Five months after the death of Esther Eppie Lederer in 2002, the bulk of her estatea sprawling Chicago apartments worth of furniture, photographs, papers, and memorabiliawent up for public auction with some fanfare in Elgin, Illinois.
Lederer, who was better known by the pen name Ann Landers, had for almost fifty years written Americas foremost newspaper advice column. With an estimated 90 million readers, the self-described nice Jewish girl from Sioux City, Iowa, was often counted among the most influential women in the United States. What was most remarkable about that influence was its breadth: she advised teenagers about pimples and presidents about missile defenseand the presidents often wrote her back.
Before her death, Lederer made clear that the Ann Landers pseudonym, which she had inherited in 1955, would die with her. But that did not prevent would-be successors from seeking to assume her mantle in more symbolic ways. On the auction block that November were Lederers writing desk and typewriter, on which she had composed her responses to correspondents like Desperate in Denver and Nervous in Nevada. When the bidding was over, an advice columnist named Dan Savage happily walked away with them. Today, the desk sits in Savages office in Seattle, where he serves as editorial director of the citys alternative weekly The Stranger and writes his own hugely successful weekly sex advice column, Savage Love. His correspondents have included a woman signing off as Fucking Asshole Idiot Losers (FAIL), who faced a very modern problem. My husband and I have a dont ask, dont tell policy when were apart, she began.
A few months ago, I hooked up with a guy on a business trip who said he and his wife have the same arrangement. He was lying. His wife found out and started harassing me on Facebook. I truly feel horrible. How can I know if someone is really in an open relationship when they say they are? I am so done.
Savage pointed out, The only way to verify that someone is in an open relationship is to speak to that persons partnerand as that would constitute telling, FAIL, it would be a violation of a dont ask, dont tell policy.
But even a couple with a please ask, do tell policy probably has a rule against 2:00 a.m. calls from drunken hotel-bar pickups. So youll have to trust your gut, FAIL, which failed you here. Just remember this on your next business trip: The further a married person is from home and the drunker that married person is, the likelier it is that that married person is lying to you.
Suffice it to say, Savage is not the most obvious heir to Landerss ultra-mainstream legacy. His columns answer a Chaucerian panorama of correspondents: gay Mormons, incestuous siblings, weight-gain fetishists, men yearning to be cuckolded, and otherwise ordinary Americans grappling with an extraordinary range of problems and proclivities. By the standards of a family newspaper, his advice is not only explicit but broad-minded to the point of being radical, encouraging people to embrace or at least tolerate previously unmentionable sexual inclinations in their partners, praising open relationships, and celebrating behaviors that might cause even the most intrepid reader to balk.
When he isnt offering advice, the openly gay Savage has also made a name for himself by serving as a kind of gonzo avenging angel for the nations sexual minorities. In 2000, he went on assignment for Salon.com to cover the presidential campaign of the Christian rights boutique candidate, Gary Bauer, while suffering from a bad case of the flu. After listening to one of Bauers harangues against gay marriage, Savage decided to pose as a campaign volunteer and infect the candidate by licking doorknobs, coughing on staplers, and slobbering on pens around Bauers Iowa headquarters, making that the subject of his dispatch. Then, in 2003, Savage went viral in a different way, after Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum compared same-sex marriages to man on dog relationships. In response, the columnist held a contest among his readers to redefine the word santorum as vividly as possible as a new term in the sexual lexicon. The winning definitionunforgettable and unprintablequickly spread so widely online as to eclipse the Google ranking of the senator himself. Which was, of course, the point. Santorum lost his seat in 2006. Landers, who struggled with accepting homosexuality and whose idea of tough language was kwitcherbellyachin, probably would not have approved.
And yet, Savage took pains to clarify that his purchase of Eppie Lederers desk was not meant as an act of desecration. While its highly ironic that the worlds smuttiest advice column will now be written at the same desk where the worlds most mainstream (and most popular) advice column was once written, Savage wrote, I intended no disrespect. Indeed, he said, he had been a devoted fan of Ann Landers ever since boyhood. And strange as it may sound, Savage is increasingly playing the kind of culture-bestriding role that Ann Landers once did.
After twenty years of churning out Savage Love, the Seattle writer can lay a legitimate claim to being Americas most influential advice columnist. He is syndicated across the world in more than seventy newspapersmainly alternative weeklies in the United Stateswith well over one million in total circulation. Online, he reaches millions more readers. He is a frequent contributor to the popular radio program This American Life, and a Savage Love television show on MTV is said to be in the works. His podcast has a higher iTunes ranking than those of Rachel Maddow or the NBC Nightly News, and his four books have sold briskly (a fifth is due out in March). And when it suits him, the range of his commentary has become increasingly broad. In the space of one columnthe one where he announced his purchase of Ann Landerss deskSavage offered advice to a thirty-year-old woman who wanted to sleep with a seventeen-year-old coworker (It would be illegal for you to GO AHEAD), fielded a question from a man with a childbirth fetish, and then, for good measure, advised the Bush administration to take a harder stance on Saudi Arabia.
Savages ability to mobilize legions of readers has also matured beyond the lobbing of incendiary Google bombs. Last fall, a streak of suicides by gay teenagers across the country inspired Savage and his husband, Terry, to post a video testimonial on YouTube. The two men recounted their difficulties growing up bullied and harassed, then held up their adult livesand happiness as a coupleas evidence that, for gay people living in America, it gets better. Savage encouraged other people to film their own testimonials and post them online under the heading of the It Gets Better Project. A torrent of videos poured in, first from Savages regular readers, then from various Hollywood celebrities, and then from leaders in Washington. Hillary Clinton was quickly followed by Nancy Pelosi and President Obama himself, who delivered the line, Every day, it gets better from the White House.
Its not every day that a sitting president takes cues from a sex columnist who once licked Gary Bauers doorknob. But for all his prowess as an advice writer and viral activist, Savages most lasting influence on American culture may ultimately register in a deeper and more enduringly significant realm: ethics. While he built his following by talking without fear or euphemism about the technical aspects of intimate life, Savage has moved inexorably over the years toward focusing on the moral ones. In so doing, he has carved a unique place for himself in the cultures discourse about sex. For years, there have been moralizing voices on the right standing athwart the rush of sexual freedoms yelling Stop, and there have been others whose policy is to remain nonjudgmental toward sex as a form of expression. Savage yields to no one in his sexual libertarianism, but he has not been content to relegate the ideas of right and wrong to cultural conservatives. Wading deep into the free-fire zone of modern sexuality, he has codified a remarkably systematicand influentialset of ethics where traditional norms have fallen away. The question is, into what kind of world do his ethics lead us?
As he tells it in the introduction to his first book, Savage Love: Straight Answers from Americas Most Popular Sex Columnist, Savage grew up in a home crammed with newspapers and porn. His grandfather, in whose apartment he lived, was a sportswriter for two Chicago dailies. His older brother stashed away copies of Penthouse and Playboy in the bedroom. He attributes his trajectory toward the advice-giving business to the combined influence of Ann Landers and Xaviera Hollander, who wrote the Call Me Madam advice column for Penthouse. He also eavesdropped on his mother, whom he called a one-woman support group for neighbors with problems that couldnt be taken to a priest. The sexual revolution was well and truly on, but in the Savage household, it seems, the distinctions of mid-century American propriety still held. Newspapers casually cluttered the front room, while dirty pictures lurked under the bed. There were problems for priests and problems for sympathetic neighbors, questions for Ann Landers and questions for Xaviera.
These distinctions will be at least vaguely familiar to most Americans over the age of thirty. Savage came of age in the Indian summer of American prudery. Before Savage was born, Alfred Kinsey had begun to vex the identification of moral and behavioral norms in a way that would reverberate through the coming decades. Upon close examination, the zoologist reported, it turned out that the sexual behavior of the human animalthe term is Kinseys, and the choice is significantis a good deal more varied than previously assumed. According to Kinseys sensational research, Americans were a lot gayer, more prone to cheating, and more sadomasochistic than the Archdiocese or the Tribune would ever want to acknowledge. Perhaps it was not the conduct of a few on the margins that had failed our moral norms, these findings suggested. Perhaps it was our norms that had failed us.
The ground beneath American sexual conventions was shifting dramatically, but the tremors only registered in mainstream culture with a considerable lag. In a 1967 column, Ann Landers published a teen sex test that posed a series of questions (Have you ever been kissed while in a reclining position? Ever gone all the way?) and assigned points to each one according to its gravity. By tallying up their scores, teens could find out whether they were pure as the driven snow, passionate and headed for trouble, or condemned. As time went by, however, more and more kids drifted toward the condemned end of the scale, and Landers had to update the testfirst in 1978, then again in 1996.
Landers made her accommodations, but she never did start addressing the emotional and practical difficulties of, say, having a husband who insists on dressing up as a woodland animal when making loveor who wants to deviate from strict monogamy with his wifes consent. Indeed, it was long difficult to find any cultural medium that navigated successfully between bashfulness and outright smut. Unless, that is, you lived in a city with an alternative weekly. Here was a publication format with one foot in the Tribune and one in the tattoo parlor. No dirty pictures, most likely, but plenty of news and events from the counterculture, an uncensored style book, and a bunch of personal ads aimed at gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals, all available for free at bookstores, coffee houses, head shops, food co-ops, and bohemian-friendly bars. A better setting and a more receptive audience for Dan Savages style of advice giving could not have been designed.
What was rather less obvious in 1991, when Savage took his place in the advice game, were the ways in which the explosion of online culture would finally break down the wall between the papers and the porn stash. Once adherents of every kink and fetish could find chat rooms, support groups, specially tailored erotica, and even social networking sites, two things happened: the culture suddenly appeared more sex-drenched than ever, and alternative media sources like the ones that published Savage Love could no longer get by simply serving as a bulletin board and instruction manual for erotic explorers. Savage, for his part, seemed to relish this moment of creative destruction, which all but demanded the sex columnist to perform a higher function. To those correspondents who still simply wanted to know where to find other people who shared their special hankerings, or who inquired after the meaning of some obscure sexual term, Savage impatiently pointed out the existence of Google. Instead, in his second decade as a writer, he has increasingly addressed himself to those correspondents troubled by the questions of right and wrong on the new intimate frontier.
Half my mail at Savage Love is from straight men and women who want to be reassured that their kinksfrom BDSM to cross-dressing to fucking animals (!)are normal, Savage wrote in 2007, echoing a note of exasperation he has sounded a few times over the years. Savage has made clear he is not primarily interested in adjudicating whether peoples bedroom proclivities lie on the safe side of normality. (What these insecure readers really want, it would seem, is an Ann Landers sex test, graded on an infinitely forgiving curve.) Likewise, proud fetishists looking for blanket approval from a back-slapping fellow deviant are just as prone to be disappointed. Savage does embrace a whole host of kinks. But for him, whats most important is that abandonment of inhibition should never entail an abandonment of personal responsibility. And as it happens, a column premised on its authors willingness to say what others wont say, and countenance what others wont countenance, has proven to be an ideal forum for probing the nuances of what we owe each other when the lights are off.
In 2000, Savage answered a letter from a fifteen-year-old boy who was using both meth and heroin and engaging in a regular mnage trois with his girlfriend and an adult man. The question the teen posed to Savage was not, needless to say, whether he should be having sex before marriage (or high school graduation). Nor, for that matter, was he asking whether it was advisable to take part in a legally risky threesome, or to dabble in hard substances. Rather, the boys question was whether he, a big hippie, had an obligation to tell the man, an avid anti-drugger, about his use of meth and heroin. Savage was not exactly affirming in his response:
You are an idiot. The drugs youre doing, young skank, are dangerous and, however careful you are with needles, sooner or later theyre going to kill you, he wrote. What should you do about your drug-phobic, statutory-rapist fuck buddy? Well, Id say that like any good hippie you should be open, honest, loyal, brave, and true. Tell him what the holes in your arm are all about, and give him the option of staying or going. You say you have feelings for this guy, and if thats the case, you owe him the truth. If thats not the case, well, then you might as well go ahead and steal his stereo and TV set now.
Savages advice here faintly echoes the presumptions against hard drug use and teenage risky behavior that prevailed in Ann Landerss day, but it pivots on the boys obligation to disclose any and all information of relevance to a sexual partnerthe first ground rule of Savages ethics. Full disclosure is a minimal standard, but one that many who have sought Savages advice fail to meet. This sounds more like a question for The Ethicist, a charming new advice column in The New York Times Magazine, but since you asked, Ill give it a go, he wrote in 1999 to a young man living with a woman he didnt love because he couldnt afford his own place. You are an asshole Youre allowing this woman to make assumptionsfalse assumptionsabout your intentions for your own gain. Meanwhile, he encouraged a correspondent with a long history of sexual infidelity to become an honest womanby telling her partners about her need to stray: Where there are no lies of commission or omission, SKANK, theres no deceit. And where theres no deceit, there are no boys whose hearts are broken when they find out they are being cheated on. The configurations involved in these questions, from simple cohabitation to three-way relations to old-fashioned cheating, are not at issue. The obligation of each questioner to be up front about what they want and do is what drives the ethical dilemma in each case.
The second rule in Savage ethics is autonomy. To a scruple-plagued feeder (someone aroused by the excessive eating of a partner, known as a gainer), he wrote that she and her boyfriend should negotiate an explicit power exchange contract where his diet and weight are concerned in order to keep their shared fetish within some reasonably healthy limits. All the same, our bodies are our own theyre ours to use, abuse, and since were all going to die one day, theyre ours to use up. A high-functioning regular heroin user (not quite an addict) wrote to ask whether drug use is a civil rights issue along the same lines as gay rights. After some hemming and hawing, Savage fell back on the same principle at work in the feeder/gainer scenario. Yeah, the freedom to use drugs can certainly be viewed as a civil-rights issue: Its about the right to control what you do with your own body, and that argument resonates with others advanced by gay-rights advocates and advocates of reproductive choice. Its not exactly a resounding endorsement of a junkie-rights movement, but its hard to withhold if recreational erotic weight gain is also ethically protected by self-ownership.
Reciprocity constitutes the third rule of Savages ethical worldview. A heated contretemps in his columnone of many over the yearsconcerned the relationship between low libido and monogamy. You can have strict monogamy or you can have a low libido, ladies, but you cant have both, he wrote, adding, Oh, and guys? You need to accept those tide-you-over blowjobs and handjobs just as cheerfully as she gives them. People who want to open up their relationships are told that the opening must work both ways, and Savage has spent more than one column teasing out what precisely constitutes a mutual departure from monogamy. He has even waded into the field of housework. If theres some semblance of balance, if theres cheerful reciprocity, then why not do his damn laundry? he tells a woman concerned about her otherwise-stellar boyfriends poor housekeeping habits.
Fourth, Savage has consistently advocated a minimum standard of performance for each partner in a relationship. His knack for turning catchy maxims into acronyms and abbreviations struck gold with GGG, a bullet-pointed ideal of mutual sexual satisfaction: Think good in bed, giving equal time and equal pleasure, and game for anythingwithin reason. Obstinate failure in these areas is grounds for one partner to DTMFA (Dump the Motherfucker Already). His metaphors, always vivid, can become straightforwardly commercial on this point. Oral sex is standard, he has repeatedly said. Any model that comes without it should be returned to the lot.
Underlying all of Savages principles, abbreviations, and maxims is a pragmatism that strives for stable, livable, and reasonably happy relationships in a world where the old constraints that were meant to facilitate these ends are gone. Disclosure is necessary, but not beyond reason. Honesty [is] the best policy and all, he advised a guilty boyfriend, but each of us gets to take at least one big secret to the grave. Stuck with a husband whose porn stash has grown beyond what you thought you were signing up for? Put it behind closed doors and try not to think about it. Who knows how many good relationships have been savedand how many disastrous marriages have been avertedby heeding a Savage insistence on disclosing the unmet need, tolerating the within-reason quirk, or forgiving the endurable lapse? In ways that his frequent interlocutors on the Christian right wouldnt expect, Savage has probably done more to uphold conventional families than many counselors who are unwilling to engage so frankly with modern sexual mores. A successful marriage is basically an endless cycle of wrongs committed, apologies offered, and forgiveness granted, he advised one very uptight spouse, all leavened by the occasional orgasm.
All the same, behind Savages pragmatism stand some fairly strong claims about how sex relates to selfhood. Whatever else he ends up advising a correspondent to do, Savage tends to insist that sexual inclinationsfrom high libido and a desire for multiple partners to very rare kinks and fetishesare immutable and even dominant characteristics of any personality. Some desires may be impossible to fulfill, others are flagrantly immoral, and most any can be destructive when pursued without regard for the kinds of ethical guidelines Savage lays out. But for Savage, no matter how we direct its expression, our sexual self is our truest self.
In recent years Savages moral elevation of sexual fulfillment has been bolstered by his embrace of popularized accounts of evolutionary biology, which purport to find our true human nature in the primordial past or in our evolutionary cousins, the randy bonobos and aggressive chimpanzees. Last year Savage cowrote one weeks column with the authors of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, calling their book the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey. It caused a stir among his readers, so he followed up with his own comments. What the authors of Sex at Dawn believeand what I think they proveis that we are a naturally nonmonogamous species, despite what weve been told for millennia by preachers and for centuries by scientists. Culturerepresented here by hectoring, fanatical preachers, and hectoring, misguided scientistsis a long postscript, an imposition on our true selves. People should live up to their monogamous commitments, which, after all, have the form of a mutually negotiated contract. But they should not expect anything unrealistic from themselves or each other, since such agreements, however binding, are unnatural. Sex will have its way with us one way or anothereither by shaping our commitments to the form of its fulfillment or by making us miserable. For Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly do. For Dan Savage, we are what we enduringly desire.
As it happens, this vision fits rather well in a society built around consumption. If Savages ethical guidelinesdisclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange, and minimum standards of performanceseem familiar or intuitive, its probably because they also govern expectations in the markets for goods and services. No false advertising, no lemons, nothing omitted from the fine print: in the deregulated marketplace of modern intimacy, Dan Savage has become a kind of Better Business Bureau, laying out the rules by which individuals, as rationally optimizing firms, negotiate their wildly diverse transactions.
Classical liberalism, however, may prove just as inadequate in the bedroom as it has in the global economy, and for many of the same reasons. It takes into account only a narrow range of our motivations, overstates our rationality and our foresight, downplays the costs of transactions, and ignores the asymmetries of information that complicate any exchange of love or money. For society as a whole, it entails a utopian faith in the capacity of millions of appetites to work themselves out into an optimal economy of sexa trading floor where the cultural institutions of domesticity once stood. And for the individual, it may only replace the old sexual frustrations with new emotional ones. People who think they are motivated only by lust may end up feeling love; people who forswear any strings may feel them forming; and perfect transparency may prove an ideal no less unattainable than perfect monogamy. I think of a heartbreaking letter in 2010 that illustrated many of these problems at once. A man who saw a woman every other week for four months heard from her, two months after ending things, that she had gotten pregnant and had a miscarriage. Savage was all but certain that the womans story was false. But regardless, he said, your emotional obligations to her ended when the relationship did, and your financial obligations ended with the miscarriage. Savages advice may have been practical, but it had all the warmth of a legal waiver of liability.
My own history as a reader of Savage Love is perhaps somewhat unique. Like many of my friends, I began reading his column in my early teens (in Madison, Wisconsin, where Savage got his start); and the deregulated world of intimate relationships that he writes about is the one where I grew up. Now, as an adult, I find myself in a line of work where I too occasionally counsel people about their relationships: I am a Lutheran minister. As a pastor in a young, upwardly mobile neighborhood in Chicago, I still read Savage fairly regularly. And often the questions he takes up are more relevant to the people in my pews than the arguments over contraception, cohabitation, divorce, and homosexuality that still roil some parts of the church. Those debates are largely over here on Chicagos North Side. I have yet to marry a couple that wasnt living together before the vows.
And even where resistance to these changing mores remains fierce, the goal of a happy sex life has come up in the world. For all the talk one finds in Savages columns and comment threads about Puritanism, repression, and sex-negativity, we live in a culture that is almost uniformly and explicitly devoted to sexual satisfaction as a very high, if not necessarily the highest, good. Advertisements for Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra air during prime time (Will you be ready? one of them asks), and even conservative Christians have a substantial niche-publishing industry catering to their intimate needs. Items that not long ago were either illegal or at least pretty challenging to acquire are now available in posh storefronts on Chicagos Milwaukee Avenue. This does not always reflect, as some would have it, a slouching toward Gomorrahan unequivocal decline in moral standardsbut often a more positive evaluation of the good that flows from sexuality expressed in happy and forthright ways. Its not so surprising, then, that a sex columnist of Savages scope and talent would hold the commanding heights of a culture that grants erotic satisfaction such a central role in its view of the good life.
On the big question of whether human sexuality is a destructive force to be minimally accommodated or a source of human flourishing to be properly ordered, there is surprisingly little disagreement. The debates that continue over pornography and open relationships are driven less by positive or negative attitudes toward sexual satisfaction per se than by differing views of how sexual satisfaction relates to everything else in life. And this is where Savages ethics make their most problematic claimsby separating and elevating sexual satisfaction above other things people value.
Consider the case of a correspondent from late in 2009. A straight male in his late twenties, the writer felt indicted by a distinction Savage had drawn in a recent column between being an honest nonmonogamous dude (HND) and a cheating piece of shit (CPOS). I have a girlfriend of several years whom I live with and love very much, he writes.
I have never been an HND; I have in the past been a CPOS (though not in this relationship). My girlfriend is lovely, supportive, and generally GGG, and though the sex is good, I have a significantly higher libido than she does and I would like to have a little more variety in my sex life. I want to be an HND, but I dont know how to broach the subject with the girlfriend without ruining our relationship. We are very open about our sex life and our relationship in general, but I think this is probably a next level topic that may not go over very well. How do I bring this up without screwing up our relationship beyond repair?
Aspiring Honest Nonmonogamous Dude
Savages reply is frank as always: I would encourage you to err on the side of screwing up your current relationship with an honest conversation about your mismatched libidos and your natural and normal desire for a little variety. Lies, damn lies, and statistics all demonstrate that, in time, one or the other or both of you will cheat. Better to toss that out there now, even at the risk of calmly winding down this relationship before you revert to form/CPOS, than to see the relationship explode after someone, most likely you, winds up cheating.
This Aspiring Honest Nonmonogamous Dude (AHND) takes greater pains than most of Savages correspondents to praise his girlfriend, not only in general but specifically with regard to their sex life. They have already spent several happy years together. He is anxious about his surplus of desire, but apparently nothing else. Yet that consideration trumps all others in Savages answer. Sexual compatibilityin terms of libido or in terms of tolerating nonexclusivityis the coin of the realm. Love, emotional compatibility, the possibility of a life together, not to mention irrecoverable years already spentthese must all be staked against the value of a fully deployed libido. But what, exactly, is the upshot of calmly winding down a relationship with a high risk of infidelity? Potential romantic partners, unlike firms in the classical free-market model, are not infinite in number, and a life of comparison shopping is not free of cost. If the aspiring HND dissolves this years-long transaction in order to find a partner who is just as lovable but less jealous, or who shares his libido at every point, he will likely have a lonely road ahead of him.
I wonder what he chose to do, ultimately, and how it has worked out. If there is something to treasure in the old, traumatized ideal of lifelong monogamy, its not that it demeans sexual fulfillment. Rather, its that monogamy integrates sexual fulfillment with the other good things in lifehaving someone to pay bills and raise children with, having a refuge both emotional and physical from the rest of the world. It is an ideal that is powerful even when it is not fully realized (as it rarely, if ever, is), not a contract voided by nonperformance. A worldview in which sex is so central to life that it may be detached from everything else and sought apart from every other ingredient of happiness presumes a world in which happiness itself can be redefinedin which people can be retrained in what they expect and accept from one another. To approach the libertarian ideal of human relationships, emotional shock therapy of the sort contemplated by AHND will be required. The promised land of natural, ethical, autonomous sexuality lies across a desert of self-mortifying trade-offs between sexual fulfillment and all the other joys and comforts of life.
It may be the case, as Savage likes to argue, that humans are not by nature sexually monogamous. The great apes arent, after all. But of course, neither are the great apes especially interested in negotiating power-exchange contracts, engaging in long conversations about the contours of open relationships, or, for that matter, answering the anguished letters of anonymous strangers. As has always been the case, the answer to civilizations discontents turns out to be yet more civilization. That is the tragedy of the human being in an age of proliferating options and stubbornly lingering dissatisfaction. The whole world may be normal at last, and yet to be good is as elusive as ever. Some things may not, in fact, get better.