Dan Savage: “It was gonna be a joke”

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Dan Savage is a public radio personality, leading anti-harassment activist, MTV star, and prominent Republicans hangman. But at first he was a sex columnist. Her column “Savage Love” debuted in the first issue of Stranger, the Seattle alternative weekly, on September 23, 1991, and would soon change the world of sex counseling – a world dominated, at the time, by the relatively shy Dr. Ruth and the once popular “Ask Isadora”. Now that “Savage Love” is over 20 years old, it’s worth looking back at what the self-described “Seattle Grandpa” did.

“It was going to be a joke at first,” Savage tells me, when I visit him in Seattle. Our one-day conversation moved from his office to the foreigner, where he sits at Ann Landers’ old desk, which he bought at auction, at the cafe at the back of Elliott Bay Book Co., a Seattle institution where other patrons nod their heads towards Savage, hoping he recognizes them. “We weren’t paid. I was going to do that like a lark for a few months, then go back to Berlin, ”where he lived with his boyfriend. In the first column, the letters to the readers were written by colleagues from Abroad, and they all started with the joke address “Hey, fagot.” It was the last time that colleagues had to write the letters; soon there was regular mail from the readers, who picked up Savage’s favorite greeting.

Until 1999, when Savage pulled the joke, “Hey, queer” was the standard invocation at the top of every letter to “Savage Love.” But “Savage Love” has never been only about homosexuality, much less only about other homosexuals. At first, it was not intended for them at all. “The idea,” says Savage, “was going to be a joke advice column that treated straight people with the same contempt for straight sex and the same revulsion that straight people have always treated the idea of ​​gay sex. “

But then the unexpected happened. “These letters have started to arrive,” says Savage. “Real questions from real people. The straight guys started to answer me. All of a sudden, Savage – “I had never written anything in my life,” he recalls – had to develop a voice, a style, a message, an ethic. He had to learn to give advice.

At that time in the history of popular sex counseling, the field was dominated by two women: Ruth ”Dr Ruth“Westheimer and Isadora”Ask Isadora“Alman. Dr Ruth, a Holocaust survivor, a veteran of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and a former Sorbonne student, rose to fame by hosting a New York-based nighttime radio show, “Sexually Speaking” , then very famous according to David Letterman discovered that she was a sacred guest. The public adored this little sage with the Euro-shrink voice. Dr Ruth’s German accent was both psychoanalytic – the Times called it “an accent only a psychologist could have” – ​​and grandmother; he promised a stern conversation followed by a hug. The voice was imitated by Morning Zoo radio hosts across the country; an immigrant’s shtick laughing about sex toys never seemed to get old. Isadora was a bit more sober – you can see in the photo that accompanied her newspaper column – but like Dr Ruth, she was a therapist with a radio show and a newspaper column. Her San Francisco Bay Guardian column appeared repeatedly in three dozen newspapers, including many alternative weeklies that would eventually replace her with Savage.

There is nothing wrong with Dr Ruth or Isadora. Like Regis Philbin or Letterman’s character Larry “Bud” Melman, Dr. Ruth is a true television talent. Impossible to look away or close your ears: her voice survives in the soundscape of the collective unconscious of American showbiz, like Jimmy Stewart or Ethel Merman or Woody Allen. And the two women know their stuff: it was radio shows and chronicles that triggered a million clitoral orgasms. They were reliable guides on electrical wiring and the mechanics of sex. But if they liked sex, they liked safe sex, safe in all respects. Dr. Ruth’s radio show was owned by NBC, after all. She did not take any live calls; she was reading questions in letters she had received – it was much safer that way. Gay sex was mostly absent from Dr Ruth’s world. For straight guys, she was talking about vibrators – but no dungeons, S / M, water sports. She said “Go get yours!” The empowerment of girls that would have been courageous for the 1970s and which was still refreshing for the 1980s. It was not for the 1990s. She was recently found to be a co-teacher, along with the campus rabbi, a course at Yale on the Jewish family.

Isadora, whom I grew up reading in the Valley Advocate, the Western Massachusetts alternative weekly, was measured and reassuring: a column compiled in her book “Ask Isadora”, published in 1991, the year ” Savage Love “debuted. “Whether we are counting in seconds, minutes or hours, if an ejaculation occurs sooner than a man or his partner would like, if its arrival is greeted with ‘Oops! rather than “Ahhh” by either party, it could be seen as premature. “

Measured and reassuring are good traits for a columnist, but not sufficient traits for a great columnist. Savage was a great columnist, tall in a way that horrified the relatively antiseptic Alman (who wouldn’t officially talk about Savage). “When my column was picked up in San Francisco,” says Savage, “Isadora Alman and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation tried to remove it, called it a hate crime. Isadora Alman tried to stab me. . She hated me. She called me the Howard Stern of sex advice, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not really an insult.’ Savage shared Stern’s concerns: he was talking to trannies, intersex, polyamorous, or even just straight guys who had embarrassing questions demanding raw answers.

And if a profession needed a Howard Stern, it was sex advice. What the world got was a brave, fabulous, unblushed, gay Howard Stern. It makes sense, in hindsight, that the great sex columnist is a homosexual who grew up in the 1970s. (Savage came out in 1981, “in the buzz of the AIDS crisis,” he says. chance to be alive.) Savage was part of a generation of gay men who knew gay culture – bathhouses, the party circuit, drugs, behind the scenes of bars – before the possibility of domesticity. straight style, with tolerant husbands, children and neighbors. An urban homosexual his age knew wild boys and bizarre fetishists; even though, like Savage, he was a fairly tame boy, it was going to take a lot to shock him. At the same time, a gay man who came out in the early 1980s was going to take safe sex very seriously, along with the entire menu of sexual activity in addition to sex.

Savage readers immediately trusted him. They asked if it was safe to drink their lover’s urine, or if the stories of anal sex causing loose bowels were true. They asked about sneezing fetishes. They asked about mummification. They sent him pictures of their sores and lesions, asking if they should go to the doctor. (Yes.) When the internet got there, they asked him about the best websites to buy bondage clothes. They asked about midget porn.

But they also asked about relationships, looking for denominational letters unlike anything Americans thought they were sending Dr Ruth. Perhaps this was because the column was called “Savage Love,” although the overwhelming pun on Savage’s last name didn’t necessarily dictate anything about the column’s content: it could have been. These include blowjobs, handjobs, and tips for buying lube. I think people are more likely to ask about love because for most of us – those who don’t live in a popper-and-ecstasy-fueled half-world of nightly raves, or in the vampire / corset subculture – the more intimate sexual matters come up when we are with someone we love. For most couples, role play or bondage is an activity that takes place in month six or six, not on date three.

In other words, wild sex goes hand in hand with wild love. Combining these two human experiences in one column was Dan Savage’s great innovation.

Extract of “Dan Savage: The First Gay Celebrity”, a new eBook by Mark Oppenheimer that can be purchased here.

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