From Issue 3.5 - June 1997
Dan Savage is the faggot behind the popular sex-advice column Savage Love, syndicated in alternative weeklies nationwide (in San Francisco the column appears in the SF Weekly). His acerbic tone, queer slant, in-your-face discussion of sex, and common-sense advice have gained him the loyalty of young urban readers and those tired of the "compassion grinder" of other sex advice columnists.
Savage's column made headlines nationwide when gay activists accosted him for using the epithet "faggot" -- the greeting he insists his readers of all sexual orientations use in their letters to him. Savage defends his use of the term in the spirit of reclaiming words like "queer." He makes his living as a sex advice columnist and is working on two books due out next year.
In Out magazine's February '97 article surveying queer icons on their views of queer culture heading into the next millennium, Savage said that queers must confront the issue of how leather-S/M got soooo boring? Cuir Underground founder Kiki Carr asked Dan the same question.
CU: Just how did leather-S/M get so boring?
DS: I think it got boring because we talked about it too much. The thing that we should all do to make S/M sex interesting again is to shut up about it. At one time the entree' into the scene wasn't so easy. You had to search out and find people to show you the ropes, literally. When I came out 16 years ago I had a circle of twinkie gay friends who would not be your friend if you went to a leather bar. There were consequences socially. Bad people went to leather bars. Now, of course, everybody goes to leather bars, and boring people just won't shut the fuck up.
CU: Yet there are still people who complain about how S/M is portrayed as a horrible pathological thing.
DS: I wish it were more pathological. It's not very popular to argue for the re-pathologizing of S/M, but it certainly was hotter before it exploded.
CU: It was transgressive, and now it's an institution.
DS: S/M sex seems to be all about transgression. That's what gave us hard-ons and slickies. The leather-S/M community itself has worked hard to make it non-transgressive. It has taken away my boner for it. And I was one of those people who was tying himself up at 12 years old!
CU: Did it lose its appeal for you in a public sense, or also in a private sense?
DS: In a public sense, I guess. What doesn't interest me is "the community" that's been constructed around this desire. So many people involved in "the community" do not share the desire -- it's just a club to belong to. It used to be that the only reason you would be in a leather bar was because you were so swamped by desires that you were willing to forego social approval, in much the same way that when you're gay, you're eventually so swamped by desire that you come out. There used to be a rite of passage into leather. It isn't interesting anymore.
CU: A lot of that may have to do with how institutionalized leather-S/M has become in terms of literal institutions. All these groups have sprung up and are telling people exactly how to do S/M. We're all safe, sane and consensual, right?
DS: Actually there were more rules about how to do it before there were all these clubs and books. There was the hanky code, and there was a way to be a top and a way to be a bottom. What I like is a hybrid of the old-guard transgressive nature of S/M sex and the new-guard attitude of "whatever you want." It almost seems like actual S/M sex is secondary to the lifestyle and to the culture that's built up around clubs and runs and beer busts and contests. Contests make me wanna vomit! They're so boring! Is there anything that makes S/M sex seem less erotic than the fantasy sequences in these contests?
CU: And the dyke ones are even worse!
DS: I went to a dyke contest with a couple of lesbian friends who were totally into S/M. We were so disappointed and depressed that we repaired to the bar to drink ourselves blind. A woman from the leather AA organization started lecturing us about the fact that we were getting boisterously, publicly drunk and said we were setting a terrible example. We were like, "fuck you!" She's a leather dyke, she wants to beat up women, and she's telling us that we can't get drunk?
I remember the first leather bars I went to when I was 16 years old. They were gay biker bars. They were dangerous. Now I'm sure there are AIDS quilting bees and fucking AA meetings in the back of every leather bar!
CU: What are your personal boundaries for advice that you'd never give. I would guess that you'd never give advice like "see a therapist" (until this week).
DS: I have given advice like that, but I usually don't. I think that therapists are parasites, and I think that people usually have it within themselves. Basically I think that paying a therapist is like paying someone to be your friend. If you don't have friends to count on when you're down, you're probably too messed up to make friends, and should probably see a therapist. But I'm not a therapy-queen.
CU: Who do you not want to sound like?
DS: I don't want to sound like Isadora Allman, because she's boring. People are at their wittiest, most combative and most interesting when they're talking about sex and their problems. Yet invariably, when sex and problems get churned through the "compassion grinder" of an advice column, it just gets dull. The only way we're allowed to talk about sex in a forum like a newspaper is usually in respectful hoo-ha language. That's not the way my gay friends talk about sex; it's not the way my straight friends talk about sex; it's not the way my mother talks about sex. So that's what I want to avoid in my column -- falling into the PC language trap.
CU: Are you a pervert? What's the most perverted thing you've done sexually?
DS: That's hard to answer because everyone has their own perversion scale. I like everything from very vanilla to very rocky road. The most perverse thing I've ever done would have to be two things. The first involved a guy in New York City who I met at the Spike. I went to his house, and the whole time I was terrified that the situation was about to become not safe, sane and consensual.
CU: ...which is the hottest thing of all.
DS: Exactly. While it was going on I hated it. But it was eight years ago, and it's one of my top masturbatory fantasies to this day. The other is really weird, okay? I met this 18-year-old (I was 28). He started talking about his motorcycle cop fetish. He came over to my house and he had a big bag, and he said, "I'm gonna go change." He went into the bathroom and came out looking like Erik Estrada in CHiPs -- the whole outfit, from the top of his helmet-covered head to the bottom of his boots! He wanted to be pushed around and arrested using his own handcuffs. I got him halfway out of his clothes and he had a bra on! So I took the rest of his clothes off, and he had panties on. He ended up wanting to be put in drag. He wanted to go from a California highway patrolman into drag, and be called whore and pussy and girl-names, and get fucked.
CU: You made the whole transition without dropping the role-play somewhere along the line?
DS: Oh sure. He was a beautiful AmerAsian boy, and once I put him in drag he looked like a girl. It was one of those experiences where you go, "okay, this isn't my boner, but this is never gonna happen to me again." We didn't do anything that was unsafe and I didn't do anything in which he didn't take the lead because I didn't want to spook him. But he had the post-orgasmic regret that people can get when they're just starting out. The moment he came, he wanted to leave. He left in such a hurry that he left behind his panties and his watch. I called him and he said, "Don't call me." I said, "I'm just calling to tell you..." And he hung up on me before I could say, "...you left your watch in my apartment." It was pretty weird.
CU: Next question --what gets you hot and bothered?
DS: My boyfriend. My boyfriend's rear-end is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life. He looks like a British pop star. We've been together for three years. What gets me hot and bothered lately is 26-year-olds who look like they're 14, which is what my boyfriend looks like. I'm sort of waiting for my NAMBLA [North American Man/Boy Love Association] card to come in the mail. All the perks of pederasty and none of the jail time!
CU: Any particular favorite porn artists, writers, etc.?
DS: I think the best gay male S/M magazine is Bound & Gagged. It has a Penthouse Forum-crossed-with-DIY [do it yourself] aesthetic that I think is just groovy. I don't watch a lot of straight S/M pornography. The most interesting thing in S/M to me is the intersection of straight and gay culture.
CU: What do you mean?
DS: I think straight S/M culture is basically gay S/M culture. I think it's been adopted. I've played with a lot of straight guys because straight guys want to have S/M experiences similar to the ones gay men are having.
CU: Like what?
DS: Things they perceive gay men to be doing. Unlike you, Kiki, most women aren't kinky. So there are just more boys out there who would like to tie up boys than there are girls who would like to tie up boys. This is one of those questions that will never be answered -- why are there fewer kinky women than men? Is it because women are socialized not to be kinky?
CU: Women are socialized not to be sexual, I would say.
DS: The feminine ideal is a passive ideal and the masculine ideal is a violent ideal. Paradoxically, there are so many more restrictions on males expressing themselves sexually. At the same time that women are socialized not to be sexual, men are socialized to be sexual only in one way. That's why you see all these twisted straight men who are terrified of their own assholes and their own desire. They don't know what to do with the fact that they want to put on heels; I think they end up wanting to put on heels because they are told so emphatically that they shouldn't. It's lucky for gay men that there is such a dearth of kinky women and such a glut of kinky men. I've had great times playing with kinky straight boys.
CU: And they didn't get their brains tweaked by that?
DS: No, because when I played with straight boys, the first thing I told them was, "I don't wanna suck your dick, and I don't wanna fuck you in the ass, and I don't want you to suck my dick." In the same way that a lot of people end up doing S/M with people they're not really attracted to -- because they want to do the activity -- straight guys can see their way clear to doing that as well. They want to be tied up and they can't find it for free from anybody but men.
CU: Another unfortunate thing. Well, I guess it's fortunate for all the dominatrices out there [laughter]. My final question is, if you were to send a real-life question to a sex advice columnist, what would it be?
DS: [stalling, mumbling about how his boyfriend would kill him] Am I
the only one who still has issues about having non-procreative sex?