'Savage U' Takes Frank Sex Talk To Campus

Dan Savage has made a career offering advice on relationships and sex in his nationally-syndicated column, "Savage Love." Now he's taking his act on the road for his new show, Savage U, in which he travels to college campuses across the country giving students advice on sex and relationships.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

In this next segment, we're going to talk with syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage about his new TV show and touch on subjects that may not be appropriate for children. The program follows Dan Savage to college campuses and reminds us that if young adults are supposedly more active and open than ever, they also share questions, fears and insecurities with every previous generation. Who did you talk to? Who do you trust for advice on matters of sexual intimacy?

Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, that's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Dan Savage writes the nationally syndicated column Savage Love. He also hosts the new program "Savage U" on MTV and he joins us now from member station KUOW in Seattle. Nice to have you back on the program.

DAN SAVAGE: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And one of the things we learn on this show is that you really don't have to introduce yourself. These kids seem to know who you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAVAGE: Yeah, they do. I have a lot of readers in that age group. That's the time of life when people are striking out there, and striking out sometimes, trying to figure out what it is they want to do, who it is they want to do. And a lot of people have problems, questions. A lot of young people are terribly miseducated, really don't get sex educations at all. Even kids, you know, that we think we've given a decent sex education to, all they really covered in those classes was reproductive biology, which is pretty simple.

Negotiating relationships, talking people into sleeping with you, those are the - that's the hard part when it comes to sex and romance and intimacy, and that's where people encounter problems. And that's the time of life, college, when people encounter a lot of them, and I hear from them every day.

CONAN: And you hear from them every day. In terms of your column, why did you decide to take this from print to television?

SAVAGE: I've always wanted to, you know, when I started Savage Love 21 years ago, the idea that I was operating with was I was going to write about sex using the language that people actually used when they talked about sex with their friends. I always called the column a conversation I'm having in a bar with my friends about sex after we've had a couple of drinks. And there isn't - there was never, in all these years I've been watching television, that kind of frank, open, sex-positive conversation about human sexuality or sex and romance and dating on television.

Television, unlike print, unlike the Internet, seemed to be the last place where people were forced to speak of sex in a very different way than everyone knew sex to be practiced. You know, that used to be true in print. You wrote - everybody kind of wrote about not the sex that people were having or that they themselves were having but the sex that everybody kind of agreed that everybody else ought to be having. And that still remains true today on television. Television is really a schizoid when it comes to sex.

Risk taking will be, you know, shown. It'll show people impulsively jumping into bed with one another. And then, you know, when it comes to any conversation about sexual responsibility, what kids are told, what young people are told, what we're all told, is unless it's 100 percent safe, unless it's risk free, you shouldn't do it. Pay no attention to what we're showing you the rest of the time, which is people enjoying sort of risk-free sex and intimacy and hooking up – unless it's 100 percent safe, you shouldn't do it. And nobody who's rational does it unless it's 100 percent safe.

And the truth is, there's no such thing as 100 percent safe sex. There are risks. There are known risks. You need to be informed about the risks, control for them, do what you can to mitigate them. But at a certain point you're just going to go for it. So you might as well be armed with information, birth control, a little common sense before you go for it so that hopefully you won't get harmed by it or dead by it.

CONAN: And that's a lesson that you, in this program and elsewhere, certainly in your column, bring home, I think, every opportunity you have: Be careful

SAVAGE: Yeah, be careful. But don't be paralyzed by fear. You know, there's a lot of fear-mongering that goes on out there, and a real big double standard. You know, people jump out of airplanes and die, and we don't say that no one should ever jump out of an airplane again. People eat chicken salad every day and die from listeria and other food-borne illnesses. We encourage people to eat chicken salad safely. Refrigerate that stuff. Don't leave it sitting on a counter in August for three days and then have a bite.

But we don't say that because sometimes people, you know, come to a bad end, thanks to chicken salad, that it's irrational for anyone ever to touch a chicken salad. Chicken salad's delicious. Have some chicken salad. Refrigerate the chicken salad. Don't eat it when it's a week old. That's helpful information when it comes to chicken salad. And I just apply the same ration, you know, the same reasoning, to sex that other people apply to dinner.

CONAN: Every cohort that has gone away to college since I was a kid, seems to go there with the reputation of being more open and more active than ever before. And things have really changed. And I wonder, you were there more recently than I, have things really changed?

SAVAGE: I think, you know, the stats show that things have changed. One of the things we know, now, is people are delaying the onset of sexual activity, you know, a year or two more than kids used to. Kids are holding on to their virginities a little bit longer. We know the teen pregnancy rate is lower now than it has been for decades, lower than it was in the 1950s - that the Republicans are always pining for - lower now than it was then. I think kids are much more open about sex, particularly, you know, that self-selected group that has gotten into college. You can't be, you know, 16 and pregnant and then go to college very easily. I've jokingly referred to "Savage U," the show on MTV, as 18 and not pregnant.

So that's a group of people who, you know, most of whom by 18 are sexually active. And just by dint of being there, being in college, you can infer that they are being responsible. Otherwise, they wouldn't have made it. They wouldn't still be in college.

CONAN: Who did you turn to for advice back in your day?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAVAGE: I grew up reading Ann Landers. I was a big fan. My grandfather worked for the Chicago Daily News. And I grew up in a house where we took all the papers, as people used to say. We got multiple dailies and afternoon papers. And, you know, the entry point for kids, when it came to newspapers, was first the comics and then the advice column. And so I grew up reading Ann Landers. And then when I was a young man, when I was, you know, going through puberty and my older brothers were acquiring pornography, Xaviera Hollander, "The Happy Hooker," wrote a column for Penthouse magazine back in the day, called "Ask the Madam."

And it was kind of a very commonsensical, blase about differences and variants approach to sex. And her voice, really, I think, combined with Ann Landers' voice and attitude in my head and that became "Savage Love." "Savage Love" is the demon offspring of Ann Landers and Xaviera Hollander.

CONAN: One of them is spinning in her grave.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We're talking with Dan Savage. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Who did you turn to for advice? Who do you trust on matters of sexual intimacy? Let's start with Dave. Dave with us from Redwood City in California.

DAVE: Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, Dave.

DAVE: OK. Well, I probably represent a good example of why you should talk to your child about sex, because I am the youngest of a large family of boys, and I learned about sexual matters from my brothers who are, you know, just like a year or two older than me. And so it didn't really represent the healthiest thing. And I think I found my older brothers' Playboy magazines and then - I don't know when that Woody Allen book came out, about everything you...

CONAN: That was a movie, "Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask." But that was based on a book.

SAVAGE: Yeah, by Dr. David Reuben. It was a very descriptive book.

DAVE: Oh, right. Yeah. Well, that book, I read that book, and that sort of gave a lot of insight to. And I forget when that came out - how old I was. So, anyway...

CONAN: All sources of bad advice.

SAVAGE: Yeah. That book is infamous in sex communities and the gay community, because it's shot through with prejudices tarted up as science and rolled out as fact. You know, what he says in that book is that no gay person has ever been in a relationship or can sustain a relationship. I, you know, I was - I think we're roughly, you know, close to the same age, because, you know, one of the commonalities of the gay experience for guys who's my age, is that we grew up in houses where our parents had that book on a high shelf, and we all pulled it down and read it and were very distressed to learn what we did about, you know, gay relationships that this straight, quote, unquote, "doctor," these, quote, unquote, "facts" he's pulling out of his butt.

But, you know, to get to your point about learning about sex from your brothers, you know, one of the problems we have with sex education in this country is this idea that if we don't talk to kids about sex, they won't hear anything about it. If we don't educate our children about human sexuality, and not just the easy stuff, not just the, quote, unquote, "what's normal" but what's different - because a lot of our kids are different, are going to be different when they grow up - they - kids are talking to each other about sex. And if they're talking to each other without any input from adults, without any decent sex education, they're going to be making stuff up that isn't true that will be accepted as fact.

And that can do real harm and real lasting damage. You know, I too, you know, grew up at a time when there wasn't a lot of sex ed., and I learned a lot about sex from my brothers. And a lot of what I learned about sex from my brothers was incorrect. I had to unlearn that.

CONAN: Dave...

DAVE: Yeah, right. Yeah. My...

CONAN: Thanks for...

DAVE: ...mine was sort of unhealthy, so...

SAVAGE: Well, there you go.

CONAN: I hope that you've had it corrected since then. Thanks very much for the phone call.

DAVE: Yeah.

CONAN: I appreciate it.

DAVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Josh. Josh with us from St. Louis.

JOSH: Oh, hi. I would like to comment on - I think it's really great that you can - Dan Savage came to my girlfriend's school and she told me about, like, the whole thing. And I thought it was really great that you could - like you could ask the questions anonymously, because it can - like in a society, like you just said, like sex talk amongst people pretty openly, then you can - and you're almost expected to know certain things, I feel like, in certain situations. And...

SAVAGE: It's even worse than that. You know, a lot of the sex negative, quote, unquote, "sex education" that kids get gives them the idea, the notion - pounds it into their heads - that ignorance is virtuous. So to exist in a state of not knowing makes you more innocent, and then sex, when it happens, is more natural. And then people really get into trouble when they get sex - they become sexually active, from a place of, you know, willed ignorance.

CONAN: Josh, who did you turn to?

JOSH: I really didn't have anyone - kind of the Internet - which is a terrible place to talk to, in all honesty.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOSH: But like, I was - honestly, I was really insecure to talk about it with anyone, because I felt like it was something that, like, everyone knew.

CONAN: Oh, and neglected to tell you, somehow.

JOSH: Yeah, yeah. Oh, I just didn't - I didn't pick up on everything, like I didn't hear it, and just like, kind of, I don't know, go on with it.

SAVAGE: And there's particular problem for boys, who are supposed to be, you know, kind of worldly-wise studs about it when they become sexually active, even if they're very young. They're supposed to know everything. And studies are showing that, increasingly, you know, huge swaths of the country where there is no sex education, kids are getting sex education from pornography. They're turning to online porn for sex ed. because there's nothing else available to them.

And people who object to sex ed. usually also object to porn and, you know, porn cultures and the way sex is portrayed at porn. If you don't want your kid getting his or her sex education from pornography, you need to provide an alternative.

CONAN: Josh, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

JOSH: All right, thanks.

CONAN: We're talking with Dan Savage, who's the host of the new MTV program "Savage U," and asking you, who did you turn to? We got this tweet from Christopher, not public radio, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. This is a - email we have from Mike in Madison. I've been a big fan of Dan Savage for a long time. His Podcast and column are wonderful, provide an invaluable service. That said, I watched the first episode of his new show and didn't - and think it's a poor way to provide any serious sex education. The way they edit the clips with jokes and music does not give adequate time to any issue that is raised. Also, how can you expect a college student to ask an important sexual question in front of a room of hundreds of classmates and on TV?

SAVAGE: Well, the show begins a conversation, and we toss out a lot of facts. And hopefully, if you continue to watch the show, the premier, the one episode that aired last Tuesday was the pilot. And I think the show gets better over the season, and hopefully, you'll give it another chance and enjoy it more. But, you know, we have 22 and a half minutes on television. We raise subjects, hopefully with, you know, the "It's Your Sex Life" component of it, the MTV website. People whose curiosities piqued and want more information about a subject that's been raised can find it and know where to go to find it.

I don't, you know, I'm certainly not going to suggest that in 22 and a half minutes, over 12 weeks and 12 episodes, that we're going to provide the audience with a comprehensive sex education. And I haven't really been able to do that in my column. I couldn't do that in 12 columns. What you get reading an advice column is a little bit of common sense and permission to talk, and speak openly, and then seek more information and more input if you need it. And sometimes that's enough for people. Sometimes that's the boost they need.

CONAN: After all these years, has anyone ever asked you a question that embarrassed you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAVAGE: Yeah, my relatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAVAGE: When you write a sex advice column and you go home for, you know, a funeral or a wedding and you're the, you know, the sex guy, you will have cousins and aunts and uncles come up to you and pull you aside, privately, to ask you a sex question. And that's kind of harrowing, and I don't get paid enough to answer my aunt's sex questions.

CONAN: Let's go to Dylan. Dylan's with us from Jacksonville.

DYLAN: Hi, guys. I was calling because before I tuned in to "Savage Love" and to the "Savage Love" cast in particular, I got my sex advice from friends. I didn't really think too much about it. But Dan has given me an entirely new perspective on sex, on sex relation - or sexual relationships - and even things that I myself am not interested in. He is a fantastic window into the world of sexuality, and thank you for everything that you do, Dan.

SAVAGE: Thank you very much. You know, one of the criticisms I get for the column is often we'll be talking about kind of esoteric sex acts. But it helps people to know where they fall on that spectrum of what is and isn't normal. It also helps people to know that normal isn't normal. When you say - when you ask somebody to picture, you know, you walk into a room and there's two people having, quote, unquote, "normal sex" and you stumble into that, what are you looking at?

And people will say missionary position, opposite sex, within the bounds of marriage and the lights off. When it comes to human sexuality, that occurrence is - you know, all those things coming together at once - is so rare that what we think of as normal is actually kind of odd and freakish. And just to know that, can really liberate people to feel ashamed and embarrassed and inhibited about their, quote, unquote, "not normal desires." Everybody has a little bit from - I'd like to call it column C.

There's column A with all the normal stuff that we're all kind of in agreement about. There's column B, which is just the, you know, a little kinky. And column C, which is like, whoa. I think everybody has at least one thing from column C. Even if they've never done it, it kind of plays in their head. It's a favorite fantasy. And knowing that you're not a freak, that other people you perceive to be normal have their column C interests too, is very liberating. And it makes people feel very at peace, which is why we cover those things in "Savage Love."

Also, the ethics that apply in a situation where a kink is being discussed, apply even if your sex life is very, very, very satisfying and gratifying, and what you want, but very normal. The ethics apply - about treating people decently, being good, giving and game, doing unto others as you would like them to do unto you, just with the added dimension, that trotting that phrase out in the sex advice context implies.

CONAN: Dan Savage, thanks very much for your time. Good luck with the show.

SAVAGE: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Dan Savage writes the nationally syndicated column "Savage Love." He is the host of the new MTV program "Savage U" and joined us today from member station KUOW in Seattle. Tomorrow, we'll take a closer look at what's in the food we eat. Join us for that conversation. Yeah, pink slime, all of that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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