ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's been 30 years since Dan Savage started answering questions about love, sex and relationships, and he is celebrating that anniversary with an alphabet book. "Savage Love From A To Z" is an illustrated collection of essays, one for each letter of the alphabet. E is for expectations. K is for kindness. Those are some of the less explicit ones.
Dan Savage, welcome, and happy anniversary.
DAN SAVAGE: Hey. Thank you for having me, Ari. And thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: Paint a picture for us of what "Savage Love" was like 30 years ago. Like, were people writing it on paper? Were you responding with a typewriter? Like, how did this work?
SAVAGE: Well, the letters came in the mail with stamps, and I got to look at people's handwriting, which was always really interesting and revealing. You know, if somebody wrote me on a legal pad with a fountain pen in very neat script and then claimed to be a 15-year-old girl, I knew that that was a lawyer out there fantasizing about whatever they were describing.
SAVAGE: But the shift to email made it possible for me to write back and forth with letter writers to get more information.
SHAPIRO: Did you save those early letters on paper?
SAVAGE: Yeah, I have a few crates of them, samples...
SAVAGE: ...That are in my attic. Yeah, I did save some.
SHAPIRO: In those early days, how unusual was it for any advice columnist to thoughtfully answer questions about things like kink and nonmonogamy and other aspects of love and sex that might be seen as fringe?
SAVAGE: It was really unusual. What really distinguished my column, besides that I'm pretty pro what works for the couple - and if that's monogamy, I'm pro, and if it's nonmonogamy, I'm pro that - is that I let people use the language they actually use when they talk about sex with their friends in my column in print, which was really rare. There was - you know, 30 years ago, everyone used this kind of Sanskrit, separate, distinct, archaic language when they talked about sex or relationships or sex in the context of relationships.
SHAPIRO: Intercourse or whatever.
SAVAGE: Yeah. And I let people use the word they actually used in print.
SHAPIRO: NPR does not (laughter). We can't use those words in our conversation. But yes.
SAVAGE: But I think maybe you should. I think everyone should because that's how people feel heard. It's how people are best understood. And sometimes it sounds less explicit when people use the standard, off-the-shelf, "crude," quote-unquote, euphemisms for sexual activities, somehow that's less graphic than when you use descriptors that are more sort of medical. And so, yeah, that really was what set "Savage Love" apart. It sounded like a group of friends in a bar having a conversation about their sex lives when they were drunk. And it still does.
SHAPIRO: When you started the column, people couldn't easily look up information online, and now everything is Google-able. So how have search engines changed the kinds of questions that you get and the kinds of answers you give?
SAVAGE: Search engines - you know, I was writing the column before the internet came along. And search engines made my job harder because I used to get a lot of how-to questions or what-is. People would hear about something or overhear something, and they wouldn't have a place to go where they could look that up very easily, and they'd ask me. And those columns were easy to write. I won't use the example I usually use, but - what is this particular sex toy? Well, now that particular sex toy has its own Wiki page, as does almost any sex act that you can think of, which means all of my questions are situational ethics.
SHAPIRO: It's all judgment.
SAVAGE: Yeah, I did this; they did that. Who's right? Who's wrong? What do we do with all these hurt feelings? How do we get past this? Those questions are a lot harder to answer. It's much more of a high-wire act.
SHAPIRO: I know what qualified you to explain what a given activity or toy might be. What do you think qualifies you to weigh in on these really thorny questions of ethics and judgment?
SAVAGE: If you look up advice in the dictionary, it says opinion about what could or should be done. The only qualification you need to give someone your advice is that they asked for it.
SAVAGE: Nobody asked me for my advice cold. They've usually been reading me for years by the time they send me a letter. So they have a sense of my judgment, the soundness of my advice, and they ask.
SHAPIRO: You so often come across as 100% confident and convinced of the position you hold. What would you say is the biggest thing you've changed your mind about in the 30 years you've been writing the column?
SAVAGE: Oh, my God. So many things. I used to be a male bisexuality skeptic, and now I'm a believer in male bisexuality. I was dubious about asexuality when that was first - began to be really kind of publicly addressed and discussed, and now, you know, I get it. Asexuality is a sexual orientation and a valid one and an important one for people to talk about so that people who are asexual don't feel like they're broken, so they can name it and know who they are.
SHAPIRO: Does having been wrong about things like bisexual men or asexuality make you fear that you might be putting bad information about something else out into the world right now?
SAVAGE: Oh, sure. I think anybody who writes for a living - it's a constant process. And you don't judge anybody who writes a weekly column or a daily column or blogs by what they wrote 20 years ago. You have to look at what they continued to write and how their thinking has evolved and changed. One of the kind of perverse dynamics of - I don't want to call it cancel culture - or the internet or Twitter now is there's a lot of people yelling, listen; do better. And then people listen and do better, and then people just keep yelling at you for what you said before you listened and began to try to do better. It seems to me that if you want to bring people along, you got to give them credit where you've seen growth or change. And there's a great example of that in the marriage equality movement. You know, we don't yell at people who used to not support marriage equality for not supporting it soon enough and being wrong at the outset, like Obama in 2007. We're grateful for his evolution and that he came around. We're not still scolding him for where he was when he first ran for president.
SHAPIRO: How are you feeling about this anniversary? Did you ever think you'd be doing this for 30 years?
SAVAGE: I didn't think I'd be doing it for six months.
SAVAGE: When the column started, it was a joke. I was going to - you know, I was a gay guy. It was 1990 when we started talking about the column. And gay people didn't give sex advice to straight people. And so the joke was - I was going to treat straight people with the same contempt that straight advice columnists had always treated gay people who wrote them letters. But straight people had never been treated like that in print before, and they loved it. It was fun for them, as opposed to traumatizing as it was for us. And the column took off. I started getting real questions, real letters. You know, I think what my readers get and what a lot of, you know, straight people sort of intuitively get is that your gay friends know a little bit more about sex than you do, and maybe you're a little better at it than you are. And that's not because we're magic - although we are magic - it's something else. Gay people have to communicate about sex. Straight people get to consent and stop talking about what happens next or what they want. And when two people of the same sex go to bed, they get to yes, they get to consent, and then they have to have a whole conversation about what's going to happen.
SHAPIRO: This is the W essay in the book - what are you into?
SAVAGE: What are you into? And nothing makes you better at sex than communicating. Gay people have to communicate. Straight people can avoid communication, and often do because sex is difficult to talk about. You can't be gay if you can't talk about difficult sexual issues. You know, you can't come out to your family without confronting a difficult sexual issue. It makes it easier for us to have these conversations with our partners. And I think straight people have always kind of gotten that. That's why it's such a cliche for straight people to go to their gay friends with their sex problems or sex questions. And my column just grabbed that out of, like, everyone's high school and college relationships and made - I got a 30-year institution out of it.
SHAPIRO: Well, Dan Savage, congratulations on the 30th anniversary of "Savage Love" and on having a conversation about sex on public radio that did not require any bleeps. I'm very impressed.
SAVAGE: Well, thank you. You're a good role model on the non-bleepy (ph) conversation front.
SHAPIRO: He is a sex columnist, podcast host and author of "Savage Love From A To Z," with illustrations by Joe Newton.
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