Sucks To Be a Straight Guy

Dan Savage on Sex, Drugs, and Santorum

Dan Savage is America’s most prominent sex columnist, seen in dozens of alternative newspapers around the country. His column, Savage Love, is incisive, bitterly funny and unabashedly political (a few years ago he ran a campaign to name something awful after arch-conservative former senator Rick Santorum — the winner was “the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex”). Seventeen years into a distinguished career, Savage talked with me about, among other things, his empathy for straight guys.

The question that everyone wonders about someone who has your job is, Where does it come from? Did you always imagine yourself becoming an advice columnist? Like, was it an interest of yours?
No, no. It’s not the kind of job you can apply for and there’s no courses you can take, except perhaps psychology, therapy and other crap that I didn’t take. Tim Keck, who is the founder of The Onion, sold it and was moving to Seattle to start The Stranger. And he was telling me about it. And I said, “Oh, you should have an advice column.” Because everybody sneers at them but everybody reads them when they encounter one. And he said, “Oh, that’s good advice, why don’t you write it?”
I wasn’t angling for the gig and I’d never written anything in my life. If you read the first couple of years’ worth of Savage Love, which are locked away forever, it’s clear that I’d never written anything before in my life. And it’s just one of those jobs you just sort of stumble into and they eat your world.
What did you learn about it right away, at the very beginning? What caught you by surprise?
I was really caught by surprise by the fact that people wanted to ask me real questions. When the column started, it was a joke. We sort of brainstormed what a column could do and how it could be different, and having a fag write a sex advice column that was mostly for straight people. The whole idea was I would treat heterosexual sex with the revulsion and contempt that heterosexual advice columnists had always treated homosexual sex with. I would just sneer at it and what happened really quickly: I started getting real questions from heterosexuals in trouble, and I found that I had this untapped well of sympathy for straight people that I didn’t know was there.
Particularly straight guys, you know, they tortured me when I was kid and I was growing and, you know, I was a fag, I liked musicals and whatever. And then I realized when I was out and gay and writing these columns and I started getting these letters from straight guys in the middle of the night and, you know, that it really kind of sucks to be a straight guy and I felt nothing but sympathy for them. And so I decided that I would make it my life’s mission to explain to them exactly where the clit was.
I decided that I would make it my life’s mission to explain to them exactly where the clit was.
What do you mean when you say it sucks to be a straight guy? I myself am a straight guy. I feel like I’m pretty well set up.
Well, can you vouch for that?
I feel like I’m like rolling, you know, I’m great.
What sucks to be a straight guy is that it’s hard to get laid if you’re straight — compared to women or gay guys — and the desire is certainly there, but the bar is set much higher for the straight boys. But also, heterosexual male identity — and in America I don’t want to get too pointy-headed about it, but it’s really this package of negatives. You know, to be a straight guy is not to be a woman and not to be a faggot and so it doesn’t really leave you much room to maneuver. If there’s anything about your interests or personality that can be remotely perceived as feminine or faggoty, you have to kill it or people won’t believe you’re straight or you’ll be tormented — you know, questions for the rest of your life. And it’s kind of sad to watch how hemmed-in straight guys are. And I didn’t realize that.
I always felt as a fag that I was kind of hemmed-in. And then when I came out and I was past it, I realized that I wasn’t hemmed-in at all. It was really the poor sad pathetic straight guys who are hemmed-in. I had sex with women when I was a teenager, and nobody looks at me and says “Oh, you had sex with girls, you must be straight.” But, you know, the poor straight guy who at college got drunk a couple of times or met the one guy that he was attracted to and did it, if it gets out, no one will believe he’s straight ever again and how sad for that poor straight guy.
We’re calling your column a sex column, but I think calling it a sex and relationships column is very apt. It’s in no way just about sex.
No, it’s an advice column. It’s letter driven. It’s Q and A. It’s wherever the readers want to go.
I’m very realistic about what sex is and how you wrestle with it in your life and accommodate it within your relationship…
What do you think are the intersections between those two subjects that you might not get out of an Ann Landers that are important?
What you get in my column that you don’t get in other sex advice columns is I’m not invested in some bologna idea about what sex ought to be. I’m very realistic about what sex is and how you wrestle with it in your life and accommodate it within your relationship in a way that makes having that relationship possible.
You know, it would be great, when somebody writes and says, often a woman, “My boyfriend looks at porn and it makes me upset.” It would be great if I could say your boyfriend is a bad person and shouldn’t look at porn and tell him I said so and that would fix it. It won’t. What you have to say is your boyfriend needs to lie to you and tell you that he won’t look at porn, continue to look at porn, do a better job of not getting caught, and when you catch him you need to give him some credit for the effort he went to fool you and turn a blind eye or you’re never going to have a relationship that’s going to succeed. You need to get a dog or a dyke, not a boyfriend, if you can’t handle the porn.
Have you ever given people advice that you’ve had second thoughts about?
Of course, of course.
Have you ever given people advice that you regretted?
The best example is I once — when I first shifted to accepting email, because for a long time I didn’t. I wasn’t very good at keeping track of the email; it’s just this big mess. And I answered a letter and then three months later I accidentally answered the same letter again and gave the opposite advice. Which just goes to show you that it depends on how much I’ve had to drink that day and you shouldn’t put too much stock in anything I say.
From time to time you do also write about how much you’ve had to drink that day.
That’s true, I write my column in bars and I write it stoned and I write it in the condition that people are often in when you approach them for advice.
That’s a moderately convincing argument.
Advice is not something that’s dispensed by shrinks for $300 an hour and the stakes really aren’t that high. When you think about advice, it’s usually a situation where you go to you friends, often in bars, often when people are impaired and you lay out your problem and the very first thing they do is they make fun of you for 20 minutes about the stupid thing you did or the stupid situation you’re in, and then they whip a little advice on you. And I’ve always said Savage Love is a conversation I’m having with my friends in a bar about sex. And I treat people that way, and I don’t actually take it all that seriously.
Have you changed your views on things in these 17 years?
I’m still opposed to cunnilingus.
But solely, if I’m not mistaken, on the grounds that it seems really gross to you.
That’s right. Anilingus, however… Weird, isn’t it? Taste is subjective.

Jesse Thorn is a public radio host in Los Angeles. His first time was brief.

Ramsey Sibaja is a illustrator and designer currently residing in Georgia. When his time comes, he wants to die with a clean pair of underwear.