"Dan Savage, America's Most Important Sex Ethicist"
This is important to us in several ways.
Savage has shifted in recent years from snarking polys to explaining us and our values well, and saying "I'm pro-poly and I vote." (Some of you have been working on him; thank you!) But more importantly, the moral and ethical framework that he articulates for everyone — straight, queer, kinky, poly, and/or mono — is the same framework that we have been advocating for how to make polyamory work happily and successfully all around. This ethic puts honesty, disclosure, communication, and respect and living with your own sexuality above pretty much all else. The author asks: Too much else?
The complete article is well worth reading, but here's a condensation:
Rules of Misbehavior
By Benjamin J. Dueholm
...After twenty years of churning out “Savage Love,” the Seattle writer can lay a legitimate claim to being America’s most influential advice columnist.... He is a frequent contributor to the popular radio program This American Life, and a “Savage Love” television show on MTV is said to be in the works. His podcast has a higher iTunes ranking than those of Rachel Maddow or the NBC Nightly News, and his four books have sold briskly (a fifth is due out in March). And when it suits him, the range of his commentary has become increasingly broad....
Savage’s ability to mobilize legions of readers has also matured beyond the lobbing of incendiary Google bombs.... [See santorum and saddlebacking.]
Savage yields to no one in his sexual libertarianism, but he has not been content to relegate the ideas of right and wrong to cultural conservatives. Wading deep into the free-fire zone of modern sexuality, he has codified a remarkably systematic — and influential — set of ethics where traditional norms have fallen away. The question is, into what kind of world do his ethics lead us?...
...Savage does embrace a whole host of kinks. But for him, what’s most important is that abandonment of inhibition should never entail an abandonment of personal responsibility. And as it happens, a column premised on its author’s willingness to say what others won’t say, and countenance what others won’t countenance, has proven to be an ideal forum for probing the nuances of what we owe each other when the lights are off.
In 2000, Savage answered a letter from a fifteen-year-old boy who was using both meth and heroin and engaging in a regular ménage à trois with his girlfriend and an adult man. The question the teen posed to Savage was not, needless to say, whether he should be having sex before marriage (or high school graduation). Nor, for that matter, was he asking whether it was advisable to take part in a legally risky threesome, or to dabble in hard substances. Rather, the boy’s question was whether he, “a big hippie,” had an obligation to tell the man, “an avid anti-drugger,” about his use of meth and heroin. Savage was not exactly affirming in his response:
“You are an idiot. The drugs you’re doing, young skank, are dangerous and, however careful you are with needles, sooner or later they’re going to kill you,” he wrote. “What should you do about your drug-phobic, statutory-rapist fuck buddy? Well, I’d say that like any good hippie you should be open, honest, loyal, brave, and true. Tell him what the holes in your arm are all about, and give him the option of staying or going. You say you have feelings for this guy, and if that’s the case, you owe him the truth. If that’s not the case, well, then you might as well go ahead and steal his stereo and TV set now.”
Savage’s advice here faintly echoes the presumptions against hard drug use and teenage risky behavior that prevailed in Ann Landers’s day, but it pivots on the boy’s obligation to disclose any and all information of relevance to a sexual partner — the first ground rule of Savage’s ethics. Full disclosure is a minimal standard, but one that many who have sought Savage’s advice fail to meet. “This sounds more like a question for The Ethicist, a charming new advice column in The New York Times Magazine, but since you asked, I’ll give it a go,” he wrote in 1999 to a young man living with a woman he didn’t love because he couldn’t afford his own place. “You are an asshole … You’re allowing this woman to make assumptions — false assumptions — about your intentions for your own gain.”
Meanwhile, he encouraged a correspondent with a long history of sexual infidelity to become an honest woman — by telling her partners about her need to stray: “Where there are no lies of commission or omission, SKANK, there’s no deceit. And where there’s no deceit, there are no boys whose hearts are broken when they find out they are being cheated on.” The configurations involved in these questions, from simple cohabitation to three-way relations to old-fashioned cheating, are not at issue. The obligation of each questioner to be up front about what they want and do is what drives the ethical dilemma in each case.
...As it happens, this vision fits rather well in a society built around consumption. If Savage’s ethical guidelines — disclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange, and minimum standards of performance — seem familiar or intuitive, it’s probably because they also govern expectations in the markets for goods and services. No false advertising, no lemons, nothing omitted from the fine print: in the deregulated marketplace of modern intimacy, Dan Savage has become a kind of Better Business Bureau, laying out the rules by which individuals, as rationally optimizing firms, negotiate their wildly diverse transactions.
Classical liberalism, however, may prove just as inadequate in the bedroom as it has in the global economy, and for many of the same reasons. It takes into account only a narrow range of our motivations, overstates our rationality and our foresight, downplays the costs of transactions, and ignores the asymmetries of information that complicate any exchange of love or money....
...Consider the case of a correspondent from late 2009. A straight male in his late twenties, the writer felt indicted by a distinction Savage had drawn in a recent column between being an “honest nonmonogamous dude” (HND) and a “cheating piece of shit” (CPOS). “I have a girlfriend of several years whom I live with and love very much,” he writes.
“I have never been an HND; I have in the past been a CPOS (though not in this relationship). My girlfriend is lovely, supportive, and generally GGG, and though the sex is good, I have a significantly higher libido than she does and I would like to have a little more variety in my sex life. I want to be an HND, but I don’t know how to broach the subject with the girlfriend without ruining our relationship.... How do I bring this up without screwing up our relationship beyond repair?
-- Aspiring Honest Nonmonogamous Dude”
Savage’s reply is frank as always: “I would encourage you to err on the side of screwing up your current relationship with an honest conversation about your mismatched libidos and your natural and normal desire for a little variety. Lies, damn lies, and statistics all demonstrate that, in time, one or the other or both of you will cheat. Better to toss that out there now, even at the risk of calmly winding down this relationship before you revert to form/CPOS, than to see the relationship explode after someone, most likely you, winds up cheating.”
This Aspiring Honest Nonmonogamous Dude (AHND) takes greater pains than most of Savage’s correspondents to praise his girlfriend, not only in general but specifically with regard to their sex life. They have already spent several happy years together. He is anxious about his surplus of desire, but apparently nothing else. Yet that consideration trumps all others in Savage’s answer. Sexual compatibility — in terms of libido or in terms of tolerating nonexclusivity — is the coin of the realm. Love, emotional compatibility, the possibility of a life together, not to mention irrecoverable years already spent — these must all be staked against the value of a fully deployed libido. But what, exactly, is the upshot of “calmly winding down” a relationship with a high risk of infidelity? 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. If the aspiring HND dissolves this years-long transaction in order to find a partner who is just as lovable but less jealous, or who shares his libido at every point, he will likely have a lonely road ahead of him.
I wonder what he chose to do....
Read the whole article. It was also reprinted on AlterNet under the title "Dan Savage, America's Most Important Sex Ethicist."
In the course of the article Dueholm outs himself as a Lutheran minister, one who counsels a lot of people. No matter what you may think of ministers or Lutherans, his point about doing relationships based on consumer-society paradigms is telling and important. I have never heard it stated like this before. I'm not talking about dumb claims that if we have two people as intimates they must be "throwaways"; he's saying something else.
However, I think the causes and effects here flow in different directions than Dueholm considered.
If internet-era relationships, and poly relationships in particular, are developing an ethic of product disclosure, accurate labeling, safety warnings, explicit agreements, and honest exchanges — like in a well-regulated marketplace — maybe it's because those things are healthy and fruitful for all concerned. In a market economy they make for smooth transactions and a climate of successful trade, leading to greater well-being for the whole society. Market societies, and their economists, grasped the usefulness of these things early. Polys are helping people to discover the usefulness of these good things in another sphere.
(P.S.: No, I'm not a Libertarian, and let's not get going about market failures and regulatory failures; they just prove the point.)
Update March 19: Savage has just made Time magazine; he's featured on its "Ten Questions" page. Here's the last question and his answer:
What advice can you give readers of TIME?
We talk about love in a way that's very unrealistic: "If you're in love, you're not going to want to have sex with anyone else but that person." That's not true. We need to acknowledge that truth so that people don't have to spend 40 years of marriage lying to and policing each other.
Read all ten questions (issue dated March 28, 2011). He's also getting a lot of other mainstream exposure these days, such as on ABC's Nightline March 24th.
Update August 9: Benjamin Dueholm, author of the Washington Monthly article, lets his hair down as a serious religious person with a long article about Savage and Christian thought in The Christian Century an old, very serious, moderate-conservative journal that your grandparents' minister may have read. The article is the cover story of the August 23rd issue. Read it here: Advice and Consent: Monogamy in the age of Dan Savage. Don't be put off by the abstruse theology in the first few paragraphs; read on.
These are people I'd like to see us engage more with.
Labels: advice columns