Essays — April 12, 2019 17:36 — 0 Comments

HUMP, SPLIFF, Love And Advice: A Conversation With Dan Savage

Dan Savage, bestselling author and nationally syndicated sex advice columnist, likes to laugh. The pleasant outbursts were sprinkled throughout our conversation. He laughs when praised and he laughs when asked to offer up his thoughts on a grand idea like love. His is a comforting laugh, not one of nervousness or deflection. Rather, it’s a laugh of largess and enjoyment. A laugh in response to the very real, very odd world looming all around us. I recently caught up with Savage to talk about his touring amateur pornography festival (HUMP), his new cannabis-inspired film festival (SPLIFF) and to ask, yes, what he thinks love is.

I’m interested in how someone becomes an internationally known syndicated columnist and TV personality. Did you grow up fervently commenting on things around you?

It’s kind of a job you fall into or luck your way into. I don’t think it’s something you can get on purpose. I met somebody who was starting a newspaper and I said, “Oh, you should have an advice column. Everybody reads those. You see that Q&A format and you can’t not read it.” And he said, “Excellent advice! Write the advice column!” I really wasn’t angling for it at the time because I’d never written anything, which is clear if you read the first couple years worth of Savage Love. So, yeah, I just fell into it. And I would advise everyone to just go to parties and talk to people – that’s how you figure out what you want to do with your life.

Did you ever think you’d be this prolific at anything?

I’m Irish-Catholic and from poor people so anytime anybody came along and said, “We want to hire you to do a little bit more of what you’re already doing.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah! Of course!” Never say no to paying work, you know?

You’ve written for newspapers, the early internet and now you work amidst the social media era. How has your communication style changed given these changes in technology?

Well, the feedback’s more immediate. One of the things that has set advice columns apart from other forms of media – and why they were looked down upon by more mainstream journalists years ago – was that you printed letters from people who disagreed with you all the time. It wasn’t like the letters to the editor page handled people arguing with the advice columnists. The advice columnists handled that themselves, in their column. And in a way, advice columns were like proto-blogs or in-print blogs where there was this interactivity with the readers and this engagement. And I think it prepared me really well for the social media age. You write something, you’re asked for your opinion, you give your opinion, people write in and say you’re wrong. And sometimes you say, “Oh yeah, I was wrong.” And you learn and you grow and change. What is it people say online? “Fuck you, listen, do better.” And that’s really what everybody writing an advice column before the internet came along was doing. Hearing people say fuck you and then listening to what they had to say and if you agreed with them, you try and do better.

Is it weird to have to apologize publicly?

No, no, it isn’t. Really because I’ve always thought of the column – and I’ve said since it started – as a conversation I’m having at the bar with some friends about our sex lives when we’re drunk. When we’ve had a couple beers. And if you can’t learn from your friends, who you gonna fucking learn from? So, it’s never been that hard to say, “Oh, yeah I probably should have thought differently of that.” An example I would give is asexuality. My first reaction to asexuality in print was like, “What the fuck is this?!” And then people wrote in to tell me what the fuck this was and I kept listening and paying attention and now I get it. Unfortunately, there are some dishonest actors on social media who just want to hold up the thing you wrote first as if you didn’t keep writing and thinking. But yeah that’s an example of, like, yeah I was wrong about that at first. Now I think I get it, right? And I, in part, have the people who were yelling at me for getting it wrong to thank for the fact that I get it right now.

What has growing older taught you about understanding relationships?

Oh, god. Just that you have to be very forgiving. No two people can be all things to each other sexually or emotionally. The people you let in are, by definition, the people who are going to hurt you. If you cast out everyone who hurts you, you’re just going to have brand new people hurting you instead of the same old person hurting you! So, I think sometimes people are a little too quick to break up, a little too quick – even too quick to tell people to “dump the motherfucker already,” which sometimes I have to beware of with my column.

How does it feel being a father today compared to even a few years ago?

Well, my kid’s in his 20s now, so it’s very different. He’s moved away and we text and we talk but we’re empty nesting right now.

I imagine that might be a good thing after so many years raising a child?

Yeah, it’s what he wanted and at a certain point I think you’re not supposed to live with your adult children anymore.

Do you remember the moment when you came up with the idea for HUMP?

Oh, yeah. It was actually a friend of mine – we were just shooting the shit. This was years ago – HUMP is 15 years old. But we asked to do it for years before we were allowed to do it because nobody thought it would work. We went to the publisher of The Stranger at the time, Tim Keck, and we were like, “We want to do an amateur porn festival!” And he was like, “No one is going to enter films to be screened in the city where they lived of them having sex!” And we were like, “Let us try!” And eventually he let us try and people turned in lots of movies. People turned in a lot of their home movies. And then the question became, would people sit in the dark in a movie theater next to strangers and watch pornography the way their grandparents did – the way their grandparents watched Debbie Does Dallas and Behind the Green Door in movie theaters. And the answer to that question was yes also. But we couldn’t anticipate that.

Why did you want to start SPLIFF, a cannabis-themed film festival?

I think the conversations grew out of HUMP. HUMP just unleashed all this creativity around sex and gender and it’s not all just porn. Even the stuff in HUMP that is fully pornographic isn’t mindless. A lot of the even super hardcore ones, they have an idea they’re playing with. Or it features friends and lovers enjoying themselves and each other, which is different from most commercially billed pornography. And we just thought, you know, the same way sex brings people together, pot brings people together. And there’s probably a whole bunch of people out there with things to say about pot or just funny things to say about cannabis culture or about themselves when they’re stoned and the stuff that amuses them when they’re stoned. There’s a huge visual component to being stoned. You get stoned and you go to the movies. Or you get stoned and you binge watch TV. Or you get stoned and you go lay in the park and look at the clouds. A lot of being stoned is putting something in front of your face to let roll into your brain. So, we thought, there’s probably a film festival in that too! And it turns out we’re right. We got over 250 submissions to SPLIFF in this first year we’re doing it, which is just amazing.

You’ve expressed serious concern recently for the FOSTA and SESTA acts and the danger they present for sex workers, educators and advocators. Can you tell me what’s especially important about this for you?

Well, the first and most important issue for me is that it’s made the lives of sex workers more dangerous, not less dangerous, by forcing sex workers offline. It’s impoverished sex workers, it’s made them more vulnerable to exploitation by pimps or by bad clients because they have a harder time turning a client down these days. And it doesn’t help people who are being coerced into doing sex work either by some asshole or by economic constraints. It makes it worse for them too and makes it worse for people who are doing sex work of their own free will.

So, my primary concern is that sex workers, including my friends who are sex workers, have been harmed by this. But it’s also driving sex and erotica off the internet. After FOSTA-SESTA, away went Craig’s List personals, where a lot of people made contact. Away went porn on Tumblr – and that wasn’t just dirty pictures. People are like, “There’s lots of porn on the internet!” There is, but those were personal blogs where people really shared who they were and created erotica and told their own stories and found community with other people who shared their interests and who also found safety in that community. Because a lot of what you saw, if you really looked closely at those blogs, were people sharing best practices. People with minority sexual interests or desires sharing, like, how to do these things safely and smartly and people giving each other advice. I think about all the times I was looking at a little bit of Tumblr porn and saw a big, long piece about how dangerous solo breath play is and how no one should do it. Because people get killed. They off themselves by accident. And that was constantly reinforced on Tumblr blogs that showed breath play erotica. So, that’s smart. Now all that went away. And on top of everything else, we can no longer advertise HUMP on Facebook or Instagram.

I know, I saw that. That’s crazy!

It is fucking nuts. Because there is still porn on the internet and HUMP in movie theaters is a different kind of porn. And I think it sometimes is the antidote to the worst of commercial porn, or exploitative porn, because it is all made by friends and lovers. A lot of people, their chief complaint about porn is that it’s dehumanizing. And they don’t know if the people in it really want to be in it. And at HUMP, it’s very humanizing and everybody wanted to be in it. That’s the kind of porn we can’t talk about on Facebook?

Your longtime column is called Savage Love. If I may, what does the idea of love mean to you today?

Oh my god! The idea of love. It’s such a subjective experience. One person’s idea of love is very different than another person’s idea of love. One person might – I don’t know. It’s like that old definition of pornography, “You know it when you see it.” You know it when you feel it. But it’s a very subjective and personal feeling and can feel very different for different people.


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

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