It's impossible to ask Dan Savage an outrageous question. He's heard it all, and -- for the most part -- he's answered it all. Ever game to get into the nitty gritty when it comes to sex and relationships, the columnist's definition of presidential candidate Rick Santorum's last name made headlines for its graphic description (and, incidentally, may be the only thing that survives the now-suspended campaign). Before all that, however, Savage amassed a cult following as he attempted to solve peoples' kinky and messy conundrums through his column and podcast for the Stranger, Savage Love. Now the outspoken sex columnist and creator of the It Gets Better campaign has a much broader medium through which to give advice: the new MTV series Savage U. The show follows Savage and co-host Lauren Hutchinson -- a producer whose commentary and banter are on par with Savage's -- as they drive from university to university so Dan can speak to the students about sex and relationships. We chatted with Savage recently about Savage U, the homosocial antics on Jersey Shore, and his own relationship of 17 years.
You wrote that people should think of Savage U as "18 and Not Pregnant..." and in the first episode, you tell a female student, "Don't read Cosmo." Would you advise that same girl not to watch many of the other programs on MTV?
No, I actually wouldn't. The first time I saw 16 and Pregnant, I was appalled. I thought, "Oh my god, this is glamorizing teen pregnancy." But I'm a data guy, and all the data shows that one of the contributing factors to the plummeting teen pregnancy rates over the last 5 years is 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, which have de-glamourized pregnancy.
16 and Pregnant I can handle; Teen Mom is depressing.
I don't think MTV shows create unrealistic expectations. I think a lot of what's on MTV is heightened reality and craziness but I don't think it's inaccurate. The reason I jokingly call the show 18 and Not Pregnant is that I think the show completes 16 and Pregnant in a way: 16 and Pregnant helps a lot of young people realize that they don't want to be 16 and pregnant, and what I show is what else is possible if you can manage to not get yourself knocked up in high school -- that you can go to college, that you can still have fun, that you can still be sexually active, that you can party and keep your shit together enough to get an education and have a life. Train-wrecks are good television but what you see on the show are people who are not train-wrecks and still having a blast.
So you wouldn't have some choice words for Snooki or The Situation?
I think that with gender politics, particularly on gay issues, Jersey Shore is good. This comes up when I go on Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher is for the full civil equality of LGBTQ people -- he has some residual discomfort of the mental images that pop into his head when gay shit comes up -- but what he models for people is that you can still be squigged out by gay sex and be for gay [rights]. And I think you see that on Jersey Shore in the relationship between Vinny and Pauly D, which is so homosocially intimate. A lot of straight guys have a problem with male-on-male intimacy because they don't want to feel 'gay.' But I've seen episodes where Vinny and Pauly D crawl into the bed with each other and joke about being boyfriends -- that's great! They're dropping a not-homophobic bomb in the middle of what can be a very homophobic culture.
Back to Savage U. Was it weird to go out with the college kids?
Oh yeah. We were those people in a corner with a sound guy, three camera guys and five producers. One of the funny things about filming in a bar is that we show up and the lights go up and the music turns off so we kind of interrupt the party. We have to be surgical and get in and out or a crowd can turn on you. In some episodes you can clearly see I'm being dragged into the bar. That's part of what Lauren's there for. Lauren's close enough in age that she kind of fits in still enjoys it.
Are there any relationship or sex issues that you think are particular to college students?
Most of the questions I get are from college students. That's when people are figuring themselves out. They're trying to put a sex life together that works for them. I really feel that, for people who are 16 to 22, the biggest issue is the tyranny of what is and isn't "normal," and this false notion that there's this normal kind of sex that normal people are having most of the time and it's normal, and you're not normal because you're interested in something else. I think one of the reasons why straight people really responded to my column is that I gave myself permission to say 'I suck dick' and tell my mom about it [so] what won't I give you permission to do?
Younger people have an ideal of what a sexual relationship should be in their heads thanks to rom-coms and Cosmo.
Rom-coms, Cosmo. Rom-coms are horrible I think, when it comes to what they tell women about the way straight men are. And I'm always warning them about kinks! Don't press your boyfriend about his kinks, his secret fantasy, if you're not prepared to hear that he wants to pee on you. Because it's not going to be "I want to sprinkle rose petals on the bed and light a thousand tea candles in the apartment." That is no straight man's fantasy.
I'd like to think that that's no straight woman's fantasy either!
It's a straight woman's fantasy when she's 22 and not when she's 32. I think kink and weirdness is often tied to sexual peak. Boys hit their sexual peaks in their teens and that's when we acquire all our weirdness and fetishes and kinks. Women have that peak at 30, and begin to be interested in S&M, threeways, crazy shit. And if you found the only boring straight guy in America who has no kinks and married him at 22, you're gonna be fucked when you're 30 and you're kinky, lady. Find a guy who's kinky so that when you get kinky when you're 30 he has to go there for you like you went there for him.
Is it weird to see yourself bleeped out all the time?
Oh no! I argued for that. Originally, they gave me lists of word substitutions so I could say 'this' and not 'that.' And I was like, "Can we just bleep me like The Daily Show? Why do we have to engage in this sort of infantile word swap?" So bleeps -- I fought for bleeps, I love them.
How often does your personal life come to the fore in SU?
Sometimes I'll talk about Terry [Savage's husband] a little bit. An issue that kept coming out there was that "you can't date somebody you hooked up with." If someone will hook up, they're disqualified as being boyfriend material or girlfriend material. And I would always bring up that Terry and I had a one-night stand 17 years ago, and you shouldn't rule out romance with somebody that you did something sleazy with. A lot of really good relationships, maybe even your parents' relationship, had a sleazy start. And I always say, "[My relationship] is not perfect." There are times that we fight, times when I want to kill him, and times when he wants to kill me. We both realize there are things we can't fix in each other and we ignore that. We're functionally dysfunctional, and that's what makes any relationship good.
Savage U airs Tuesdays at 11:00pm on MTV.
Photo credit: Christopher Staton