It was a suspenseful business, arranging to meet Dan Savage, America’s most famous giver of sex advice, LGBT rights advocate, porn-festival organizer and all-round cult figure. He was by turns stern, snappy and apologetic in his emails; he was brisk in his replies and then months would pass with no word. And so I breathe a sigh of relief when Savage approaches the outside table of the café I suggested in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle.
He is wearing jeans, bright orange hightop sneakers and layered flannel shirts. He walks softly, with the supple watchfulness of a teenage boy. He also talks softly — a contrast with his more forceful podcast voice — apologizing for being five minutes late. And with an astonishingly clear gaze and a smile, he sits and says he can’t actually believe I’m in Seattle… for him. I suddenly see that what had appeared communicational arrogance before is more likely a shy person’s self-effacement. (“I’m socially anxious,” he tells me later.)
But then, I had wanted to meet Savage precisely because — as listeners of his popular weekly podcast, Savage Love, may have noticed — he’s not quite what he seems. For a start, he is no cookie-cutter lefty, for all his haranguing in favour of baroque sexual lifestyles. In some ways, Savage is actually deeply conservative: the core of his product, as we will later discuss, is helping people find and keep long-term, committed relationships (monogamous or not), the set-up he believes is most conducive to happiness (though for him, non-monogamy may well be the way to achieve this). And in the podcast, his impetuous style sometimes reveals someone fed up to his core with woke pieties, particularly the ever-more kaleidoscopic identity labels.
Dan orders tea and a multiseeded scone. The impeccably trim Savage eats carbs! The surprises continue apace. Savage tells me he has just come from home where he had been working on a costume drama for Starz about a Hanoverian princess. “I’m obsessed with royal history and with British royal history. How many Americans can do this?” And then Savage reels off every British monarch since Henry VIII, adding the disclaimer that he left off the queen consorts. I express shock. “I’m a monarchist,” he explains, clarifying that he doesn’t mean the monarchy of, say, Bahrain, but those which effectively “separate the trappings and the role of head of state from the political process.”
Monarchism is nothing if not vested in hundreds of years of heavy tradition; this is the first concrete proof I get of interests perpendicular to Savage’s outward-facing political orientation. Again, I’m not entirely surprised at this passion for royals: a recent tip-off from a friend confirmed my sneaking suspicious that he is, in fact, far more ideologically heterodox than one might think. As our conversation continues, I discover other ways in which Savage is an awkward fit on the contemporary left.
His past explains some of this heterodoxy. Growing up in Chicago, his dad was a cop who worked, for much of his career, as a homicide detective. Savage is therefore reluctant to demonize cops in the way demanded by the Black Lives Matter movement and its corollary Defund the Police, which has a particularly strong hold in the Pacific Northwest. His parents were staunch Catholics, but his mother (“I was a mama’s boy”), after some initial agonizing, accepted that he was gay and ardently supported him. As an adolescent, Savage read the Bible cover-to-cover twice (“I was a weird kid, I read a lot”), and went to a pre-seminary high school (“I wanted to be a priest”). But the antipathy of the Church toward his still-closeted homosexuality was the “sweater thread” he pulled that ended up “unraveling” the whole thing. Still, he cannot shake from his bones entirely those spiritual trappings, won’t entirely commit to atheism. He wrote in his 2013 book American Savage that when his mother died he found himself “slipping into Catholic churches.”
Savage’s appreciation of the contradictoriness and messiness of being human is what makes him such a good — and influential — agony aunt, author and political agitator. He launched his podcast in 2006; a newspaper advice column of the same name (which he writes for free; the money is in the podcast) in 1991. The column, which is syndicated around the world and has millions of readers, is “the most important text in contemporary American sexual ethics,” according to the journalist L.V. Anderson, writing in Slate. Savage Love has 300,000 monthly listeners and he has written eight books, including, most recently, Savage Love from A-Z, a glossary of terms and concepts he coined or redefined, and New York Times bestseller Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wrote essays for his compilation It Gets Better, part of a campaign of the same name to give hope to bullied LGBT teens.
Savage Love from A-Z cackles with terms from the Savage gospel, like F, which is for “Fuck First” as in, before rather than after a huge, filling, supposedly romantic dinner, or P for “Price of Admission,” the sexual price you have to pay to be with someone. His influence is clear in the language of modern love. Tinder profiles the Anglophone world pop with his coinages, from GGG (good, giving, game) to “monogamish,” originally concocted to describe his arrangement with his husband Terry. (They are now polyamorous, each with their own committed boyfriends; Terry’s boyfriend lives with them; Dan’s lives abroad.) Then there’s “santorum,” as in former Republican senator Rick. In 2003, following Santorum’s comments opposing gay marriage, Savage asked his readers to come up with a definition for “santorum.” Unfortunately for Santorum, but to the glee of listeners the world over, the rather gruesome new meaning (Google it at your peril) stuck.
Underpinning such semantic power, of course, is arguably the best purchase on twenty-first century sexual sensibilities of anyone in the western world. So, I ask, what’s changed the most?
“Fifteen years ago, thirty years ago in “Savage Love” [the column], everybody was bi, now everyone’s pan[sexual],” he says. “I used to get a lot more questions that were basically variations on ‘am I normal?’ And I think if me and other writers like me, who were banging away about sex positivity and being honest about who you are and what you want, have achieved anything, it is that you don’t get that question very often anymore.”
There are other less welcome changes that, ironically, stem from the very sexual culture Savage helped create — particularly its identitarianism. “It does feel like nobody wants to be straight anymore,” he begins cautiously. “And that queer has become a very elastic label,” he says, gather-ng speed. “When I meet people [now] who identify as queer as compared to like thirty or forty years ago, I can’t assume that there was a serious struggle. Maybe there was an embracing of the queer identity that’s completely legitimate, but it seems to be frictionless for many people in ways that it wasn’t forty years ago… coming out was the one thing we all had in common. Coming out was our hero’s journey, and it was a struggle and often a nightmare.” For some, he points out, it still is a nightmare; 40 percent of homeless kids are LGBT.
Savage crumbles a bit more scone and pops a tiny piece in his mouth. “Everyone gets to do queer however they want to do queer.” He pauses again just a flicker, his gaze steady, the tiniest tincture of sarcasm now inflecting his voice. “It’s a little odd when you meet somebody who says, ‘I’m an assigned female at birth, femme presenting non-binary demisexual allosexual [someone who feels desire for someone else] who’s a phallofile.’ It’s like, that’s a straight girl, right?”
He is also wry about the knots his present audience sometimes tie themselves in over their desires, especially those they worry might be racist. He’s getting more calls from listeners to the podcast along the lines of: “I’m attracted to a certain race: that’s racist.” He says, “I don’t know how to answer those calls” and would prefer to avoid them because he doesn’t “know what to say.” I get the sense that it’s not that at all, more that the topic is too dangerous for it to be worth his while answering it properly.
Savage has always encouraged readers and listeners to embrace porn, especially pro-feminist, “ethically-made” porn, and is adamant that porn education should be part of kids’ sex education. He often sounds too pro-porn, a bit blind to the catastrophic downsides of addiction, misogyny and sexual disfunction that come from too-early immersion. On several recent Savage Love episodes, though, he discussed popstar Billie Eilish’s comments that porn is “a disgrace” and that too-early exposure to it destroyed her relationship to sex. Is he softening his stance on porn?
“It is a problem, the thing Billie Eilish said about pornography. I keep saying, everybody else keeps saying, ‘OK, the porn is out there. You have to talk to your kids about porn. You have to make sure they’re critical viewers of porn. Blah blah blah.’ [But] I look at the efforts in the UK to make porn harder to access online… and I sometimes wonder, like, would that be such a bad thing? Does that make me not a sex-positive person to think that?”
Speaking of young people, I tell Savage about a Lyft ride I had ended up sharing to Portland two days before. In the car had been a twenty-six-year-old trans prostitute and a nonbinary queer-identifying pagan student. As they seemed to be at the bleeding edge of progressive sexual culture, I asked them what they thought of Savage. The twenty-six-year old frowned under her mask and said he was “way too assimilationist,” meaning keen on fitting in with mainstream society and its norms.
“People have been calling me an assimilationist forever,” he says. “But Terry and I married on our own terms, had an open relationship, are publicly poly, came out as having an open relationship at the height of the marriage equality debate, when [gay activists] were running around saying, ‘why shouldn’t loving, committed, stable, monogamous gay couples be able to marry?’”
This seems revolutionary enough, but I put it to him that people like the trans prostitute are pushing a more extreme idea of revolution: an overthrowing of capitalism, racism, all the interlocking oppressions they think are stitched into Western society. He emits his first glottal, slightly camp huffs of impatience, though his gaze is still steady: “I’m old enough to remember when there were gay people who thought just having gay sex was the revolution… And you know what? We got out there and sucked a million dicks and it didn’t bring down capitalism.
“We need to overthrow the cis-het patriarchy?’ OK, sure. Good luck with that. The overwhelming majority of everyone is cisgender and the overwhelming majority of everyone is heterosexual. We’re going to have to find a way to be accommodated within those structures on our own terms. That’s what Terry and I have done.”
Savage has little time either for the signature emotional style of the woke left: relentlessly judgmental and unforgiving. He says that now “getting over your shit with gay people” no longer means “getting to have some cool gay friends.” Rather, it means “there’s a never-ending series of surprise quizzes that you’re going to fail. You’re going to use the word that, like half an hour ago, was the word and now isn’t the word. We became a test, and I just don’t think that’s viable as a strategy when you are a tiny minority group blowing up at people.”
He talks about how much finer the left was even when the Obamas were in the White House, how the Obamas never got mad in public, how they understood that alienating large swaths of the electorate was not a productive strategy for gaining power.
“Obama was strategic and smart about it. But we seem incapable of that. I have lefty friends who think incrementalism is a dirty word like assimilation,” he says. “If you don’t believe in utopia, it’s all incrementalism. And if you don’t believe a utopia can be achieved, then everything is incremental progress. And if all you’ll argue for is utopia and all you’ll settle for is utopia, you’re not going to get any progress.”
He points to the triumph of the marriage equality movement. “But instead of saying ‘good job,’ so many left-wing people want to complain.” He talks about the futility of CHAZ (the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone), six blocks in central Seattle where, during the first flush of the George Floyd protests, anti-police occupiers took over the area after the Seattle force vacated its East Precinct building. This, to him, was “utopian horseshit.” He blames some of Seattle’s stark social problems — rampant homelessness is the most striking — on the left’s anti-gentrification credo, which has resulted in far too few high-rises, and thus far too few homes. He adds darkly that Seattle is “overdue” a 9.0 earthquake.
Three hours have passed; we are chilled to the core and part ways. The next day, though, I drop by his and Terry’s house on a prosperous leafy street near Capitol Hill. The house, he’d said, is full of “my great-grandparents’ furniture, it’s all this like junk and [trinkets] from five generations of my family. That’s what we live in. I like old worn, familiar things around me, which is something I’ll say to Terry sometimes to piss him off.”
It is, as promised, full of stuff, some kitsch, some of immense sentimental value, from his childhood home. Above the mantel is the mural from above the urinals at the bar where Terry and Savage first hooked up. Framed pictures of family and press clippings fill the walls. We sip coffee and Savage talks about his fascination for material objects, their history, the life of their own they seem to have.
I realize that Savage is at heart not obsessed with sex at all — or at least he isn’t anymore. He is, rather, a cerebral dreamer, a historian who just happened to be exceptionally good at talking and writing about sex but who now spends his spare time thinking, and writing, about princesses, princes and all the things they had about them.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2022 World edition.