Dan Savage talks queer history, gay body dysmorphia and his continued crusade for sexual education
Dan Savage has been a household name for nearly all of the 26 years that his column “Savage Love” has been in existence, since launching in 1991 in the very first issue of the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger. He’s also been a proudly out gay men since the column’s inception, having come out in 1979, a time when being an out gay person wasn’t just rare — it was downright scary. In that sense, Savage has always been an outlier among the mainstream and a trailblazer within the LGBTQ community.
Now, he’s expanding his empire with a new podcast, Hot Mic, which showcases true stories about sex and relationships from an array of live storytellers. With one uber-successful podcast, Savage Lovecast, what made him decide to try for another? “Well, I’m a workaholic,” Savage said an interview. “When someone approaches me with more work to do, my answer is always yes.”
Unlike his previous podcast, which featured folks calling in wanting advice on subjects including STIs and navigating polyamory, this podcast focuses on more fleshed-out stories. “In my show, the questions draw out the commentary,” he explained. “With these stories I get to to highlight some aspect or element or theme or thread in them that I find interesting and expound. It gives me more freedom to digress.”
On the theme of digression, we chatted with Savage about a range of topics, including gay men’s unique brand of body dysmorphia and conversations — or the lack thereof — around Pre-exposure prophylaxis, a preventative HIV medication known as PrEP. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: One of your recent episodes of Hot Mic was centered around a story with Cheryl Strayed and body image. As a gay man, where do you situate the conversation around body positivity within our community?
Dan Savage: This is a hard subject for me to address since I was a fat kid in high school, so I still am a fat kid in my head and always will be. I do find some of the body mongering on social media to be at once delightful and then aggressive at the same time. You dig through Instagram a little bit and think, “Wow, that’s sexy,” and “Boy, I better go to the gym.” To take the long view on gay men and body, there’s a lot more freedom now. There’s a lot more diversity in hotness now then there was decades ago. I came out in 1979 and there was really only one thing that was hot: the guys in The Other Side of Aspen. Only one particular kind of porn star was hot and everything and everybody else was deficient.
And now we have a celebration of bears, otters, daddies, twinks and twunks. There’s a broader spectrum of hotness now. While I think there are definitely people who feel oppressed by beauty ideals, and they themselves might be overly focused on a certain type of ideal that they aspire to or want to be or want to fuck, if you take a step back and and look around, there are people out there with your body type who are celebrating it and people out there who desire to be with people of your body type. I get this a lot, where someone says, “The gay community is so shallow. Everyone wants to look like this and none of the guys that look like that want to sleep with me.” And I always want to say to those people: “Would you sleep with you?” Often people are complaining about how everyone is in pursuit of this beauty ideal when what they really want is for everyone else to get out of the way so they can have it all for themselves.
Do you think this current celebration of gay men of varying types casts a wide enough net?
DS: It’s never wide enough. Beauty is about power to some extent. When food was scarce and most people were starving to death and most people labored outside, it was beautiful to be heavy and to have porcelain white skin because it was difficult to be heavy, to have that much food, and only the privileged got to be inside for that long. And then food is abundant, and suddenly being thin is more difficult and becomes the beauty ideal. And most people work inside in front of computers all day and are sallow and porcelain if they are white and the beauty ideal becomes, “Who has the time and the power and money to lay in the sun?” Beauty ideals shift and often it’s not about any sort of single beauty standard, it’s about power; it’s about money. If you take a step back and start examining what’s beautiful and why it’s beautiful, with that in mind, it can crack beauty open.
What sort of implications do you think this has on young people?
DS: [My husband Terry Miller and I] are parents. We have kids, we see what our son and all of his peers are up to. We always want to have a moral panic about technology — and yes, some kids are a little too swept up in it — but most of the kids we’ve encountered aren’t. It’s just that we, society, tends to focus on the ones that are. Maybe because it’s damaging for them and that concerns us so we have to triage and rush in and take care of the bleeding. There is certainly now more of a “life is lived as a performance at all times” consciousness. And yeah, that can give someone a complex for sure.
You’ve been doing “Savage Love” for 26 years. From your vantage point having answered thousands of listener questions would you say, on matters of sex, society has gotten dumber?
DS: [Laughs] And thank God, because it keeps me employed. I started writing “Savage Love” in 1991 and then George W. Bush happened a few years later and abstinence education exploded and there was a noticeable collapse in young people’s smarts around sex and birth control. In the early ‘90s, I wasn’t getting questions from people insisting that condoms were porous and didn’t work and that they had heard from a friend that if they drank a cap of bleach after sex that they couldn’t get pregnant.
Because in the absence of accurate information, people make shit up and that shit gets disseminated and passed around. That was pre-everyone having access to the internet, but there’s always a certain amount of ignorance around sex and it’s compounded by these wishful thinking abstinence education programs where religious conservatives have convinced themselves that if you don’t tell kids about sex they’ll never want to do it. It doesn’t work that way.
But it makes me uncomfortable sometimes to dump all the problems on religious conservatives as there is a certain sex negativity that’s wired into the human experience. There’s always a conflict between how you initially felt about sex and when you hit puberty and you get your marching orders. You find out about your sexual orientation and your kinks really come into the fore and your desires [start] to be really articulated in your own brain. I think there’s always a certain amount of panic that that induces because there’s this sudden realization that sex is charged. It creates an interesting lifelong dynamic that we never quite recover from or get over. A lot of people carefully protect their own ignorance because they feel less sullied by sex the less they know.
Gay men have a lot of sex, but do you think they’re as interested in the discussions around it as, say, the ladies of Sex and the City were?
DS: My theory is once you’ve looked your mother in the eye and told her you’re a cocksucker, telling your vanilla friend you’re into bondage or telling your kinky friend that you’re completely vanilla but had a threeway, all that stuff compared to telling your mother you’re a cocksucker is easy. I think a lot of gay men overshare because of that first experience of having to come out to your parents. You’re just giving them the rough outline — you’re someone who has sex with your own gender — but it’s terrifying. That disclosure is so central to our identity. We can’t be gay people without that disclosure. And I think that carves a groove in us where we keep telling the truth.
It seems these days as though everyone is some sort of expert. Do you have any fears for the future of advice-giving, with regard to our lack of deference toward authority figures?
DS: Advice giving is a bit like modern dancing: The barrier of entry is very low and there’s no accreditation body — no bar association. Any idiot can do it. I always say, “If you look up advice in the dictionary, it says opinion of what could or should be done,” so the only credential you need is someone asking for your opinion, and we’re all entitled to an opinion. That’s what advice is. It’s not counseling, it’s not therapy, it’s just shooting the shit. There’s been this tremendous explosion of people giving advice and with it, a lot of competition. But in a way that’s fun and I’m not threatened by it. I’m constantly bringing new or longstanding pros or wannabes onto my podcast. There’s this advice columnist in Louisville, Kentucky, who just started her column and said she was going to dethrone me and my reaction to that was to have her on my show to give some advice.
DS: With the conversation around PrEP, we always have to remember that it’s a conversation that a lot of the people who are having it are wounded by. They’re survivors and have PTSD. That’s what’s rarely acknowledged about how horrible and scarring the [AIDS crisis of the] ‘80s and ‘90s were for may of us. So it’s a conversation where a large cohort of the people participating in it are raw on the subject and always will be. [Laughs] I’m not sure if “raw” is the word I should use.
I think the conversation around PrEP has been good. I had an initial negative reaction to PrEP when it came out because I read the studies and it didn’t seem conclusive and, in my reading of it, some of the credit for transmission couldn’t determine that it wasn’t condoms. Then more studies came out that conclusively proved that it was the drugs and not condom use — in fact, condom use has fallen. My concern around PrEP and the conversation around it is that it’s not a holistic one; all we talk about is HIV, like HIV is the only sexually transmitted disease still out there.
And I’ve been yelled at by [HIV/AIDS rights activist] Peter Staley and others for saying that PrEP is going to lead to an explosion or higher rates of other STIs and I think the data is bearing that out. We can’t be Pollyanna about it. Within my lifetime, an unknown sexually transmitted disease emerged and murdered all my friends. That’s a thing that fucking happened. So if we all start using PrEP and everyone stops concerning themselves with other STIs, we could step on this rake again.
How can we better articulate and communicate LGBTQ history to young people, seeing as it’s not taught in formalized education?
DS: When I first came out, my boyfriend gave me a couple of books he thought I should read, including Society and the Healthy Homosexual, which was a great read for a 17-year-old gay kid in the ‘70s. But he also gave me a queer history book — there weren’t many of them published then — and made my reading of them conditional upon him continuing to put his dick in me. So I read them. We were talking in the beginning about social media with regard to body dysmorphia and self-hatred that seeing all those beautiful men in speedos can induce. It’s also a tremendous tool with which to share gay history.
One example is this really great Instagram account @lgbt_history, one of the new ways with which queer history can be imparted. I learn things from there all of the time. So there are new ways for that to be imparted. You used to be able to be completely ignorant until you found your way into the community and whether or not you learned anything about our history was dependent on the kind of people you fell in with and how ignorant they were or weren’t, and now young people can follow these accounts while they’re still thinking about coming out. They’re able to access this stuff maybe while they’re isolated in the middle of bumfuck Egypt and educate themselves. For that we should all be thankful.