Relationships

Dan Savage Revolutionized Sex. Then the Revolution Came for Him.

What does he believe now?

Dan Savage against a wood grain backdrop in a t-shirt.
Dan Savage. Roman Robinson

In the 1990s, a 16-year-old girl wrote a letter to Dan Savage, the advice columnist for the Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper. “I have never had a girl-on-girl relationship,” she wrote, but she’d recently developed a crush on a female classmate, and her boyfriend had given her permission to go for it. “How do I tell her I am interested without her thinking it’s the only reason why I want her as my friend?” she asked. “What the fuck do I do?”

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The letter, and Savage’s response, are reprinted in his 1998 book of columns from the first seven years of Savage Love. I brought my paperback copy of the book when I visited Savage’s home in Seattle on a cool afternoon in August. As I set the book, with its cover photograph of a youthful Savage resting his chin on his hand, next to my laptop on the dining room table, he shifted away from it uncomfortably, as though it were a cursed object. “I can’t even look at that book,” he said.

He’s always gotten letters from teenagers, he told me. “Those are the people who are likeliest to have questions because they’re just becoming sexually active,” he said. “What I think a lot of young people got from my column was like, ‘Welcome to the adult conversation.’ ” That reminded me of his advice to the 16-year-old. I wanted to know what Savage thought of that advice now. He picked up the book at my behest and began scanning the letter and his long-forgotten answer. “This probably isn’t what you should do,” his answer began. “It’s bad, it involves substance abuse, not to mention being a manipulative and dysfunctional little tramp; but, I did it in high school and it worked for me.” It went on:

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Invite her to a party with you and your boyfriend, get her completely smashed, get yourselves completely smashed, and somehow wind up in a room alone. If there isn’t anywhere to be alone at the party, throw a six-pack in the back of your boyfriend’s car and drive as fast and as recklessly as you can to some secluded spot. When you’re alone, start making out with your boyfriend in front of her, then look up like “Oh, my gosh, I’m like so embarrassed you’re like watching us so totally do this …” Then give her a smile, lean over and plant one on her. This is your boyfriend’s signal to pass out or excuse himself or go throw up, leaving you two alone. And you bang her brains out. The next day, if she’s embarrassed and uncomfortable about what happened, you can chalk it up to alcohol and pretend it never happened. If she’s fine, repeat the whole experience, minus boyfriend and booze.

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Halfway through, Savage’s face crumpled. “Oh my God, this is horrible advice. This is terrible,” he said. “This book should be yanked from publication and pulped.”

It won’t be. Dan Savage has, against some odds, become the most influential advice columnist in America. Savage Love marks its 30th anniversary on Thursday. In the three decades since the column debuted, it has morphed from a crude stunt into the most important text in contemporary American sexual ethics, with its own robust glossary of terms and concepts that have infiltrated daily life. If you’ve ever swiped right on a dating app profile that advertised that its maker was “GGG,” told a friend enthralled with a jerk to dump the motherfucker already, or talked to your partner about a desire to be “monogamish,” you have Savage to thank.

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The cover of the book Savage Love, on which Dan Savage sits in a chair, resting his chin on one hand.
A compilation of early Savage Love columns was published in 1998. Plume

Savage revisits and expounds on the tenets of his philosophy in his new book, Savage Love From A to Z, which is being promoted as “a modern guidebook for the bedroom and beyond” for “anyone who’s had, is having, or hopes to have sex.” The book is a victory lap for a writer who has personally made a huge swath of Americans better people and better lovers—less judgmental, more communicative, more generous.

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That’s the idea, anyway, the abiding belief of the millions of Savage faithful. I’ve considered myself one of them. Yes, Savage has made many missteps over the years—he was quick to say so, repeatedly, when I met him in Seattle—but he’s built up enough general goodwill to weather them and to evolve into a reverend of sex whose cheerful vulgarity has almost become wholesome. The column still gives the same impertinent advice it gave in the ’90s—now with many fewer answers that deserve pulping.

On his particular advice to the 16-year-old bisexual girl years ago, Savage now says that he did not actually intoxicate and isolate anyone in high school with the aim of hooking up with them. “I had it done to me in high school, but it’s what I wanted done to me,” he told me. As a closeted, “uptight virgin” from a Catholic family, Savage snuck off to gay bars and got wasted “so that I could give myself permission to let happen what I wanted to happen.” It was the only way he knew how to grapple with his desires. “That’s how I would write about it now,” he said. At the time he responded to that 16-year-old girl, “I think I was just being an asshole.”

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The thing about Savage is that, in public at least, he still sometimes loves to play the asshole. (In person, he’s warm, generous, and scrupulously polite.) As I read through his vast archives—three decades of searching questions and anxious confessions and mores changing right in front of my eyes—it struck me that while he has undoubtedly grown and expanded his repertoire, his voice has remained remarkably consistent through the years. The big difference is that the onetime rebel who semi-facetiously needled “breeders” and lamented the intelligence of straight men has become an establishment figure of sorts, unwittingly ushering in a popular sexual revolution of his own. Three decades later, as the sexual landscape he confronts in his column has changed dramatically, Savage is still grappling with that responsibility.

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In Seattle, when he talked through the famous controversies he’s faced and some less well-known ones, he was thoughtful and conciliatory but also seemed to be negotiating with me: Wouldn’t I agree he has a point about the erotics of power imbalances between young people and older people? Don’t straight men actually need a “safe space” for their sexuality more than ever? By the time we got to my own experience as a woman who regretted trying to be “good, giving, and game” when dating men, I’d found a new way to understand Savage’s power—and his limitations.

Savage Love started as a joke.

In 1991, Savage, then 26, was working at a video store in Madison, Wisconsin, when a co-worker mentioned that a friend of his, Tim Keck, who had already co-founded and then sold the Onion, was moving to Seattle to start a newspaper. Savage suggested including an advice column, since everyone loves to read them. He’d grown up devouring the work of Ann Landers and Xaviera Hollander, Penthouse’s notorious advice columnist. Keck heard the idea and liked it, and Savage was hired to do the job—unpaid at first, then for $12 a column.

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The concept was simple: “I was going to treat straight people with the same contempt, and straight sex with the same revulsion, that straight advice columnists had always treated gay people who had the temerity to write them,” Savage said. Savage wanted to call the column “Hey, Faggot,” which had the same rhythmic structure as “Dear Abby.” Keck wanted to call the column “My Gay Friend.” (“I’m so glad we didn’t call it that,” Savage told me.) They settled on “Savage Love,” with “Hey, Faggot” tacked on to the beginning of every letter as a salutation.

Christine Wenc, the first full-time editor in chief of the Stranger, who shared a cubicle with Savage in the early ’90s, said that opening was “actually kind of shocking” to the mores of the time. “Plenty of people were still closeted,” she told me in an email. “You could lose your job, custody of your kids. Pride gear was not being sold at Target.” And HIV was a grave diagnosis for most people who contracted it. Like virtually all gay men of his generation, Savage had lost friends to AIDS. He’d been an active member of ACT UP in Madison. “I think everything he’s done with his sassy column really came from his need to make a difference on a political level,” said Peri Pakroo, an early editor of the Stranger who is now a business author and consultant. The introduction to the very first column, which consisted of fake letters written by other Stranger staffers, described Savage as “a queer nationalist.”

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Savage planned to move to Seattle temporarily, write the column until the shtick got old, and then go to Europe to join his college boyfriend. “It was a suicide mission,” he said. “It was a column that was going to self-destruct in six months.” Then his long-distance relationship ended, and the column was an unexpected hit. “Savage Love clearly became the most popular section of the paper that people were talking about,” said Nancy Hartunian, who has worked for the Stranger since its founding and is now the producer of the Savage Lovecast, Savage’s advice podcast. (The Savage Lovecast extended edition is part of Slate’s podcasting membership platform Supporting Cast, but there was no contact between the Supporting Cast and Slate editorial teams in the creation of this story.)

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Savage broke the mold of what an advice columnist could be. “Before him, it was all older women like Dear Abby,” said Dirty Lola, a sex educator and performer. “And even when it came to sex, it was Dr. Ruth. You weren’t seeing a younger person doing this, or a gay man.”

Alt weeklies in other cities started syndicating Savage Love—slowly at first, and then faster in the mid-’90s with the arrival of email. Some editors still thought it was too explicit. And Savage said that GLAAD, then known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, called Savage Love a “hate crime” when it arrived in San Francisco, on account of the slur in every letter’s salutation. (A spokesperson for GLAAD couldn’t confirm this but told me GLAAD “would not categorize something like that from Dan as a ‘hate crime’ today.”) Savage finally dropped “Hey, Faggot” in 1999, the same week he began accepting reader questions via email.

Ultimately, Savage Love gained a lot of fans as it spread across the country. “I have a memory of reading it in the early City Pages in Minneapolis and then the Willamette Week in Portland,” said Cheryl Strayed, the author and writer of the Dear Sugar advice column, “and becoming aware that there was this guy out there who was actually speaking honestly and bluntly about sex, and all kinds of sex, the sex that was very often considered taboo to discuss. And that was very exciting to me.”

J Mase III, a Seattle-based poet and educator and the co-director of The Black Trans Prayer Book, started reading Savage Love as a teen and credits it with giving him a model for how to have relationships. “He would be like, ‘Hey, there are ways for you to get in touch with what you like and what you don’t like without having to be sexually engaged with another person.’ Oh, are you having trouble finding dating partners? He’s like, ‘Work on yourself, do things, read books,’ ” he recalled. Savage has repeatedly advised adolescent boys to develop their bodies, brains, consciences, and personal hygiene with the aim of becoming good sexual partners in a few years.

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In the late ’90s, Savage Love was being syndicated in 16 newspapers and reached an estimated  3.5 million people each week. Today, the column appears in 45 publications, and its online footprint has expanded it further. The podcast adaptation launched in 2006 and now has a unique monthly audience of about 300,000. (I have appeared as a guest on the Savage Lovecast to discuss my journalism twice.)

Many aspects of Savage’s philosophy were present from the beginning and had roots in Savage’s own life experience. The kink friendliness? “I have some kinks,” Savage said. The sex work positivity? “I knew sex workers. When I first came out in Chicago, I met sex workers and listened to them.” The skepticism of monogamy? “I realized in my 20s that I wasn’t failing at monogamy, monogamy was failing me—and I needed to do something else.”

Other things, Savage had to learn. He started consulting experts—doctors, therapists, sex researchers, sex-toy vendors, sex workers—for help with tricky questions, and he frequently printed letters criticizing his own advice. Savage credits angry reader mail, along with female editors like Pakroo and Wenc, for setting him straight on many things, including an early fumble about how women experience orgasm. Once he learned more, he wrote indignantly about straight men’s neglect of their female partners’ pleasure. “News flash: most women are unable to ‘have an orgasm via intercourse alone,’ ” he scolded a straight male reader in an answer reprinted in the 1998 book. “Are you with me? The clitoris is not a joy-buzzer at the top of the vaginal canal.”

Savage has focused a considerable chunk of his advice on straight people. He begged them to expand their repertoires beyond penis-in-vagina sex. “If straights could define ‘sex’ to include acts that don’t require penetration—frottage, mutual masturbation, non-penetrative oral sex (licking under, over and around)—you’d get laid more,” he wrote in an answer in the 1998 book. His promotion of pegging—the term he coined in 2001 to describe sex where a woman penetrates a man using a strap-on—stems from a strident desire to see straight people level the playing field when it comes to penetration.

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Dan Savage, wearing a red baseball cap and behind a microphone, points both index fingers updward.
Dan Savage at a book event in Toronto in 1999. Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Savage’s gender also gave him unusual credibility with men. “There aren’t many authentic male voices out there when it comes to sex,” said Stephen Snyder, a sex therapist in New York City. Snyder said Savage’s philosophy gives men permission to value their own turn-ons in the service of pleasing their partners, rather than delivering some mandate for reciprocation: “I’m forever hearing women in my office complain that their husbands are dutifully trying to please them in bed and it’s boring them to tears.”

Savage met his husband, Terry Miller, at a club in 1995, and they had what he assumed would be a one-night stand. They adopted their son, D.J., in 1998; Savage wrote a book about the adoption process called The Kid. Savage and Miller wed in Vancouver in 2005, and Savage wrote a book about that too. Their marriage is famously “monogamish,” meaning that Savage and Miller don’t expect perfect fidelity of each other, and Savage frequently cites the way he and his “huzzzbin” treat each other as a model for listeners of his podcast. Together, Savage and Miller are best known for starting the It Gets Better Project, a massively popular 2010 campaign to prevent LGBTQ youth suicide and a testament to Savage’s preternatural ability to communicate with teenagers in a way that’s neither condescending nor out-of-touch.

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Over the years, Savage honed his philosophy on boundaries—we should all be good, giving, and game for our partners, but we should also accept their hard limits as “the price of admission.” He built up an encyclopedic knowledge of kink and the mechanics of sex: the long-term effects of nipple clamps, how to stage an exciting bondage scene, what kind of butt plug to get when you’re first experimenting with anal penetration. (Not—and he cannot stress this enough—the small kind that looks like a finger, which will pop out of your butt at the least opportune moment.)

This staggering oeuvre, full of best practices and universal frameworks and detailed instructions, made Savage Love a beloved institution. It has also vexed Savage at times over the past decade, as the world he’s schooling changed with the #MeToo movement and the cultural evolution of the gay and trans communities. In recent years, it sometimes seemed like Savage was on the defensive as much as he was setting the rules. When I talked to him in Seattle, it was clear he felt that, too.

Like a lot of people, I started reading Savage Love as a teenager, in my case around 2002. After school, my high school friends and I would sometimes drive to one of the few independent coffee shops in our Maryland suburb, grab a latte and a copy of the Baltimore City Paper (R.I.P.), ignore whatever essential local journalism was on the cover, and flip straight to Savage Love. We tittered at some of the more unusual kinks and fetishes described by letter writers, while Savage’s relentlessly nonjudgmental advice filled in the many gaps left by our ostensibly comprehensive sex ed. (Savage has written, accurately, that sex ed in America is “like a driver’s-ed course that covers the internal combustion but not steering or brakes or those red octagons on the tops of those sticks at all those intersections.”)

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I was dazzled by Savage’s wit and penchant for cheerfully tearing apart idiots, and his ability to answer any question his readers threw at him, no matter how idiosyncratic or stigmatized. I admired his habit of speaking out against fundamentalist politicians’ efforts to restrict abortion and LGBTQ rights. I appreciated the common sense and healthy boundaries that shaped his advice. And Savage’s column gave me a sense of optimism about sex, which I was not yet having. Sex was supposed to be fun, he wrote. I largely credit Savage with my decision, upon turning 18, to drive to the local sex store and buy myself a vibrator.

I had been a Savage Love reader for years by the time I started having sex with men, and one piece of Savage’s advice was at the forefront of my mind when I did: to be good, giving, and game in bed, or GGG.

I spent the first part of my 20s trying to win an Olympic medal in being GGG. So thrilled was I about finally being sexually active that it took me several years to notice that many of my partners had not gotten the GGG memo. At best, these men treated my orgasm with the same enthusiasm they’d bring to seeing a dog do a trick. At worst, they imitated the casual, low-grade violence and aggression of mainstream straight porn without warning. For a long time, I went along with it, hid my discomfort, and laughed it off afterward. I thought that’s what it meant to be GGG.

This is not what Savage had in mind when he coined the phrase. He’s long encouraged readers to “use their words” to tell partners what they want and like. (He once told a woman whose partner refused to try to make her come to say “eat my pussy or I’ll break your legs.”) I did sometimes try to set boundaries and speak up for what felt good, though my partners didn’t always hear me. I had gotten GGG mixed up with various other cultural messages floating around me: that women’s worth came from our desirability to men, that women should prioritize other people’s comfort over our own, that there’s nothing worse than a woman who’s needy. It took me a long time to understand the way I’d internalized those messages, and to do a better job of seeing through the men who exploited them. At the same time, I started to wonder if being GGG might have different upsides for men and women.

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In Seattle, before I had a chance to bring any of this up, Savage volunteered that he’s been worried about straight men lately. During the pandemic, the Savage Lovecast has invited listeners to send in success stories about having sex safely—whether alone or partnered, virtually or in person. Almost all of the submissions have been from women, he said.

“I think men are inhibited around sharing those success stories because it’s going to look like bragging,” he said, sitting beneath the mounted bison head that overlooks the dining room of the home he shares with Miller. “It’s going to look like they’re boasting about a conquest.” It’s true that during an episode last fall where a rare straight male listener shared a success story that involved giving his extramarital girlfriend 29 orgasms, I rolled my eyes.

“My column was always a safe space for male sexuality,” Savage said. In his 2013 book American Savage, a collection of personal and political essays, Savage averred that the advice industry was biased in favor of women, a trend he bragged about bucking.

“I’m totally for male sexuality. I’m also for controlled male sexual aggression. That’s one of the things that’s sexy about men,” he mused as he sipped from a mug of cherry tea. Similarly, he said, sex with a new partner is sexy because of the risks. “When they first met you, they didn’t know if you were a serial killer. They didn’t know if you were crazy,” he said. “And that makes it an adventure without any effort, without any thought.”

In the moment, it genuinely shocked me to hear Savage say that the possibility of harm is part of what makes sex with a new partner exciting. Novelty, transgression, uncertainty about where things are heading? Those things are fun. But the threat of violence that hangs over every sexual encounter is very easily my least favorite part of partnered sex. I was very surprised that Savage—who has written very eloquently for years about how violence deters women from having as much sex as they might like to have—was suggesting that the possibility of being killed is part of what makes sex with a new partner invigorating.

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A few days later, on the phone, I brought it up again. “How serious were you being when you said that?” I asked.

He admitted that it was an extreme example and clarified that he’d been talking about the risk of sleeping with someone new more generally. Then his tone of voice shifted. “Maybe the fact that I go to that example has something to do with being 13 and gay when John Wayne Gacy was caught in Chicago and that being all over the news, and then 12 years later my friend Tony being found in Jeffrey Dahmer’s refrigerator.” Tony Hughes, a friend of Savage’s from Madison, disappeared in May 1991; his remains were found in Dahmer’s apartment in July of that year.

“The capacity of the male strangers I might be sleeping with to do me violence has always been something that has existed very much in the front of my mind,” he said. “It doesn’t give me a complete understanding of what women go through living with the fear of sexual violence day in and day out, every day, and the constant barrage of sexual harassment day after day. But I have some empathy.”

Savage’s approach to gendered power dynamics in relationships has evolved over the years. He spent a long time advising women to be direct in sexual situations, demanding what they want in no uncertain terms (“eat my pussy or I’ll break your legs”) instead of using the softer or more indirect language that women tend to learn to use growing up. Now, he is just as likely to tell men to be direct by asking if it’s OK to escalate a sexual encounter.

“I look at some of the stuff I wrote 15 years ago and I’m mortified, but in the last 10 years, I’ve been telling men that you have to invite the ‘no,’ lest you wind up in a situation where you’re walking away, not realizing that that person feels violated,” he said. “I didn’t understand this either early—most men don’t understand that she may not say ‘no’ out of a fear response that has nothing to do with you. And that you kind of have to proactively control for that.”

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But the gender dynamics are also a thorn in the side of some of Savage’s most famous and celebrated advice—like, for instance, the “campsite rule,” which dictates that older people who have sex with younger people must “leave ’em in better shape than they found ’em.” The rule says to avoid pregnancy and passing on STDs, refrain from leading the younger partner on, and help them improve their sex skills.

The rule originated in 2005, when Savage responded to a letter from a 27-year-old female high school teacher who asked if she could sleep with her former male students once they turned 18 and graduated. Savage advised her to refrain from sleeping with her former students, on account of the “professional risks,” but he gave her his blessing to go find some other 18-year-olds to hook up with—since, according to him, 18-year-olds are “(1) often hot, and (2) fair game.”

I was an 18-year-old in 2005. At the time, I remember the campsite rule seemed unobjectionable to me. Rereading the column in which it originated this year, in my 30s, I couldn’t stop thinking about how young 18 is. I was also struck by Savage’s choice to print a letter from a female teacher wanting to sleep with her male students, since, as University of Oxford professor Amia Srinivasan points out in a recent essay adapted from her new book The Right to Sex, “any argument about consensual teacher-student sex misses something crucial if it doesn’t observe that these relationships typically involve male professors sleeping with female students.” It struck me as a classic Savage rhetorical maneuver: setting a universal, scrupulously gender-neutral rule even when a situation occurs more commonly with a particular gender configuration that reinforces patriarchal norms.

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In Seattle, I asked Savage if he stood by his assessment that 18-year-olds are “hot and fair game.” “For a twentysomething,” he replied. (He was 40 when he wrote the column.) He acknowledged that power dynamics—including gendered ones—can make age-gap relationships unhealthy but refused to quantify the age difference at which a relationship begins to enter dicey territory. “This is like an angel-dancing-on-a-head-of-a-pin argument. How much of an age difference is too much of an age difference? When is an adult not an adult? Does an 18-year-old adult become less of an adult when the person that they’re sleeping with turns 30 if they were 29 when they met?”

Savage gets lots of questions from people on both sides of age-gap relationships, and his general approach to answering them is not to call out age gaps as potentially unhealthy unless letter writers and callers bring up that possibility themselves. There’s little point in discouraging them, he argues, since power imbalances are inherently hot and arousing. He’s made similar arguments about relationships between supervisors and their subordinates in the workplace, and about relationships between college professors and undergraduates.

“The crazy thing about the power-imbalance phobia that has taken root is that in the absence of power imbalances, we will manufacture them,” he said, by negotiating power play in the bedroom. To the extent that age-gap relationships tend to involve older men, he thinks it’s partly because maturity, like controlled sexual aggression, is one of the things that makes men sexy. “Maybe there’s something about what makes a male person attractive—to the people who are attracted to male persons—where an age gap feeds into that and reinforces that.”

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I argued that whether you left a partner better than you found them is subjective—and that older men are not great at assessing their relative power over young women in particular. Savage agreed, kind of. “The more sophisticated conversation we all are having now about the way women are socialized, the way men are socialized, the way men have to control for that, lest they wind up violating someone who appears to be consenting, would all inform a case-specific understanding of a relationship with an age gap,” he said. “But I’m not comfortable saying that those relationships can never be good.”

Savage has adapted and amended the campsite rule over the years. He later stipulated that the campsite rule requires not only avoiding STDs and pregnancy but also being “honest, caring, open, and GGG” and leaving a partner with “no restraining orders” and “no emotional trauma.” He’s written that it means doing whatever possible to boost the younger person’s “knowledge, skills, and self-confidence while you’re together.”

In 2009, Savage also introduced a corollary to the campsite rule, which he called the “Tea and Sympathy rule”: “When the younger person in an older/younger affair speaks of it in future years, he or she has a duty to be kind. If no harm was done to the younger person, then the younger person should strive to likewise do no harm.” But harm isn’t binary, nor is it always immediately obvious. Sometimes the messed-up power dynamics in relationships with a big age gap become clear to the younger party only in hindsight. The writer and actor Tavi Gevinson explained this dynamic brilliantly in an essay earlier this year about a relationship she had as an 18-year-old with a much older man. “I now view some of my ‘empowering’ experiences as violating, exploitative, and manipulative,” Gevinson wrote. Sometimes the younger person’s perspective shifts, and sometimes it isn’t kind.

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Savage and I went around in circles talking about age gaps, in Seattle and over the phone. The bottom line, for him, is that younger people can hurt older people, too. “You’re always operating under the assumption that the older person’s the shitty one by default, and the younger person could never have shitty motives,” he told me. “Someone can tell a truth and weaponize it, right? Out of malice, to hurt someone who didn’t hurt them. That is a thing that can happen, is it not?”

Savage was generous and genuine in puzzling out these topics with me, even after years of considering and reconsidering them already. As for the better-known controversies over what he’s written, he has a tendency to explain rather than apologize for his mistakes, or to explain more than he apologizes—and he categorically denies harboring any prejudices, especially toward bisexual and trans people.

Savage has, he concedes, given his readers some reason to believe otherwise. In the ’90s and ’00s, he blamed bi men for stereotypes about gay men, writing that “many ‘bi’ men can be found hanging out in gay bathhouses, cruisy parks, and toilets, having anonymous sex with other men—adding to straight people’s mistaken impression that all ‘gay’ men are indiscriminate sex-crazed risk takers—before dashing home to wife and child.” He advised gay men, in all caps, not to have sex with bisexual men and likened bisexuality to “incest and dog-fucking.”

It was “the way most gay men were at the time, and it was shitty,” Savage says now. “A lot of my hostility to bi guys early was because I dated bi guys who were gay closet cases who felt superior to the gay men that they were dating, because they weren’t 100 percent polluted by gayness.” Over the years, “pushback from my readers” and some new bi lovers helped change his mind.

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Then there are the transphobic slurs that frequently appeared in Savage Love over the first 20-odd years, along with some gender nonaffirming advice about trans people and cheap jokes about the appearance of trans women. Savage told me that he used those words in the same spirit as he invited readers to call him a “faggot.” He offered a similar explanation when, at a much-covered event at the University of Chicago in 2014, he was challenged by a trans student who objected to his continued use of the slurs while talking about the slurs, and wrote a scorched-earth takedown of the student in the Stranger. (Savage now uses the phrase “t-slur” instead of saying the word out loud.)

There were also frequent blog posts and columns insulting fat people; he wrote a defensive response when then-Stranger film editor Lindy West called him out on his fatphobia, an exchange that has attained folk legend status since a version of it appeared in the Hulu series Shrill. (“I was fat as a kid,” he told me. “I’m from a family of fat people, or people who tend to be heavier. And there was some self-loathing and revulsion around it.”) He dubiously blamed Black voters for the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage in 2008, and said racist gay men were far less of a problem than homophobic Black people. (“I should have just apologized and pulled it down,” he said.)

There are at least two Tumblrs dedicated to cataloging Savage’s offenses, if you wish to go deeper. Someone could write a whole dissertation on the time he celebrated the outing of an 18-year-old closeted gay Republican campaign worker, or his strange habit, for a long time, of accusing people who are asexual of malice toward people who aren’t. Savage has a general response to these chronicles: He doesn’t say those things anymore. He’s changed.

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Dan Savage, seen in profile, holds his hands out in front of him as he speaks into a microphone.
Dan Savage onstage for Savage Love Live at Kutztown University in 2014. Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

And Savage has listened to and learned from people he has previously helped marginalize. “I certainly think I’ve gotten to be better on trans issues because trans people have yelled at me when I was getting it wrong,” he said. In recent years especially, he has invited trans, bisexual, fat, and Black guest experts to comment on his podcast and for his column, and he has offered generally thoughtful, compassionate advice to trans, bi, fat, and Black readers and listeners.

But for some fans, Savage’s past comments transformed the way they look at him irrevocably. For J Mase III, who learned as a teenager how to think about relationships from Savage Love, Savage’s statements on “Black homophobia” in 2008 instantly changed the way he thought of Savage. “I fell off of even thinking about Dan in a positive way,” he said. “That has stayed with me, the anti-Blackness, and that was my first time really recognizing this mythology around the cohesive queer community.”

“He’s someone who had a really big reach who really let me down,” Mase said.

Some listeners have also suggested that Savage tends to invite guests who agree with him, rather than those who challenge his views. Dirty Lola, the sex educator and performer, brought up Savage’s history of giving a platform to Buck Angel, a trans porn performer with exclusionary views on who gets to identify as trans, instead of Savage’s trans critics. “How about you bring in somebody else who doesn’t agree with you, and you have a real conversation?” Lola asked. “When he really gets put out, he kind of throws out an, ‘I’m sorry,’ but it’s never a real ‘I’m sorry,’ it’s one of those, ‘I’m sorry that you’re hurt’ moments.”

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Savage himself doesn’t have much use for apologies, at least not the kind that tend to get written in a Notes app and posted on Twitter. “When someone sees one of those shit-eating, formulaic apologies, how on earth can you tell if that is sincere, or just a desperate plea for the dogs to get called off?” he asked me.

He seemed befuddled by his critics’ continued references to offensive things he said long ago. “It’s all presented on the internet like you wrote it two seconds ago. It doesn’t matter that I’ve done an entire podcast about asexuality with Lori Brotto, and platform asexuals to talk about asexuality. What matters was my initial reaction. It’s sometimes a weird position to be in, to be told that this thing that I wrote was so traumatizing, that it did such damage, that we’re going to make sure everybody sees it.” Savage thinks his critics should take the win. “When somebody comes around on your issues because you’ve been imploring them to come around, you should feel good about that,” he said.

Savage’s history of controversial statements isn’t fully confined to the distant past. In March, he provoked a new round of blowback on Twitter after defending journalist Jesse Singal, widely criticized for fearmongering about youth transition. When I asked Savage about his defense of Singal, he said he was objecting to Singal’s inclusion on a list put together by GLAAD intended to catalog proponents of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. “It just felt unfair for him to be on that list with Tony Perkins and exterminationist, eliminationist homophobes, and transphobes,” Savage said.

A day after we talked on the phone about Savage’s resistance to “shit-eating” apologies, he texted me. “You know what they’re always telling people on Twitter: ‘listen, do better.’ Instead of issuing abject apologies, I try to listen and do better. And I think I have,” he said. “Not that I’m done.”

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When Savage came up with his most famous rule—to be good, giving, and game—he wasn’t thinking about his big reach or trying to cement his legacy, he told me. He was just sharing his thoughts for the week, as he always does. The 2004 letter in question was from a man with a golden showers fetish whose wife declined to pee on him but did allow him to lick her clean after she peed. The letter was proof, Savage wrote, that “You can be married and enjoy an exciting, mutually pleasurable, wildly adventurous sex life—provided, of course, that you have the good sense (or the good luck) to marry someone who’s good, giving, and game, and that you and your partner are both willing to be open and make compromises.”

The original column specifically defines being GGG as something you do for a long-term partner, but it has since “expanded to basically everything,” Savage said. The term almost immediately got posted on Urban Dictionary. Within a few years, Savage discovered that novelty T-shirt websites were selling shirts that said “Good Giving Game Girl” on them. Savage clarified in subsequent columns that he meant “good in bed,” “giving equal time and equal pleasure,” and “game for anything—within reason.” When he talks about it now, he heavily emphasizes the “within reason” part. “And what is within reason is very subjective and personal,” he told me.

GGG has resonated with a vast number of people. Strayed, the Dear Sugar columnist, brought it up when I asked her if Savage’s advice has ever affected the way she’s dealt with issues in her own life. “GGG works alongside these other things that Dan also espouses, and that is both having good, healthy boundaries, and also not violating other people’s healthy, good boundaries, and honesty and kindness and generosity,” she said.

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Still, I am not the only female Savage Love reader who has misinterpreted GGG as a dictate to go along with whatever your partner wants. Savage has gotten questions from a woman who worried that not wanting to vomit on a male partner with a vomit fetish would result in her “losing my GGG card,” a woman who thought that being GGG meant going along with a male partner’s desire to explore scat play, a woman who initially went along with a male partner’s idea for her to perform oral sex on a stranger through a glory hole out of a desire to be GGG, and a woman who gave into her male partner’s desire for her to sleep with strangers because he told her that’s what it meant to be GGG.

Readers noticed the pattern. “I agree that sexual satisfaction for both parties is important. I think that is what you are trying to express,” one letter writer told him in 2007. “But that is not the message straight men are hearing. Straight men are hearing that they are entitled to whatever they want, whenever they want it, whether the women they’re with like it or not.”

Savage insisted in his reply that there is nothing gendered about GGG. “GGG is something straight women, straight men, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, MTFs, FTMs, etc., should all strive to be,” he wrote, using now-outdated terminology to refer to trans women and trans men.

I had finally been planning to tell Savage about my own mixed experiences with being GGG, and the fact that it seems to land differently for women than it does for men. But he brought it up first—in his typical gender-neutral way. “I’ve heard from people who had partners who used GGG as a club, like you weren’t allowed to have boundaries because that meant you weren’t a good, giving, and game partner,” he volunteered shortly after I brought up the rule. “But you can have limits.” Savage pointed out that he has expanded the definition of GGG over the years to account for readers’ concerns. He’s spent years “unpacking and qualifying and problematizing and building it out,” he said. “I didn’t come down from the mountain with GGG on a tablet and hand it to the Israelites and then disappear.”

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Savage appreciates how the #MeToo movement has demonstrated that consent is not always simple. “The discourse over the last four years is about a much more nuanced and complicated understanding about consent and power and how that can actually play out. It’s not as simple as getting a yes or a no,” he said. He thinks #MeToo has helped men internalize that message—and also that it’s made them see how “the risk isn’t just a risk for the sex partners of men—but also now for men themselves.”

Still, he said, “we have to accept that you’re going to have sex that you feel bad about.” No matter how much care and communication goes into obtaining consent, Savage thinks it’s inevitable that sex will sometimes hurt people. “People are going to stumble into the situations and circumstances where, even if they enthusiastically consented, the sex wasn’t good and they feel yucky and they feel used, or maybe the sex was great, and then the person wanted nothing to do with them ever again, and then retroactively, they felt bad and used by what happened. It’s just an area where you’re going to get your feelings hurt. You’re going to do things that you regret.”

Savage told me about a letter he hadn’t published yet to demonstrate the way he’s updated the idea of GGG: It was from a woman, he said, “who for years had threeways with her husband because it was his kink. He disclosed it when they got married. She said, ‘Can I retire from being GGG?’ ” She’d given her husband permission to pursue his kink with other people. Savage said he’d told her she could absolutely stop participating in her husband’s kink. “But you are still being GGG,” he said. “You’ve given him permission to do this elsewhere. You can take something off the menu and still be good, giving, and game.”

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The letter came out the next day, and reading it bummed me out more than I’d expected based on Savage’s description. The letter writer, who had been a virgin when she’d met her husband of 26 years, started agreeing to threesomes with other men after six years of marriage. Over time, “My husband’s interests expanded into dominance play—owning me and sharing me,” she wrote. “There were also instances where I was basically sexually assaulted—or at the very least, my boundaries were not respected on more than one occasion. Long story short, I want to be done being kinky. I want my body to be mine.” Her husband, disappointed, refused to have any sex with her and said he wouldn’t be able to find other partners to have threesomes with.

Savage’s advice to the letter writer was solid: He zoomed in on the sexual assaults and made his advice conditional on the assumption that the husband had “recognized how he failed you on those occasions when you were violated and that he’s shown remorse, apologized specifically and profusely, and made whatever changes he needed to make for you to feel safe with him.” If not, Savage wrote, she should leave him. But Savage also praised the husband for having “laid his kink cards on the table” and not rushing her into threesomes early on in the marriage. “And while MMF threesomes probably aren’t something you would’ve sought out on your own,” he wrote, “I’m hoping you enjoyed some of them.”

It was a typical Savage answer. He refrained from unequivocally condemning the husband as some readers—including, admittedly, me—might want him to. It is a nuanced response that attempts to take all possibilities into account. It’s a style of advice that has very much fallen out of fashion in favor of answers that rake villains over the coals for their crimes, popular on forums like the Am I the Asshole? subreddit. (Savage is a fan: “I’m so angry that I didn’t come up with AITA first, because I’m the king of acronyms,” he said.)

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Dan Savage, outside against a cement wall.
Dan Savage at Bryant Park in New York in 2013. Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Despite having coined one of the most coal-rakey acronyms out there, DTMFA, Savage is practiced in seeing shades of gray. “I have a devil’s advocate problem,” he said. “There’s two sides to every story, and maybe I got enough scolding early on in the advice column that I was taking letters too much at face value, or have gotten better over the decades at reading between the lines.” He added, “I just think it’s easy to write the ‘he’s an asshole, you should leave him’ response over and over again forever.”

Since my knee-jerk reaction was that Savage’s answer to the woman who wrote in saying that she was “tired of being GGG” went too easy on her husband, Savage offered to put me in touch with the letter writer. I’ll call her Jennifer. (I verified that she was indeed the person who sent the original email to Savage.)

Jennifer told me, via email, that some of Savage’s assumptions had been correct. She said that her husband had generally been GGG for her in their relationship, and that she had enjoyed a lot of her husband’s kink. Jennifer’s husband had also apologized for the boundary violations and recognized an instance as assault.

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“But it was Dan saying that he assumed my husband ‘made whatever changes he needed to make for you to feel safe with him’ that made me realize that no, that has not happened,” Jennifer told me. “I think making that realization has made me feel more empowered to ask for what I need. I did show that article to my husband and it really just made him angrier. I don’t know what the future of our relationship is, but I do feel stronger having heard Dan’s advice on it.”

All in all, Savage’s advice had fulfilled the purpose of an advice column: It helped the letter writer. “His telling me that I was being GGG still, only in a different way, was so helpful to hear,” she said. “It helped me take a step back from my husband’s perspective on the issue and reassess my obligations to him.”

Jennifer’s response reminded me of something Strayed told me. One of the reasons people turn to advice columnists, she said, “is not so much that they are telling us something we absolutely do not know or never thought of, but rather that they’re reminding us of who we aspire to be and clarifying for us what the best versions of ourselves might look like.” Savage’s answer seemed to do that for Jennifer.

Advice columns are, of course, not just for the letter writer—they’re for the rest of us. Savage Love is proof of that: He has not only answered tens of thousands of letters in his 30 years doling out advice, but he’s made millions of readers and listeners more sex positive.

Savage told me he has changed his mind since 2013 about whether most advice columns are biased in favor of women. He now thinks advice columns are biased in favor of “the solvable problem.” “Write me a letter where there’s something I can tell you that might help or make a difference, and I’m going to use that letter,” he said.

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A lot of problems related to sex and power are not solvable problems—not on a personal level, anyway. It can be satisfying to see rapists, abusers, bigots, and garden-variety assholes get their comeuppance in advice columns, considering how rarely they see any consequences in real life. But Savage is not trying to mete out karmic justice. He’s trying to find solutions. “For every person that makes it into the column, I don’t know how many there are that he just answers personally,” said Hartunian, the Savage Lovecast producer. “He’s constantly writing to people for free, because he wants to help people.”

He obviously hasn’t always succeeded. He’s driven off readers with his carelessness and callousness and tendency to dig in his heels. He’s used bigoted language. He’s been dead wrong. He’s been slow to understand the way superficially gender-neutral prescriptions can affect men and women differently, and he may never be done issuing clarifications and updates to his code of conduct.

But there is genuine compassion and insight and, three decades later, real earned righteousness beneath the sarcasm and diatribes and acronyms. I was struck a few times when we spoke by moments when Savage articulated psychological and interpersonal dynamics I’d experienced with a specificity I’d never heard from anyone before. It felt like Savage was looking right through me. There may not be any truly universal sex principles that empower everyone in every circumstance, but Savage’s worldview has expanded.

After I left his house, Savage texted me—always eager for a debate—to ask about something I’d said about age-gap relationships and power imbalances. I’d been trying to get at the idea that messed-up power dynamics aren’t always obvious to young people, but become clearer with time and distance. That’s true, Savage acknowledged, but can’t that be paralyzing to the older person? “A person may be oblivious (honestly oblivious; self-serving, willful obliviousness is something else) to their own power or leverage or the thrall they may be holding someone in,” he wrote.

Don’t people have an obligation to try to be less oblivious, I replied?

“Agreed. Problem comes when it’s not a person’s own self-interest to age out of their obliviousness,” he wrote. “Which is where social sanction comes in, I guess.” I figured he knew what he was talking about.