Wednesday, March 09, 2011

WWPD Guides: The Dan Savage phenomenon

Disclaimer: For me, a Dan Savage falls into the same category as a Theodor Herzl. Flawed in some ways, offensive in others, but overall such a fountain of truths that need(ed) telling that I will forgive them their missteps and create shrines in their honor. Readers may have noticed that I'm a bit contrarian, so thinkers who fall into this category are few and far between.

Now, onto the matter at hand:

Benjamin Dueholm's profile of Savage - which I did not, like Rita, find "excellent," although it has its moments - is not especially sympathetic. Dueholm gives the impression (especially in the part Rita has excerpted) that Savage is all about the separation of sex from emotion: "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," Dueholm writes, as to correct Savage. I'm not sure why he thinks Savage thinks otherwise - Savage's oft-repeated point about having met his now-husband via a one-night stand is that these two worlds - the Dirty and the Serious Relationship with Companionship - are not mutually exclusive, and precisely that you don't know initially where things will lead. While Savage has that catchy DTMFA slogan, he tends to assume, when people call or write in, that they want to work things out. Savage himself, incidentally, links to another response to Dueholm that makes this point - that Savage himself is on board with a good amount of what Dueholm chastises him for opposing. (And then Savage hems and haws, presumably to be contrarian, because he ultimately kind of agrees the writer defending him.)

Unlike Dueholm, I've tended to gloss over Savage's occasional forays into evo-babble, because they're not such a central part of his message, and because where they lead him is ultimately kind of reasonable. It is not natural to only ever notice one person, once you've committed to that person. It is, if anything, creepy - unless it's being said in a romantic-gesture sense - if your partner claims you're the only person in the entire world who could possibly do it for him or her. Where I'd disagree with Savage is in the idea that monogamy is near-impossible for most people, that noticing has to has to has to lead to more. But his argument about it being better for, say, a married couple with kids, who are not otherwise mortal ennemies, to work things out after an infidelity, or even negotiate an open relationship, rather than divorce? That seems altogether reasonable. As for the value of negotiating an open relationship when there aren't any children, perhaps not even a marriage? I think there's a reason 'let's see other people' has come to be a popular euphemism for 'it's over.'

A small point but still relevant: Dueholm seems overly preoccupied with the fact that Savage uses obscenities freely and discusses the personal - these two shifts, the banalization of swear words and the acceptability of mentioning what goes on in bedrooms - are cultural, not creations of Savage. The whole OMG what would Ann Landers think angle is a bit much. If Savage were answering questions about newly-married couples writing thank-you notes, he'd be of another era. Or he'd be Dear Prudence, who at least also answers the less archaic. He - Dueholm, that is - both acknowledges that Savage is very much of his time and seems to be writing (Dueholm, that is) for an audience that will go all, 'Horrors!' at the mention of open relationships or casual sex, one that is not merely morally unsure about these being positive things, but straight-up shocked that anyone would, or perhaps even shocked at their existence:

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.
I'm not sure what the "family newspaper" bit is about. No, the column would not fit in in the NYT, but who are Savage's readers? Those who are "family-appropriate" age - that is, adolescents - are turning to him either for entertainment or because the 'appropriate' sex-ed channels have failed them; those younger than that are not reading newspaper columns, even racy ones. Dueholm makes it super-clear that he has different, more respectable, standards than dirty Dan, referring to Savage's definition of "Santorum" as "unprintable." Oh, it's not entirely unprintable. It's about bodily fluids. It's really not all that shocking. If anything, listen to enough Savage, and you realize that human sexuality is not amazingly varied and fascinating, but largely limited by the number of orifices and most people's lack of originality. Wow, somebody has this weird fetish involving a leather whip! Amazing! Dueholm writes that "it was long difficult to find any cultural medium that navigated successfully between bashfulness and outright smut," but seems to categorize Savage in the latter category. In other words, Dueholm is either prudish himself, or writing for an audience he thinks will appreciate a veneer of prudishness.

As for Savage's code of ethics, which is really Dueholm's subject matter, my impression of it has been that what it comes down to is, acting ethically when it comes to sex and relationships is in how you treat your partner or partners, not in how closely you adhere to a particular religion or political movement's ideals. That's pretty much what the four-pronged description Dueholm comes up with - "disclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange, and minimum standards of performance" - adds up to. Do unto others and all that. I'm not sure why Dueholm labels it as commercial, as market-driven. Particularly when we have at our fingertips an example of an unabashedly market-based interpretation of romance coming from Mark Regnerus. Ah, but Regnerus is a social conservative, or at least makes socially-conservative arguments, so it's OK.

Another thing: Dueholm accuses Savage of "separating and elevating sexual satisfaction above other things people value," after having mentioned earlier that "for Savage, no matter how we direct its expression, our sexual self is our truest self." This makes it sound so deep, but really, he's a sex-advice columnist, so he overemphasizes the importance of sex in our lives. This is, alas, like blaming Dueholm, a minister, for suggesting that sexual self-determination is morally suspect. It's like blaming Aldo, which is 90% a shoe store, for having a limited handbag selection.

Dueholm, when he is generous with Savage for small moments, has his own moments with which I, in turn, might be generous. "In ways that his frequent interlocutors on the Christian right wouldn’t expect, Savage has probably done more to uphold conventional families than many counselors who are unwilling to engage so frankly with modern sexual mores." Yup. Savage's anti-anonymous-sex, pro-parents-staying-together-for-the-sake-of-the-kids, wariness-about-encouraging-the-polyamorous-to-be-"out" moments reveal... not that he is a conservative, but that the moral framework he's come up with ends up overlapping a good deal with old-school ones.

And I do think he's right that for all his self-presentation as a shaker-upper, Savage is largely in step with the mores of his age. There are certainly still battles to fight - gay teen suicides, attacks on Planned Parenthood funding, the nightmare that is Mike Huckabee - but overall, what Savage stands up for, which actually has a bit to do with why I agree with him so much, is a center-left status quo.

And, Dueholm's defense of monogamy has a lot in common with my critique of Savage when it comes to women: "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." True for men, more so for women, although in Savage's defense, he does differentiate between the cost of leaving a three-month-long relationship, say, and ending a marriage. What concerns me with Savage's take on women is not his tongue-in-cheek (so to speak) remarks about vaginas being icky, or even his (not unrelated) pronouncement (to which he aired a correction, to his credit) about women not being able to wash intimately with soap, but his refusal to acknowledge some of the particularities of relationships that involve women. I'm thinking specifically of his insistence on everyone under 40, basically, as being so young, too young to concern themselves with settling down. Fine advice for a Clooney-resembling, city-dwelling gay male 39-year-old, not so much for a woman looking to reproduce, or even just a straight woman looking to settle down while still at an age when enough men find her attractive that she'll have the greatest possible say in who with.

All of which brings me back, I now realize, to an earlier discussion about how social conservatives - at least ones writing for a not exclusively conservative audience - seem intent on gender-neutrality, on asking men and women alike for premarital restraint and monogamy.

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