Dan Savage Interview, Part 3: It’s Not Easy Being Non-Monogamous

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QUESTION: How do you promote activism with readers of the Savage Love column and listeners to the podcast? And, explain your views on monogamy and why you think they are so contentious?

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Photo: Mia Partlow/WFIU and San Diego Shooter (flickr)

"Love doesn’t mean that you don’t want to sleep with other people. If you make a monogamous commitment, love means you will refrain from sleeping with other people. You will still wannna – and you will wanna bad – and you will both wanna," says Dan Savage when asked about his contentious views on monogamy.

One-Minute Activism

Annie Corrigan: It Gets Better is just another example of you sort of rallying the troops. You put a call out to your readers on the Savage Love column and in the podcast to contact the Itewamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi. The school that is famous now for not allowing Constance McMillen to take her girlfriend to prom. You write in your post, “Be respectful, but be relentless.” And it became this huge national story in part because your readers responded – and how! What is it like having this big mass of people just waiting for your order?

Dan Savage: I call them my flying monkeys. People want to take action. I know back from when I was in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) – I ran an ACT UP chapter in a state – most people want you to break it down. “Here’s the problem. Here’s something you can do about it. Jump in and do it. And you’re done.”

The problem, often with activism is a lot of activists feel like that unless you’re willing to do all the work and really commit 24/7 to this, go away, we don’t need you, you’re obviously a poser, an interloper. And then you can’t harness the good intentions, energy, good will and power of people who can only spare a little bit of time. When I ran ACT UP I didn’t feel that way. I was just like, “We’ll run it, we’ll make sure we’re being honest with you and really inform you, and we’ll tell you that you can do this little thing. It’s not going to take all day.”

We ran an ACT UP chapter in Madison, Wisconsin where they were feeding inmates with HIV horrible dietary supplements of white bread with sugar peanut butter and sugar jelly on it and it was making these guys worse and sicker. So, we just started delivering a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to the governor’s office every day. The first day we delivered hundreds of them and we threw them all over the office. And then we kept coming back every day delivering more sandwiches.

We met people at the capitol with the sandwich. We said, “Here is your day. You come and deliver the sandwich,” so it wasn’t the same four of us showing up every day with the sandwich. It ended up looking like there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who were paying attention, who gave a crap about this and they had to do something. You know, we sent people in drag. We sent people in ass-less chaps. We sent people as families. But all we said was, “Noon. Meet us in the capitol, we’ll hand you a sandwich, you walk in and it will take two minutes. You helped. You did something.”

Protesting Prom

So, to say that here’s this school. Here’s what they’re doing. Here are their email addresses. They’re saying that allowing Constance to go to prom with her girlfriend is going to be a distraction? Let’s show them what a distraction looks like.

AC: And I bet they’re still receiving emails.

DS: I hope so, and they can choke on them. What they did to Constance McMillian I recognized right away. I heard the story and ran to my computer and redid the podcast because I just looked at that and went, “They canceled prom. They’re painting a bullseye on her back and she is going to get bullied and harassed.”

That was my first column about it. I ordered all my flying monkeys to jump on Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom, the Facebook page, when it had 800 people on it. Within a week it had 200,000 people on it, not because 200,000 people leapt when I said jump. It spread out from the Savage Love readers and podcast listeners to their social networks, and that is very gratifying.

I don’t want to abuse it. You know, I try to pick and choose the things I’m going to send the flying monkeys out on, because you don’t want to exhaust people.

Gay And Straight Issues Alike

AC: These are gay issues that we’re talking about, the two issues specifically, but it should be mentioned that you appeal to both gay and straight.

DS: Today I threw something up online because a high school in Texas kicked a girl off the cheer leading squad because she wouldn’t cheer for the guy who raped her who was on the basketball team. She would cheer, she just wouldn’t say his name when he was at the free throw line when the girls are supposed to chant the name of the guy at the free throw line. He raped her, and they threw her off the cheer leading squad because she wouldn’t cheer for the guy who raped her. I put the names and numbers of the principal in there. That is slut-shaming taken to the most appalling extreme.

I’ve used the column to try to get straight people to get up off their haunches. I sent people out screaming and yelling from my column when the religious right was trying to block the HPV vaccine, because I care about women’s genitals even though I never want to go there. It’s like Japan! I’m glad there is Japan, and everyone who likes to visit Japan I think should be able to visit Japan. I wouldn’t want any harm to come to Japan.

AC: But not for me.

DS: But not for me. Right. I can’t use chopsticks.

In Print And On The Airwaves

AC: Well, let’s talk about the Savage Love column and the podcast. This sort of started it all for you. In 1991 you started writing the sex advice column that appeared in The Stranger, which is a Seattle newspaper. And now that is widely syndicated across the country and even in some other countries. The way it works is people from all over the country write or they call you with their sex and relationship questions. I’m wondering, since you have this broad swatch of people who always contact you, what are we dealing with sexually and relationship-wise in this country?

DS: Unrealistic expectations. We have this idea about the way love and sex ought to work, and then there’s the way love and sex actually works, and they’re in conflict. Our ideals and our reptile brains have to be reconciled with each other once in a while. Usually that requires some suspension of disbelief, some turnings of blind eyes, a little functional dysfunctionality to make it work, to patch it up.

Monogamy is a huge problem, fidelity is a huge problem, sexual boredom is a huge problem, people taking each other for granted is a huge problem.

Monogamy Vs. Commitment

AC: When I told people I was interviewing you, they all said ask, “Him his thoughts on monogamy,” because that is something that comes up every now and again in your podcast. It makes visits fairly often.

DS: Well, it’s usually the problem. I don’t think everyone should be in a non-monogamous relationship. I’m not prescriptive about it. I’m in a non-monogamous relationship and that’s dangerous for a gay male couple with kids to say out loud, right? Because people assume a level of promiscuity that appalls even me. I’ve been here in Bloomington for eight weeks and I haven’t touched anybody. Not that I didn’t want to! A lot of really cute guys here in Bloomington, but that’s not the way I roll.

The problem with monogamy is we’re not any good at it. How many Elliot Spitzers, David Bitters, Bill Clintons, John Edwards… How many times do we have to watch the same story, watch the same play before we realize that it’s in the script?

Everyone, even if you’re going to be monogamous, needs to acknowledge that monogamy is not natural and it’s not easy. Love doesn’t mean that you don’t want to sleep with other people. Love means, if you make a monogamous commitment, means you will refrain from sleeping with other people. You will still wannna – and you will wanna bad – and you will both wanna. Women get away with pretending they never wanna.

We have put a lie at the heart of all of our long-term romantic relationships and then we wonder why they fall apart. Two people are looking at each other and lying to each other every day about something very important, and they both know that the other is lying every day. Then they don’t trust each other, oddly enough, after all that lying back and forth. It’s so much healthier just to acknowledge, even if you are going to make a monogamous commitment, that that is going to be an effort and there will be consequences to that. There are consequences to non-monogamy.

When the non-monogamous relationship falls apart, everyone blames non-monogamy. When a monogamous relationship falls apart, nobody blames monogamy. I have observed so many relationships that were otherwise decent that could have survived for the long haul if people had just been allowed to be off leash every once in a while – which does not mean anything goes. “You say you’re not monogamous. Oh, so that means you can sleep with anybody, anytime, anywhere?” No. No. “You’re monogamous. Do you sleep with each other anytime, anywhere that you want?” No.

Monogamy is stupid and people are bad at it. That’s what I think. It doesn’t work. We have the divorce rate to prove it. We have David Arquette and Courtney Cox now. You can’t open a magazine, you can’t leave the house without hearing about people cheating on each other. If we continue to define cheating on each other as a divorce-level, breakup-level offense, we are packing our relationships with dynamite and blowing them up over and over and over again. I think a relationship should be able to survive a routine infidelity, because infidelity is routine. We need to reconceive how we regard it. The problem is – now I’m going to rant.

AC: Go for it!

DS: For most of recorded human history, men weren’t supposed to be monogamous. It was required. They had concubines. They had whores. They had mistresses. They had more than one wife. Monogamy was really for women and all about paternal anxiety and assuaging that – enslaving women, really. It was about control. To the credit of our species, it took us however many tens of thousands of years before we realized that wasn’t egalitarian, and about 60 years ago we decided to make it fairzies.

But we made a big mistake. Rather than giving women the same latitude and freedom that men had enjoyed, we said men had to now hew to the monogamous ideal that had been imposed on women. It has been a disaster for straight people and straight relationships, and the children of straight people. Disaster.

Confrontation From Serial Monogamists

AC: What sort of backlash have you had to deal with, with those views? I’m sure stuff came your way.

DS: Oh yeah. People freak out. You know, my favorite kind of letter is… I say I’m in a relationship that’s not monogamous. I still love my husband, boyfriend – husband in Canada, boyfriend in America – I love him passionately. We have a great, amazing sex life that is 98% just the two of us. And I get these letters, monogamists, insisting that we don’t love each other, that we’re not committed to each other, that we couldn’t possibly love each other if we are having sex with other people.

So many of these letters end with, “And I know what I’m talking about because every one of my relationships has been monogamous.” What they’re saying then is they have started and ended and started and ended. They are serial monogamists, that when they get bored and need a little variety, they end a relationship and then move on.

I found a way to stay in my relationship and keep it happy and healthy and long haul, and I’m doing something wrong. And you, every one of your relationships has been monogamous, you’re doing it right? Because we value monogamy over commitment.

More: Listen to Part 4 of Kinsey Confidential’s conversation with Dan Savage.

Kinsey Confidential

is a service of The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. Sexual health experts answer your questions and provide newspaper columns and weekly podcasts.
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