Sunday’s New York Times magazine featured a cover story that approvingly discusses sex columnist Dan Savage and the propriety of consensual adultery. There is so much to say about the piece that I almost don’t know where to begin. Let’s first note that the piece is very nicely and ably presented by the paper’s religion writer Mark Oppenheimer and editor Vera Titunik. The quality of the writing is great.
And another thing that’s good about the piece is that it implicitly addresses something that’s been woefully undercovered by the mainstream media — how redefining marriage from a procreative union based on the complementary nature of the sexes into something based on personal fulfillment could radically alter the social norms that accompany that institution. It provides part of the answer to the supposedly rhetorical question, “How could legalizing same-sex marriage affect my marriage?”
This puffy discussion of the benefits of consensual adultery could be seen as part of the political and cultural movement to divorce marriage from the purpose of the creation, care and raising of children, but at least the topic is broached of how social norms change as laws governing sex change. But this biological reality of how intercourse and intercourse alone result in procreation, around which the institution of marriage has traditionally been based, is only given the briefest possible mention — a phrase — before being basically ignored for the rest of the piece in which monogamy is characterized as little more than “boredom, despair, lack of variety and sexual death.”
If you are looking for a more balanced exploration of Savage’s sexual ethics, one that also praises his writing while asking some pretty tough questions about his views on what sex is and what it means, you’d be much better served by reading the Washington Monthly piece by Benjamin Dueholm.
In the New York Times hagiography of Savage, we’re told that he’s best known for creating the “It Gets Better” campaign to support gay teens.
In the Washington Monthly piece, you’ll be reminded of Savage’s “Germ Warfare” when he was so obsessed with physically harming Gary Bauer that he infiltrated his campaign and then set out to get as many of “his people” sick as he could, hoping that one of them would infect the candidate. He licked office doorknobs, bathroom doorknobs, staplers, phones, computer keyboard and the rims of all the clean coffee cups. Later he sucked on a pen and gave it to Bauer to sign a photograph with. The New York Times‘ Ethicist column defended this as a justifiable political act. Now the Times just ignores it.
Savage also engaged in voter fraud in Iowa, and his lawyer noted that not a single member of the media noticed it when he plead guilty to the charge.
When Sen. Rick Santorum suggested that the arguments being made in the Lawrence v. Texas case on gay sex might lead to the idea that all consensual sexual activity, from bestiality to adultery to polygamy, etc., should be legal, Savage got so mad that he asked his readers to come up with a disgusting definition for which the word “Santorum” would be used. I will never understand how people think this makes Santorum, and not anal sex, look bad but the definition he chose was “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.” This wasn’t mentioned in the Times piece either.
He was so mad at Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren for supporting Proposition 8 in California that he defined “saddlebacking” as “the phenomenon of Christian teens engaging in unprotected anal sex in order to preserve their virginities.” He vowed to boycott Utah for similar reasons, writing “F— you, Utah — we’re going to big, blue Colorado.”
What else? He once said a political candidate he didn’t like should be “be dragged behind a pickup truck until there’s nothing left but the rope.”
And at this point, I’m assuming you get the idea. Savage is a very engaging writer and his sexual ethics have taken the country by storm, but the hatefulness of his speech is staggering. I guess this piece on how awful the norm of monogamy is and how awesome consensual adultery is wouldn’t quite have worked if we’d heard some of this. Instead, we’re told:
Savage was raised in ethnic-Irish Chicago, one of four children of a cop and a homemaker. He did some time in Catholic school, and his writing bears traces of the church’s stark moral clarity, most notable in his impatience with postmodern or queer theorizing or anything that might overturn the centrality of the stable nuclear family.
Savage is not a churchgoer, but he is a cultural Catholic. Listeners to “This American Life,” which since 1996 has aired his homely monologues about his family, might recognize the kinship of those personal stories to the Catholic homilies Savage heard every Sunday of his childhood. Less a scriptural exegesis, like what you get in many a Protestant church, the priest’s homily is often short and framed as a fable or lesson: it’s an easily digested moral tale. You can hear that practiced didacticism in his radio segments about DJ, the son that he and Terry Miller, his husband, adopted as an infant, and you can hear it in the moving piece he read about his mother, who, on her deathbed, said she loved Terry “like a daughter.”
And you can hear it in the It Gets Better project, Savage’s great contribution to family values.
All I know is that I want Mark Oppenheimer writing an article about me. It reminds me of this time I sat on a jury and couldn’t stop thinking about how I would want Billy Martin to be my defense attorney if I ever committed a serious crime. But such a glowing description of a man like Savage is, again, more hagiography than journalism.
I’ve gone on too long here, so we’ll address the substance of the piece in a subsequent post. But how do you think someone such as Dan Savage should be presented? Should his vile words and actions be ignored? Do you think the Times would perform similar dramatic absolutions on people who support traditional values? For what it’s worth, in an online addendum to the piece, Oppenheimer confesses his love for Savage and his values and even praises him for some of what I mentioned above.