, in 1991.

For one, there is the way he received questions from readers: He got letters in the mail.

"I got to look at people's handwriting, which was always really interesting and revealing," Savage tells NPR's Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered. "You know, if somebody wrote me on a legal pad with a fountain pen in very neat script, and then claimed to be a 15-year-old girl, I knew that that was a lawyer out there fantasizing about whatever they were describing."

Savage talked about what he has been wrong about over the years, how writing has changed and why he thinks gay people give better sex advice than straight people. Here are excerpts:

In those early days, how unusual was it for any advice columnist to thoughtfully answer questions about things like kink and nonmonogamy and other aspects of love and sex that might be seen as fringe?

It was really unusual. What really distinguished my column — besides that I'm pretty pro what works for the couple, and if that's monogamy, I'm pro, and if it's nonmonogamy, I'm pro that — is that I let people use the language they actually use when they talk about sex with their friends in my column in print, which was really rare. You know, 30 years ago, everyone used this kind of Sanskrit, separate, distinct, archaic language when they talked about sex or relationships. ... And I let people use the word they actually used in print.

When you started the column, people couldn't easily look up information online, and now everything is Googleable. How have search engines changed the kinds of questions that you get and the kinds of answers you give?

Search engines made my job harder. Because I used to get a lot of how-to questions or what is. People would hear about something or overhear something, and they wouldn't have a place to go where they could look that up very easily and they'd ask me. And those columns were easy to write. ... What is this particular sex toy? Well, now that particular sex toy has its own wiki page, as does almost any sex act that you can think of, which means all of my questions are situational ethics.

I did this. They did that. Who's right? Who's wrong? What do we do with all these hurt feelings? How do we get past this? Those questions are a lot harder to answer. It's much more of a high-wire act.

What would you say is the biggest thing you've changed your mind about in the 30 years you've been writing the column?

Oh my God, so many things. I used to be a male bisexuality skeptic, and now I'm a believer in male bisexuality. I was dubious about asexuality when that first began to be really kind of publicly addressed and discussed. And now, you know, I get it. Asexuality is a sexual orientation and a valid one and an important one for people to talk about so that people who are asexual don't feel like they're broken so they can name it and know who they are.

Does having been wrong about things like bisexual men or asexuality make you fear that you might be putting bad information about something else out into the world right now?

Oh, sure, I think anybody who writes for a living — it's a constant process, and you don't judge anybody who writes a weekly column or a daily column or blogs by what they wrote 20 years ago. You have to look at what they continue to write and how their thinking has evolved and changed. One of the kind of perverse dynamics of — I don't want to call it cancel culture or the internet or Twitter now is there's a lot of people yelling, "Listen, do better." And then people listen and do better, and then people just keep yelling at you for what you said before you listened and began to try to do better.

It seems to me that if you want to bring people along, you got to give them credit where you've seen growth or change. And there's a great example of that in the marriage equality movement. You know, we don't yell at people who used to not support marriage equality for not supporting it soon enough and being wrong at the outset, like Obama in 2007. We're grateful for his evolution and that he came around. We're not still scolding him for where he was when he first ran for president.

How are you feeling about this anniversary? Did you ever think you'd be doing this for 30 years?

I didn't think I'd be doing it for six months. When the column started, it was a joke. I was a gay guy. It was 1990 when we started talking about the column and gay people didn't give sex advice to straight people. And so the joke was I was going to treat straight people with the same contempt that straight advice columnists had always treated gay people who wrote them letters.

But straight people had never been treated like that in print before, and they loved it. It was fun for them as opposed to traumatizing as it was for us. And the column took off. I started getting real questions, real letters.

I think what my readers get and what a lot of straight people sort of intuitively get is that your gay friends know a little bit more about sex than you do, and maybe are a little better at it than you are. And that's not because we're magic — although we are magic. It's something else. Gay people have to communicate about sex. Straight people get to consent and stop talking about what happens next or what they want. And when two people of the same sex go to bed, they get to yes, they get to consent, and then they have to have a whole conversation about what's going to happen. ...

Nothing makes you better at sex than communicating. Gay people have to communicate. Straight people can avoid communication and often do because sex is difficult to talk about. You can't be gay if you can't talk about difficult sexual issues, you know, you can't come out to your family without confronting a difficult sexual issue. It makes it easier for us to have these conversations with our partners, and I think straight people have always kind of gotten that. That's why it's such a cliché for straight people to go to their gay friends with their sex problems or sex questions.

And my column just grabbed that out of like everyone's high school and college relationships and I got a 30-year institution out of it.

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Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Karen Zamora
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
James Doubek
James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.