Dan Savage talks sex-positivity, his love of musical theater, and round two of his HUMP! tour (coming to Philly 2/21)

By Victoria Powell

Dan Savage, courtesy of TIME

I had the chance to speak with Dan Savage: activist, love & sex columnist extraordinaire, and host of America’s “best and dirtiest” amateur porn film festival, Hump! Dan will be bringing the film festival to Philly on Saturday, February 21st, with the first showing starting at 6:00 pm, followed by showings at 8:15 pm and 10:30 pm. It is an 18+ event and tickets are still available. We’ll also be giving away tickets on air during Raha World and The Stardust Revue.

Victoria: What was your college major?
Savage: I went to University of Illinois in Champagne Urbana and I majored in Theater.

Victoria: How did you realize you wanted to be a love advice columnist? And how did you come up with the idea for Hump!?
Savage: Well, I sort of accidentally became a sex advice columnist. I met someone who was starting a newspaper and he was telling me about it, and I said oh you should have an advice column because everybody reads those. You see that Q & A format – you can’t not read it. And he said “that’s good advice… why don’t you write the advice column?”

Even when I started writing the advice column I wasn’t really an advice columnist yet, at first the whole thing was just a joke. I was a gay guy writing an advice column for straight people about straight sex – the idea was I would jokingly treat straight sex and straight relationships with the same contempt and revulsion that straight advice columnists had always treated gay sex and gay relationships. And so for the first six months to a year I was just horsing around and I started getting so many letters and it kind of, without my ever really asking, turned into a real advice column against my will! That’s how I got to be a relationship columnist, by accident.

Hump! was an idea of a friend of mine who started The Stranger where my column originated; a friend of mine and I – we just started joking that we should put an ad in the paper that we’re doing a call for submissions for an amateur porn festival, to see what we’d get in the mail, or whether we’d get anything. It took a long time to convince the publisher to let us do this because he didn’t think it would work. And we got tons of really great and funny and weird submissions and really humane submissions, like really good, humanizing porn. And then we had to go through with it and have the festival so we announced we were having a porn film festival. The question then became: would people come and sit in a dark movie theater next to strangers and watch porn the way their grandparents did? The answer was yes! Tons of people came to the theaters. Hump! has never been people masturbating in their seats sort of a porn screening. More of a celebratory, diversity sex, “we’re all in this together” festival. People came and loved it and a lot of people who were out there this year made films for the next year and Hump! just kept growing and getting bigger. We took it to Portland and started doing it simultaneously in Portland and Seattle and people in other cities kept saying they wanted it to come to them. And so for the first time last year we took Hump! out on the road and this year will be the second time.


Victoria:  I’ve read that you and your husband practice being “monogamish.” I was just wondering if you would explain a little bit more about that.

Savage: Well monogamish is a term… I coined that term that’s been kind of adopted widely to describe my relationship with Terry and our sexual relationship. Because we’re a gay male couple we’re also parents and you know, being honest, I wrote that we were not monogamous. But you know the gay couple, when you say you’re not monogamous, people assume a degree of outside sexual contact or promiscuity that’s just not accurate for us at all. Even other gay people would just assume that we’d been together for so long that we probably had tons of sex with other people and no sex with each other. The opposite was true, Terry and I are much more monogamous than non-monogamous. 98% of the time when we’re having sex it’s with each other, very rarely is it with anybody else. We’re more monogamous than not, so describing our selves as monogamish – like monogamous but you have that squish at the end – felt more accurate. So we coined that term because every time we said not-monogamous people heard “crazy-reckless.” But people who just didn’t understand make all these assumptions that didn’t reflect our reality, and so we coined a new term to describe all of those committed couples who mostly had sex with each other and every once in a while may have a three way or involve a friend, or may have their partner’s OK to have an erotic experience outside the relationship.


Victoria: Porn can be taboo at times, and many people in America are addicted to porn or are ex-porn addicts. Why do you think so many people are addicted to porn? How do you determine healthy porn watching habits?
Savage: I don’t think you can become chemically addicted to porn. I think somebody can lose themselves in anything. You can snowboard too much, you can eat too much, you can run too much, you can fuck too much, you can do whatever too much. So we blame porn and we attribute to porn this insane power, like it’s heroin, like it can be chemically addictive if you touch it or approach it. I don’t think porn is that powerful. I think there are people who over-consume porn, who choose to keep consuming porn to the detriment of their relationships; that’s not a problem with porn, that’s a problem with that person.


You know, if you are watching porn every once in a while as a supplement, you’re not neglecting your partner, you’re not spending all day long jacking off. You consume it in moderation, I don’t think you’re being harmed by it. And if you are abusing it – if you’re abusing anything – you need to get away from that thing and figure out what the problem is. The problem isn’t in the existence of that thing. Usually people pivot from “some people have a problem with porn” to “porn is evil and it shouldn’t exist” and “no one should be allowed to access porn.” It seems like a lot of sex-negative type porn agenda crap flies under the banner of concern of people who are “addicted to porn,” and I reject that.

I would add that porn is only as healthy as the person consuming it.


Victoria: What does sex-positive mean to you?
Savage: It’s so much easier to say what it doesn’t mean, it doesn’t mean anything goes. It’s just as with porn, some people will abuse sex-positivity to guilt a partner into doing something they don’t want to do or to shame someone who doesn’t share their interests. Whether it’s kink or kinks generally or non-monogamy. There are sex-positive people out there who are completely and in long term monogamous relationships – they’re not doing the things that they’re not interested in doing and they’re not shaming anyone else’s sex or relationships and they’re completely sex-positive.Sometimes you see people who are non-monogamous or are in the kink-fetish scene describing anybody who’s vanilla or monogamous as sex-negative or repressed or shut down somehow.

Sex-positivity is an attitude towards sex that’s healthy, an attitude towards sex that acknowledges its place in our lives. There’s nothing sick or sinful about it. It’s also having a healthy respect for the risks and dangers of sex, because sex can kill you via sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies (which won’t kill you but can derail your life in a significant way). You have to approach sex not saying “Rah, rah, sex is awesome always in all circumstances in all situations!” – but with some respect for its power. And to be in awe of that power and to work with it or around it while still celebrating all of the good things like pleasure and intimacy. It’s healthy to have a rational take on sex that is positive. Not to have a fear of it.

A glimpse of the HUMP! experience:

Victoria: Do you think America could use a little more sex-positivity?
Savage: I think everywhere could be more sex-positive. Unfortunately there isn’t a sex-positive olympics where we can see countries rank and figure out who wins the most medals. America is certainly more sex-positive than Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Russia or Uganda or Nigeria. Perhaps less sex-positive or less sex-realistic than say, France. Germany may be more kink-positive than the United States is. I think usually it’s religion that’s the problem that gets in the way and creates issues for a lot of people around shame. Because they have this notion that what their body is telling them, their erotic imagination is telling them what they would like to do. And they have this notion that this higher power would prefer what they do and human sexual desire in most individuals desires are in conflict with the religious conceptions and ideas about what sex is and what it’s for. And that’s a shame and that creates a lot of tension in people’s lives and in cultures. When we repress sex, it doesn’t disappear. It just becomes a little bit more interesting and warped and crazed and crazy. It doesn’t go away, you can’t wish it away. Sex is older than we are, sex is 500 million years old and our species has been around for 200,000 years. Sex made us and it will unmake us; it was here before we came along and it will be here after we’re gone. We walk around acting like sex was created for our benefit.. no, no, no we were created for its benefit.


Victoria: How are you raising your son to be more sex-positive?
Savage: Well, hopefully we’re modeling a sex-positive attitude for him. We had conversations with him about where babies come from, age appropriate sex education. Also then about sex for pleasure when he’s a little older which is something that most parents skip even though that’s 99.9% of the sex that humans have. But I think there’s something inherently sex-negative in children, it’s not that sex-negativity is always learned form parents or religion or communities. I think that there’s this inherent hard-wired sex-negativity in the experience of being human. Because when you’re a child and you find out about sex and it’s this thing that adults do, usually your reaction is something like, “Oh my god, that’s insane and crazy and disgusting! I’m never going to do that, I’m better than adults.” And along comes puberty and it’s like guess what, you’re going to do this thing. There’s almost the sense that with puberty, even if you’re straight, and certainly if you’re gay or lesbian or bi, there’s a sense that you’re being dragged off to a place you didn’t want to go or didn’t expect to end up. That feeling of being disoriented and betrayed by your own body– it instills in each of us a kind of sex-negativity that you have to then walk back for ourselves as individuals.


Victoria: What has been your favorite video submission to Hump! so far?
Savage: Oh my god, ever? or this year?


Victoria: I guess you could start with this year.
Savage: There’s this one called Humparoke in the festival which is a three-way between two men and a woman at a karaoke party and there’s also some lesbian sex that breaks out at this karaoke party. It’s clearly a film that’s totally in the spirit of Hump! which is just friends getting together, having a blast, making a film that’s sexy and explicit but also human and joyous. You can just tell that these people have a blast and they’re sharing with you and you get to oggle them and they’re hot and you get to see the joy and the pleasure they take in each other and how good they are to each other. They laugh, and you never see that in pornography. You never see people who are clearly aroused and having fun and having sex, pause for a minute to laugh and then dive back in. But that’s actually very true to people’s experience of sex in real life. It’s not like there’s joy and pleasure and humor over here and sex over there and the two never meet. What I love most about Humparoke is just it’s so… it brings those things together in a really organic and celebratory way. That may be my favorite this year… or of the last few years.


Victoria: Who are some of your favorite artists?
Savage: Oh my god, *laughs,* well it’s a little embarrassing because I’m a musical theater queen. It’s one of my very stereotypical gay traits. So Steven Sondheim is my favorite perhaps. Rogers and Hammerstein. I just really love musicals and the classic musicals. Steven Sondheim’s work in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I just adore it, I listen to it all of the time. And I like singer-songwriters like Tim Minchin, Garfunkel and Oates, Rachel Lark, people who write complicated, amusing songs with really witty, smart lyrics. I just eat that stuff up.


Victoria: Are you working on any new projects? What can we expect from you in the next year?
Savage: Well I’m writing a book, another book, that I can’t really talk about right now because I don’t want to jinx it. Books change and evolve as you work on them. I’m also working on a TV pilot for ABC about… not about my family but a family, in which a kid comes out and what that kind of fallout is like. So those are the things that I’m working on right now, that’ll be coming out in a year.


You can catch one of the three HUMP! screenings on Saturday, February 21st at the Union Transfer.