Dan Savage Discusses the Good and Bad Sides of Sex

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Dan Savage is an author, sex-advice columnist, podcaster and pundit. His weekly column, "Savage Love," first appeared in the Seattle weekly "The Stranger" in 1991. The column is now syndicated to more than 50 papers in the U.S. and Canada. Savage has also published six books on sex and culture. MAARTEN DE BOER/GETTY IMAGES

By Senior Editor Johnna Rizzo

Modern sex's most popular mouthpiece, Dan Savage, discusses the good and the bad when bumping uglies.

What function do you think you perform for sex in America?

If you put all of my columns and all my podcasts into a pot and boiled them down to their essence, you'd find at the very bottom of that pot: "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you." We should be kind and considerate and compassionate and forthright and honest. What matters is consent, joy and consideration for one another. It's just that in my universe there's a lot more that you can do unto someone.

What percentage of people contacting you are information-seeking versus thrill-seeking?

Usually I get people who are in trouble, who have a conflict, who have a worry and are often seeking permission. Straight people, especially, have a problem with granting themselves permission. If you're gay and out, you've already told your parents that you're homosexual. Telling your boyfriend whatever it is you want to do in bed is so much less scary than telling your mother you're gay. So we're a bit more practical and freer as a result. And communication makes you better at sex.

What grade would you give the sexual state of the U.S. today?

I would give us a C, and I'm not sure we'll ever climb out of that. I like to say Australia got the convicts, Canada got the French and we got the Puritans. And we went with that legacy, and that affected our human sexuality.

Give an overview of the current situation of sex in America.

AIDS and the LGBT civil rights movement has had the most enormous impact on sex in America. And not just gay sex or alternative sexuality but also heterosexuality. AIDS forced the conversation about sex to shift from what everyone wanted to believe everyone else was doing to what everyone else was actually doing. The LGBT civil rights movement communicated there are different ways to be sexual and intimate. Anybody who pays attention to a gay pride parade will realize there's a million different ways to be gay. And I think it began to sink into straight culture that there had to be more than one way to be straight.

What's changed in sex education?

In the last few decades, sex education has gotten worse: Abstinence education has been introduced, contraception isn't taught and the existence of people who don't have heterosexual sex isn't acknowledged. Even in countries that are more progressive, it's usually reproductive biology that's being covered: the sperm cell, the egg, the fallopian tubes. What trips people up about sex is negotiating consent, being able to express yourself and communicate your desires. Then there's the complicated stuff people have a hard time talking about that's not covered in sex education. How do I obtain consent? How do I grant consent? We have sex education that's premised upon getting kids to say no. When you empower people to say yes, you also empower them to say no. If the act is to opt into sex, then your baseline is to be opted out.

What gets in the way of having good sex?

Fear. Sex is scary, and sex is powerful. People can be destroyed by it. We should approach sex with some fear and trembling. It made you, and it can unmake you. Those of us who are sex positive shouldn't run around acting like there are no potential downsides or negative consequences to sex and sexual expression. But that's often what gets in the way: Fear that's been blown out of all proportion to the actual risks. Sex is the only adult pleasurable pursuit—the only natural human function—that people argue has to be 100 percent safe, or you shouldn't do it. That's not a standard we apply to driving or dinner or flying or bungee jumping. Nothing is 100 percent safe, including sex. And people have a right to calculated (mitigated, hopefully) risks. But the corrective can't be that all sex is awesome, and sex never hurt anybody.

Has technology benefited or harmed the way we view and approach sex?

It's a wash. There are definitely people who've been damaged by the Internet creating unrealistic expectations, but the Internet has also done a tremendous amount of good. There's a wealth of information out there, and whoever has a sex question, you can Google it—and I trust most smart, sensible people will read more than the first thing that pops up. There's also pornography. There's no putting that genie back in the bottle. We have to have conversations about pornography. We need to say to our kids that porn is to sex as movies are to life. When you walk down the street, there aren't a lot of Michael Bay moments with Transformers falling from the sky.

What do you see for sex in the future?

I think the most interesting thing that's coming are the robots. We've had a sex toy revolution—really well-designed, well-made, well-crafted, safe sex toys are now available. What's coming down the line, though, is an age where even unrealizable fantasies can be realized. There are people out there who've always had giantess fetishes or centaur fetishes. There are no centaurs or 30-foot women out there right now. There will be.

What's one thing you want to make sure you put out there?

Just one thing: We're told a lie when we are children that one day we will grow up, become adults and have sex. And the truth is, one day you will grow up and sex will have you. Sexual reproduction is a quarter billion years old. Sex made us. Sex is older, stronger and more powerful than we are. We negotiate with sex from a weaker position, and we have to be cognizant of that. We have to figure out how to channel it—how to incorporate it into our lives in a healthy way, in a way that makes us feel fulfilled, and that doesn't destroy us or our partners. But to swan around pretending we are in charge is to begin your interaction with sex from a dishonest place—and dishonesty never works in sex.

This article appears in Newsweek's special edition, Science of Sex, by Issue Editor Lesley Savage of Topix Media Lab.

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