Savage Lovecast is a popular podcast hosted by Dan Savage, a(n) (in)famous American sex and relationship expert, and gay rights advocate. An episode typically consists of a political opening monologue by Savage and an interview with a guest, followed by Savage’s responses to prerecorded questions from callers about sex and relationships, and concluding with comments from callers about previous episodes. Although it is very popular (it has over 200,000 listeners weekly), the show is also highly controversial. Savage has been criticized by right wing conservatives for his anti-Republican, atheist, anti-monogamy, sex-positive, and LGBTQ+ affirming stances. He has also been criticized by queer activists who view him as sexist, classist, racist, bi-phobic, transphobic, homonormative, and/or simply not subversive enough.
In this essay, I will argue that the show has significant positive cultural and sociopolitical value. The podcast exposes its audience to non-normative ideas and identities in a way that is usually nuanced and de-stigmatizing, and encourages them to think critically. Moreover, it enables a wide range of people to participate directly in popular culture, and have a public conversation about their personal experiences and struggles with subjects that would traditionally be considered private or taboo. AlthoughSavage sometimes voices his opinions in problematic ways, he is receptive to (some) criticism, and willing to publicly acknowledge his mistakes and evolve his views over time. The extreme and dismissive campaigns undertaken against Savage by some queer activists demonstrate problematic, counterproductive aspects of progressive call-out culture.
Jennifer Reed (2015) outlines three approaches for sexual minorities to relate to larger society: queer, gay, and post-pay. In basic terms, the gay approach solidifies identity, the queer approach destabilizes it, and the post-gay approach works to make it appear irrelevant. Savage takes a gay political approach by affirming distinct LGBTQ+ identities and their political mobilization, and by espousing some liberal (‘assimilationist’) political views (ex. advocating for marriage equality). He takes a queer approach by reclaiming and repurposing hate terms, creating neologisms, and advocating for a wide range of non-traditional relationship styles (especially non-monogamy) and forms of sexual expression. In some ways, he also has a post-gay tendency to make glib remarks, and overlook/disregard intersectional inequalities and their effects.
Savage operates from the understanding that LGBTQ+ communities “need public faces so the broader world can sense our humanity. And we need a diverse array of those faces.” He has been living openly as a gay man since the early 1980’s, and frequently calls for LGBTQ+ people to be open about their gender and sexual identities in their public and private lives. In the show, Savage performs and works on his own self, and encourages others to do the same. He makes a conscientious effort to be “thoughtful, and to see the problem from different angles... [because he knows that] other people will listen, other people will respond, and that this is [his] final answer.”
The Lovecast audience is encouraged to (re)form their own subjectivities by sharing and listening to stories, problems, comments and advice; maintaining open minds; and recognizing and resisting dominant ideology. This effectively de-stigmatizes conversations about sex, gender and identity by allowing its audience to participate directly in a public conversation and to hear the stories of people with diverse preferences and problems. This helps people living in an otherwise sex-negative environment to unashamedly accept their own identities and desires, and to accept the identities and desires of others without shaming them. For example, one listener commented: “Dan makes sex something you can talk about openly and honestly, and that nobody should be ashamed about. As a woman who …. has always been made to feel awkward or like a slut when I express my interest in sex, I really appreciate how Dan has made me feel comfortable and confident about my sexuality.” The show creates a new “store of common sense in the heads of the listeners,” including those who never call in themselves. It disrupts majoritarian scripts by airing the stories of people with majoritarian (i.e. cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, vanilla etc.) identities alongside those of people with minoritarian (i.e. LGBTQ+, non-monogamous, kinky etc.) ones.
I have a straight audience … We know that nothing changes people’s feelings about sexual minorities more than knowing one, or some. And a lot of people get to know queer people, kinky people, poly people, non-monogamous people, trans people, by ... listening to my podcast. And they aren’t just queer people. Straight people who are kinky, poly, non-monogamous, et cetera are ... in their own ways are sexual minorities, who are shamed and silenced and made invisible. I get letters every day from people who say “I used to judge people who were not monogamous really severely, and I started listening to your show and I don’t anymore, because it opened my eyes.”
While Savage’s supporters credit him with directing a de-stigmatizing public dialogue about sexuality that makes them feel liberated and included, opponents of Savage lament the power he has to influence popular culture and publicly represent the LGBTQ+ community. They have a point: the voices straight, cis, middle/upper-class white men like Savage are represented significantly more than other LGBTQ+ groups. This disproportionate representation contributes to the problem of “homonormativity”: the extension of heteronormative, class and race privileges to a select group of relatively privileged, normative/assimilationist gays and lesbians, which compounds the marginalization of more non-conforming, minoritarian LGBTQ+ people.
Yet, Savage does not purport to single-handedly represent the gay or LGBTQ+ communities, nor does he ever claim to be infallible. He frequently emphasizes the fact that his opinions are not necessarily shared by others in the LGBTQ+ community, and acknowledges that the only qualification he has for giving advice is that people ask for it. More importantly, he concludes each episode of the Lovecast by airing comments from listeners about previous episodes, which usually include some criticisms of and alternatives to the stances he has taken. One listener explains: “there are some things [Savage] says that rub me the wrong way, and many things I disagree with, but that doesn't preclude my enjoyment. He is an asshole, but, when he says something that offends certain groups, he will acknowledge the controversy, and publish the letters of people who disagree.” In addition to airing people’s disagreements with him, Savage frequently invites guest experts on to the show and sometimes crowd-sources answers to callers’ questions to supplement his own answers and opinions. Although Savage is the primary voice of the Lovecast, he is certainly not the only voice. The show is a public conversation - those who wish to participate may do so, and listeners who disagree with Savage’s remarks frequently call the show to voice their dissent.
Savage has demonstrated that he is capable of learning from his mistakes, changing his views, and apologizing when he is in the wrong. Like most people, he is in a constant state of learning, and has made various adjustments to his perspective and behaviours over the years. In an episode of the Lovecast, Savage remarks: “[Protestors] disagree with some of the shit I’ve written. I disagree with some of the shit I’ve written. When you go back over 20 years of somebody’s writing career and mine it for examples of assholery or error, you will find it... I respect them disagreeing …[disagreement] is evidence of a healthy community.”
Those who seek to discredit Savage often cite his tendency to make glib remarks and his privilege as an affluent, white, cisgender man as reasons to dismiss him. Yet, the fact that he is a flawed human being in a position of relative privilege does not necessarily disqualify him from publicly voicing his opinions, facilitating a broader, more inclusive conversation, or openly evolving his attitudes and views. Savage arguably uses his position of relative privilege to do his best to contribute positively to his community. He refers to the “burden of representing” as a “curse and a minefield” because of extreme call-out culture. In an interview, he commented: “the people who say ‘How dare you claim to speak for all trans or gay people?’ are saying … ‘On behalf of the LGBT community, I am here to say that you may not speak on behalf of the LGBT community.’… there’s no upside to engaging with people who approach it from that angle.”
Perhaps the biggest qualm that queer activists have with Savage is his frequent, casual use of politically charged language, particularly the word “tranny.” While these activists portray his choice of language as a clear-cut expression of bigotry, insensitivity and/or carelessness, Savage (whether effectively or not) actually intends it as a queer political tactic. Since the beginning of his career as a syndicated advice columnist in 1991, Savage has always used terms that were traditionally used as hateful slurs in an effort to reclaim them (the word “queer” is an example). For the first several years of his Savage Love column, he insisted that each letter to him start with the salutation, “Hey Faggot!” Inspired by the tactics of activist groups like Queer Nation, this salutation was intended to radically reclaim the word as a term of endearment and empowerment, and to demonstrate that intent and context ultimately determine its power and meaning. Savage continues to use terms such as “faggot,” “cocksucker,” “dyke,” “slut,” “whore,” and “breeder” regularly in his podcast and column. Yet, he has recently stopped using the terms “shemale” and “tranny” out of deference to trans* rights activists who oppose the use of those words and have accused him of publicly endorsing transphobic hate speech.
The campaigns that some queer groups have undertaken against Savage provide insight into, and the ongoing debate over free speech, “political correctness,” and progressive call-out culture. Opponents of call-out culture and “political correctness” accuse their proponents of word -policing and censorship. When taken uncritically, this stance risks obscuring the fact that we as a society are constantly making judgments about what kinds of language, ideas and people are acceptable or unacceptable. This individualizes struggles and identity, obscuring larger power structures and depoliticizing identity in the process. Savage arguably does exhibit some problematic anti-“political correctness” tendencies. For instance, he frequently vocalizes his disgust for vulvas, claiming that it is okay to do so because he is simply voicing his “personal opinion.” This obscures the fact that he is contributing to the cultural stigmatization of female genitalia, which many (cis) women and men have internalized, and which has serious negative consequences for women’s self-esteem, physical health, and sexual equality.
The concept of “political correctness” is often strategically employed by privileged people as a pejorative to dismiss the concerns of those who are marginalized. “Political correctness” is frequently invoked to accuse marginalized groups of somehow oppressing dominant groups when they attempt to address the ways in which they are being marginalized. Anti-“political correctness” rhetoric that uncritically positions it in direct opposition to free speech is ironic, as, in reality, issues of discrimination and safety affect people’s ability to participate in society and public discussion. Writing people’s concerns off as “politically correct” makes them much harder to address, and excludes marginalized people from the larger conversation. Ultimately, the “free speech” that some opponents of “political correctness” are protecting is the freedom for people in positions of relative power to keep those with a lesser degree of power in their place, excluded from the conversation.
Yet, call-out culture sometimes manifests itself in extreme forms that arguably do devolve into word-policing and censorship. Instead of critiquing and debating Savage in a nuanced or cooperative way, some queer activists have focused in on him as a target for their political anger. A particularly problematic incidence of this occurred after Savage spoke to a class at the University of Chicago about reclaiming hate terms, and the debate over the use of the term “tranny” - including why he stopped using it, except when discussing the word itself. During his talk, a student demanded that Savage say “t-slur” instead of “tranny.” Savage denied this request and continued to use it, arguing that disallowing the word altogether was unreasonable and infantilizing, would simply force people to say it themselves in their heads, and would ultimately give the word more negative power. The student’s reaction to this difference of opinion was to start an aggressive online campaign against Savage, accusing him of committing a hate crime.
The tendency amongst some progressives to aggressively publicly shame and attack people for making mistakes is extremely counterproductive. This practice alienates not only the individual who made the mistake, but other people who may be observing. Consequently, it undermines the opportunity to have a meaningful/honest discussion about the issue at hand, and discourages potential allies. In this way, call-out culture ironically makes it more difficult for people to participate freely in discussions, express and evolve their own views, and think critically for themselves, for fear of making an unforgivable blunder. Call-out culture reinforces anti-“political correctness” sentiments, and leads those who are not involved in (and perhaps uninformed about) social justice movements to view them as hostile and unreasonable.
Although Savage sometimes attacks his opponents in an aggressive, immature way designed to dismiss them as ridiculous, he usually reserves this treatment for his most hateful and unreasonable opponents, who tend to be right-wing conservatives in positions of power. The most famous instance of this is when he and his fans created “Santorum” as a neologism that means “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex” after Senator Rick voiced extremely offensive and harmful opinions on homosexuality and gay marriage. As columnist Bryan Lowder aptly observes, Savage’s methods, “while surely not perfect, are also better than nothing. Nor do they preclude … [his] critics … creating their own equally imperfect strategies. What does stifle progress, though, is insisting that one man speak for all (only to judge him when he necessarily fails) instead of finding creative, savvy, engaging ways of speaking for oneself.”
Savage Lovecast is a culturally and sociopolitically valuable show. Savage publicly reveals himself as a sexual being and an evolving person, and he provides encouragement and space for others to do the same. His podcast exposes its audience to different ideas, and encourages them to think critically before passing judgement. While some aspects of Savage’s show are problematic, he is receptive to (some) criticism and has demonstrated a willingness and ability to publicly own up to his mistakes and alter his views. In this way, his approach aligns with an ongoing, evolving process of social justice rather than a clear end goal. Some queer activist campaigns against Savage have shown how progressive call-out culture can work to polarize and alienate people in counterproductive ways.
Written by Westland Researcher Elyssa Carroll Goldman
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