What’s a Christian to Do with…Dan Savage?

What’s a Christian to Do with…Dan Savage? July 11, 2011

This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series: What’s a Christian to do with…? will explore persons and ideas that, at first blush, might seem a bit prickly or even untouchable for a faithful Christian.  And yet, when we dig a little deeper, there’s something strangely compelling, something that should, or must, be taken seriously.

Dan Savage (from WikiCommons)

I confess that almost every week, I pick up a copy of the City Pages, the Twin Cities alt weekly, during a regular Wednesday meeting at Common Roots in Minneapolis. And when I do, I immediately flip to the back pages where, between ads for erotic massage and gay love phone lines, I find Savage Love, the column of America’s premier sex advice columnist, Dan Savage.

In fact, it seems that Savage may be America’s premier sex ethicist as well.

Savage has been writing his column since the early 1990s, but he has recently risen to a new level of prominence, based particularly on his It Gets Better Project, which went viral last year.

Savage was reared Catholic, and he’s now an agnostic, or atheist.  In any case, he is an outspoken opponent of religion.  However, unlike other atheists I follow on Twitter and elsewhere — Penn Gillette and Bill Maher, to name a couple — I find Savage far more interesting, far more compelling, and far more important for me, as a Christian theologian, to take seriously.

Recently, Savage was profiled at length in the New York Times by Mark Oppenheimer.  In, “Infidelity Will Keep Us Together,” Oppenheimer writes,

Savage believes monogamy is right for many couples. But he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest. Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes. We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy.

This, of course, will immediately irk most Christians.  Christianity has traditionally — although not unequivocally — held to a strict standard of monogamy.  At least in theory.  In practice, Christian men have, over the last two millennia, had the opportunity for sexual dalliances through mistresses, concubines, and prostitutes.  Of course, there were puritanical moments in history, but the American moment was a particularly puritanical.  And now we’ve got Chris Hansen prowling our suburban neighborhoods, attempting To Catch a Predator.

Savage would never endorse pedophilia.  He would, instead, say that pedophilia is the result that of a sexually repressed culture, one that lacks honesty.  The ethic of honesty is what Savage calls for in his column, week after week telling his readers that if they’ve got a kink or a fetish, they should tell their partner about it.  And, if you’ve picked smartly, your partner should be GGG: good, giving, and game.

Savage’s sexual ethic is primarily one of realism: human beings are animals who, until very recently, procreated like animals.  It is evolutionarily dishonest to demand monogamy of a species predisposed against it.  It’s not impossible to be monogamous, he says, but it is super difficult, and you’ll be more likely to succeed if your partner is GGG.

I don’t know if Savage’s ethic jibes with a biblical, Christian view of sexuality.  But I do know a few things: 1) he’s a helluva lot more realistic about sex than most Christians I’ve talked to about sex; 2) based on my experience on this blog and at the Wild Goose Festival, a lot of Christians really want to talk about sexuality; and 3) many Christians are ready for our conversations about sexuality to expand beyond “what to do with the gays,” and instead have a more fully-orbed dialogue about sexuality and human identity.  I also know that, for the first time in my life I’ve met Christians who are in “open” marriages or are practicing polyamory — and I’m committed that my theological/ethical response to them be both Christian and pragmatic/realistic.

What say you?  Do you read Savage Love?  Does Dan Savage make you think, make you squirm, or both?

As a Christian, what do you do with Dan Savage?

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  • I don’t know much about his sex column, but I’m more than happy to join his It Gets Better project. In fact, I already did: http://youtu.be/EnLG1c8w3Z8

  • Eric Barreto

    Here is Savage’s take on progressive Christians and a good addendum to your argument: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrEsHtSSWfs

  • Tony,

    I have been reading about Savage especially through the It Gets Better Project. I think that like you said he is one of the most realistic sex columnists out there. I think as Christians we need to take a serious look at what Savage has to say. I am I interested in his take on polyamory and open marriage. I think I might be a little conservative on this point and want to hold to monogamy especially from a Christian perspective. I tend to base my sexual ethics around the idea of sacrament. I think ultimately we as Christians need a serious rediscussion of sexuality that doesn’t focus our whole sexual ethic on the notion of heterosexual intercourse, but rather on the ability for the Triune God to impart grace and love by the bringing of people together in an extraordinary action of love and commitment. While right now I think this beat expresses itself in monogamy I think we need at the very least a new ethical and theological framework to think through some of these things.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Dan Hauge

    I do think he has a consistent ethic, and is consistently entertaining and though-provoking (and I actually prefer the podcast to the column–it’s not for everyone, though).

    I’m more interested in where you’re going in the final paragraphs, particularly in context of some things you’ve said about sexuality in past years. In your advocacy for gay marriage rights, you have frequently poo-poohed the notion that there is any ‘slippery slope’ operating in the culture at large; that if anyone is worried that gay marriage rights will lead to other more sexually liberative practices like open marriages, it ‘just doesn’t work that way.’

    While I technically agree that one thing does not lead to the other (and I support gay marriage rights in the culture at large), I have always been more skeptical that there is not a more general liberative trend at work, and listening to Savage has been one of my main arguments: “Look–he’s actively promoting non-monogamous relationships, hoping they will become more normative in society. Whether you would call the slope “slippery” or not, it does look like we are moving in a more sexually liberative trend on several different fronts.”

    So now, hearing your final comments about Christians in polyamorous relationships, and how our response must be not only Christian but ‘pragmatic/realistic’, I must say that opening up this next step in the Christian community has come even quicker than I thought that it would. I guess my own bottom line is I am not yet convinced of your overall “truth is what works” approach to ethics. Are we sure that when Scripture speaks of sexuality that it only reflects cultural mores of the day, and there is no deeper, revelatory aspect to it? Are we completely competent to just ‘trust our gut’ when it comes to how we behave sexually, or is there some wisdom in respecting boundaries that come from centuries of human experience, or may even come from God’s wisdom?

    I’m not saying I have absolute certainity about the answers to those questions, but I do think that emphasizing ‘pragmatism’ so highly can sometimes be problematic. I believe we humans are capable of self-deception, and that what our emotions tell us ‘feels right’ is not necessarily the surest guide to what will make us most truly human.

    • Dan, I agree with your hesitation, which is why I feel that I need to take Savage seriously. Also, I’m committed to a pragmatic theology, which is sometimes difficult in the face of scripture, which I still value highly. Looking for that consistent revelation in the Bible regarding sex is important — and elusive.

      • What do you find elusive about the biblical revelation regarding sex?

  • Kenton

    I was about to post a response on the same lines Dan Hauge went. Instead I’ll just add a link to a video that is more interesting to me now than it was when I first saw it.


    (Oh, the irony!)

  • Tracy

    I doubt Savage would be so sympathetic to pedophiles. I do not read his column often, but I am almost certain GGG applies only to consenting adults. As a Christian, I would suggest reading his column regularly to learn how to speak candidly about real issues. Recently, my church attempted to do a series on sexuality in the Kingdom. I was disappointed that it turned out to be an opportunity to testify about struggling with and overcoming homosexuality or men in tears because they watch porn. The congregation is mostly 45 and under and I thought we would finally address dealing with sexuality before marriage. Once again, those of us unmarrieds were forced to pretend like we’re asexual until we walk down the aisle.

    There isn’t a lot of honesty in christian circles with regard to sex. There is a fear of judgment from the brothers and sisters who are supposed to be kind and forgiving confidants. They are more willing to forgive poor stewardship of resources than sexual indiscretions even though that new stereo system could probably sponsor a child or even build a school in Africa.

    I think we should read more savage to keep from being so judgmental of others and ourselves; to try to find some shared beliefs that can be the foundation of a meaningful, honest dialog. The following would be a great quote from Savage to start such conversation:

    forgiveness is meaningless if it’s limited to trifles and never comes after a Very Serious Betrayal.

    • I don’t read Savage’s column (usually), but I do listen to his Savage Love podcast every week. He’s definitely not in any way pro- and neutral- child sex abuse.

  • I think Dan Hauge expressed my feelings well. I’m not convinced that doing what feels right as long as my partner is GGG is actually healthy behavior. Especially when it comes to opening up an existing monogamous relationship to other sexual partners. And I also am not convinced (comfortable?) with the evolution argument when it comes to monogamy. However, I will say that pragmatically, I have often said that if you’re not ready or feel you’re not capable of being monogamous – don’t get into a committed monogamous relationship in the first place. Which is essentially what Savage seems to be saying – be honest – first and foremost with yourself.

    But, if you want to REALLY get into the nitty gritty of pragmatism in regard to long-term partnerships, you have to address the very notion of long-term partnerships. Namely, marriage and the idea that it should be “til death do us part”. (never mind the arguments surrounding marriage in the first place) What happens when one partner experiences a dramatic shift in his/her sexual desires? And I’m not talking about a new little kink or fetish, but rather decides that he/she wants another partner or a fling or a whatever. The comment by Savage seems to be that if you picked your partner well, he/she will be ok with whatever you come up with. I guess I actually think there’s something to be said for NOT just giving into every whim and fancy that fires across our synapses and recognizing that what might seem like a good idea now, might end up destroying the relationship we have worked so hard to nurture.

    • Somebody

      But Savage would of course reply that being pragmatic allows a couple to adjust to shifting needs over the 50-70 years of a lifetime commitment, whereas not doing so leads to divorce as the only possible option. I think you’re right, though, that there’s a legitimate worry that there’s no backstop to his libertine-ism. I think the answer is that Dan Savage would never advise people to do whatever they want in the moment all the time, but he might tell people to be honest with themselves and each other about what they want, then negotiate terms, and that people should expect renegotiation over the course of a long relationship. That doesn’t necessarily gel well if you view your marriage vows as absolutes…but the record does not suggest that people do.

  • Holly Stauffer

    It fascinates me to no end that there are only men commenting on this topic, especially since (I am making a very gross generalization here) sexual ethics and politics has, for the most part, up until the 60’s, been driven by straight white men, most of them dead! How many of the above men are gay?

    One of our greatest flaws as Christians is not talking openly about sex. Dan Savage’s “consistent ethic” is that he allows human beings the full range of sexuality and doesn’t label it “sin” and has the courage to discuss it every week in his column. Again, it wasn’t a straight guy who made a video about his oppressive, tormented, and despairing youth as young gay man, it was Dan. Dan is acting as Jesus did in the world: speaking up for the marginalized, the oppressed, the hopeless, and giving and outpouring of love, hope and freedom to so many.

    I also agree that our culture’s puritanical fear and obsession with sex and our highly homophobic culture leads to sexual dysfunction, like pedophelia, the Catholic church sex scandal, the sexual obejectification of women on the one hand and the obsession with virginity and sexual purity on the other.

    If I believe that God is the master creator and life giving force of all, and, as Rob Bell says, “Became a human being and moved into the neighborhood,” then I also extend the love of God and Christ to myself. Embracing my humanity with all of it’s complexity, including my own sexuality, which is very rich, diverse, deeply connected to my spirituality, and something I have never fully understood but embraced with love and acceptance. I extend that same love and acceptance to that of my neighbor just like Jesus teaches me to do.

  • One thing to do with Dan Savage is send him to explain a few things to Mark Driscoll (though Tyler Clark does a pretty good job here): http://tylerlclark.tumblr.com/post/7438158715

  • Dr Bobbi

    Fellow posters: Please do not critique Mr. Savage’s column if you’ve never actually read it, or only read it once or twice.

    Savage does NOT advocate doing whatever feels good, as an above poster accuses. He’s more nuanced than that. Savage’s sexual ethic is based on honesty: with oneself and with one’s partner, and pragmatic realism about human sexuality. He consistently tells readers who are not okay with something their partner is doing to either talk it out or end the relationship. Nobody is asked, in Savage’s ethic, to accept behavior that they find hurtful or offensive. His fondest hope is that people find happiness. Honesty and realism are good paths to this.

    I once had an ethics professor – a Roman Catholic – who would often say in the context of ethical questions, “You can live in the real world, or you can live in the ideal world.” Not both. Sadly most Christian sexual ethics seeks to live in the ideal world, where people never get drunk, pressure one another or make mistakes. Worse, much Christian sexual ethics is not only heteronormative and militantly vanilla (and seeks to enforce these lifestyles, and monogamy, on everyone), they are deeply misogynist. How many women have been counseled by Christian pastors to stay with abusive husbands?

    Dan Savage’s ethics promotes equality in the bedroom as well as the streets. He also believes that if the cult of monogamy were not so rigidly enforced, marriages would not have to end if one partner transgressed – a proposition Christian sexual ethics needs to take seriously.

    Ultimately I believe that Savage would sign off on the notion that sexuality is designed to bring couples together in a state of sacred intimacy. Where he parts company with traditional Christian sexual ethics is in asserting that an enforced single standard (i.e. heteronormative, monogamous, vanilla) is itself unethical because it does violence to the diversity of healthy consensual sexual pleasure. It seems many Christian sexual ethicists are squeamish about the very notion of pleasure: not Dan. I’ll take his sexual ethics, their honesty, realism, and equality, over those of most Christian ethicists any day of the week. You see, I have no illusions about which world I live in.

    • Dr. Bobbi- you have understood exactly my position in this post. Thanks.

      • Dan Hauge

        Dr Bobbi–I’m not sure if you’re referring to my post above, but I see how I could have sounded like I accuse Savage of saying ‘whatever you want to do, do it.’ I actually have listened to/read Savage on a weekly basis for at least a couple of years now, and it is quite true that he does not advocate a “anything goes” approach–his consistent ethic has primarily to do with honesty, and if one partner has deep enough feelings on a certain kind of sexual practice (for or against), then perhaps submitting to the partner on that issue may be the “price of admission” (as he puts it) for the sake of the relationship.

        That said, I still think we need to unpack more what we mean by “realistic”, “healthy”, and “pragmatic”. How do I decide what is “realistic” for me, sexually, or not? If I am in a marriage (and full disclosure, I’m not), and I find myself desiring other people I come across, is it just “realistic” that of course I should not rein in that desire for other people, and that therefore I am non-monogamous in the core of my identity? Or is it possible that restraining those desires really is not only realistic, but actually “better”, in God’s eyes, for myself, and for my partner? I imagine many would answer “no” to that last question, and maybe it’s so. And maybe ‘sticking to biblical teaching’ when addressing these issues really is not something God is overly interested in. But I think that answering ‘yes’ would still qualify one to live in the real world. Holding to an ethical standard does not mean I live an an ideal world where no one makes mistakes. It means that when I make mistakes, I call them such, and don’t necessarily choose to alter my beliefs to incorporate how I find myself behaving.

        And, maybe I’m wrong on that whole point. Maybe what constitues “healthy sexual behavior” really is fluid, and that’s part of ’emergence’, and God rejoices in it. I’m not being flip, I’m actually not sure (though I obviously lean more in the conservative direction). But I think the questions, on both sides of the issue, are important

        • Somebody

          I think – but I can’t tell for sure – that there’s a mental model in the comment above that makes it difficult to experience sexual desire without shame. All commitment means suppressing some desires. That’s what a commitment is. The question is whether the commitments you make ought to be designed externally – by a religious or social tradition – or internally, in this case by the two people committing to one another. For two people who see sex as a positive rather than a shameful subject, it seems like the more Christian version of love would allow for a truly honest expression of sexuality, which might include the “monogamish” relationship Savage enjoys or many other types of relationship. On the other hand, a commitment that allows for ANY behavior isn’t a commitment at all, and a commitment entered into under false pretenses – for example, because it feels like the only way to “lock down” the other person’s love – seems manifestly un-Godly to me.

          • Dan Hauge

            Somebody, thanks for the comment–I do take it pretty seriously (and the other one you made below in response to me). I basically agree with the way you frame the question: should our commitments be designed internally, individually (in the sense that each couple or group tailor-makes them to their own situations); or designed externally by a religious or social tradition, with the possibility that the religious tradition reflects divine intent (I get that divine intent could also be that we design our commitments ‘internally’, I’m just restating the terms here).

            I understand there can be different approaches to answering this question in a pluralistic society, or depending on your view of god, or the Bible, etc. What I’m not sure I get is this: if “all commitment means suppressing some desires” as you say, then why does following an externally designed commitment necessarily mean that it’s based on shame over sexual feeling? I do find it interesting that you see that implicit in my comment, and I see that I need to self-examine, as well as push back, to see if that’s the case. While it’s hard to go into personal detail on a blog, I don’t actually feel that shame in sexual desire is at the root of what I’m saying, but since I believe we can always be self-deceptive :), I could be wrong.

            Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether monogamy is ‘necessary’ in our commitments or not: I feel like I hear, very often, that the traditional view of monogamy in marriage is based on a devaluing, or shame, of sexual pleasure. But it seems to me you can be in a mongamous marriage, and truly believe it is “wrong” to have sex outside of it, and still really enjoy and embrace sexual pleasure and still value being honest with the different desires you may have, even if you choose not to have sex outside the marriage based on your beliefs. What am I missing?

    • Troy

      Word. Preach it Dr B

  • I enjoyed reading this post next to an advertisement for christianmingle.com – “find God’s match for you.”

    • Kenton

      But I’m already marr-[light bulb]


  • Love this, Tony. Thanks for your thoughts. I’m gay, from the Twin Cities, and I read Savage regularly, and like you and a bunch of other commenters here the thing I really resonate with Savage about is his ethic of honesty in all things. This has been one of the most hard won and powerful lessons that the LGBT community has learned over the last 60 years — that the closet kills, and only daring, luminous, gritted-teeth honesty can combat it.

    That said, that’s not the *only* lesson that has been embedded in our community. LGBT people are regularly in a kind of self-critiquing conversation about ethics in general, and sexual ethics specifically. Since Stonewall, one of the major (sometimes congenial and loving, sometimes broadly conflicting) conversations we’ve had on a broad level is about what our experiences, faith lives, and our particular brand of folk wisdom brings to the table about sex and loving relationships. And Savage is a very important voice in that! I fully believe that people who take his sexual ethics seriously will be more loving, compassionate, and just in their sex than people who follow the dominant fear-and-silence based (or proudly self-servicing) sexual ethics — his are neither.

    However, other important components in the LGBT conversation about sexuality include the primacy of connectedness — how sex is that kind of biological magic that binds us to each other, and we need a recognition of it’s power and the importance of treating people well with our bodies/minds/connections. Also, hospitality — how our sexual relationships are not just about ourselves, but create spaces of hospitality and generosity toward our community (Robert Goss). And a third — how sexual relationships make us love others more, care for them more… in the language of gay people of faith, how they make us see the face of God in the other (Richard Cleaver) and act on that vision.

    So, sometimes when I read Dan, I disagree with him! I tend to disagree with him that human beings are not evolutionarily adapted for monogamy… but that’s based on biology, not on “biblical sexuality.” And as I take some of these other values into consideration, and try to balance them well over time, that makes my sexual ethics look different than Dan’s… how could it not? But that’s a conversation that we LGBTs can have based on mutually shared values — how best can we live our our sexuality in light of love, science, values, scripture (if you’re a person of faith), and our experience? I deeply value Dan’s voice for how it adds to that overall conversation, and it challenges me to value honesty strongly in life and romantic relationships.

    I get a strong feeling from straight (even progressive) Christians that I’m supposed to disavow Dan in order to have their acceptance — and I won’t do that. “You’re not like, a Dan Savage gay guy though, right?” The slippery slope is not toward sexual liberation. Sexual liberation is an old category, I think, and one that belies it’s heterosexual viewpoint. The slippery slope is always tilted in the direction that heterosexuals in power say — back toward sex that’s about purity, paucity, and hiddenness. The LGBT sexual conversation, in my experience, tends to tilt toward love, honesty, connectedness, hospitality, mutuality, and reflective praxis… learning from one’s mistakes and successes. My hope is that more and more, straight people will be interested in having that conversation with us, and won’t be afraid of our contributions… or assume that our contributions are somehow a monolithic ethic of sexual liberation.

    • Seth,

      I totally agree I think the church and heterosexuals need to take a really hard look at their sexual ethics and I really feel that the LGBT community has spoken and articulated a more loving and I feel a more authentically Christian sexual ethic.

      Thanks for your post.

    • Charles

      Refreshingly honest post, Seth (I’ve bookmarked your new blog). I love your openness and cogent voice within the faith community – keep posting here, and @ http://sethingersoll.wordpress.com/ – Thanks.

    • I’ll add my kudos — thanks for your comment, Seth!

    • Basil Kiwan


      You brilliantly spoke to so much of what I feel. I’m also gay, in DC, and newly married to my husband by my congregation (Quaker). What I remember in our “clearness” counseling before our marriage was approved was being admonished (in that very gentle Quakerly way) that if there was anything wrong in our marriage, that we would seek help of the congregation because every gay couple up to that point who had been married had wound up getting a divorce. I was even told of a gay couple, who had been together for 27 years, had asked for and received the congregations blessing to be married, had gone ahead and gotten married and then split up within 2 years. It made me nervous to hear that, but now – I just cannot conceive of life without my husband.

      Being in DC, with a big gay community, a lot of us slept around (to put it politely), and that at least among gay men, a lot of them continue to do so, until sometime in mid-to-late 40’s when you are no longer physically perfect and it becomes difficult to find play partners (yes, men are that shallow). I’ve had straight male friends speak wistfully of how nice it must be to be so liberated. It is fun for a little while, but it gets old fast. Maybe it was different for me, since I came out late (in my late 30’s), I got really annoyed with the games, and teenage girl behavior by men in their 40’s. I had given up hope of falling in love, and was coming to accept a long solitary life, when I met my husband…

      I think the big difference in sexuality is not gay/straight, but male/female. I think biology pushes us all towards commitment, but I think that women are more attuned to this earlier in life than men. Maybe it is because women, bear the physical burden of childbirth, and are more likely to bear the burdens of child-rearing afterwards. Or maybe it is that women are just more sensible about life, relationships, and the passage of time, whereas men would rather try to ‘play the field’ for as long as they can – and often longer than they should. It brings to mind the standard joke about what gay men and lesbians bring to a 2nd date — lesbians bring a u-haul. Gay men — what’s a 2nd date?

      Being closeted, or being on societies margins meant we, the LGBT’s, had to build our own alternative structures from the ground up. Being excluded also meant we were free from shackles, regarding premarital sex or expectations of marriage by a certain age. But what is interesting to notice now, is how many young gay couples are becoming like young straight couples. They play the field when they are in their 20’s and early 30’s, meet Mr or Ms Right, and then settle down, get married, and have kids. What is even more interesting, at least in DC, is that gays are beginning to physically disperse from the “gayborhoods”, and establishing families all across the city. Marriage equality here has cemented our right to be as ordinary and boring as everyone else. Even among our friends and (largely straight) families, my husband and I have become the boring, sensible, drama-free couple (think Ward and June Cleaver, just gay). Truth be told, we both really like it.

      Someone asked me today – “what’s different being married?” (we were living together before). I couldn’t really put it in words, other than to say that my personal pronoun of choice has become “we” instead of “I”. I hope everyone, gay and straight, gets to have that same experience.

    • Very good stuff, Seth. Thanks for that contribution.

      Someone on GCN recently posted about the recent “Monogamish” article in the Advocate (http://www.advocate.com/Print_Issue/Features/Monogamish/).

      I agree with everyone here who has assented to the importance of Dan’s voice for Christians, if for no other reason than he’s been a tremendous gadfly for Christians whose provoked a lot of conversation that we’ve previously been too afraid to have.

      I too have some disagreements and concerns with Dan’s conclusions about monogamy (as I posted on GCN):

      “Savage’s argument that this is just natural is interesting, though not surprising I suppose. After all, many gay people have been using the “well I *naturally* like people of the same sex, so it must be God-ordained and OK” argument for years. Is this perhaps simply a natural permutation of the same argument (whether erroneous or correct)?

      But I think it makes me think critically about what “natural” part of the brain we’re talking about here. To me, it seems that these sexual urges he speaks of originate in the limbic system – the purely survival/pleasureful centers. And thus, this “natural” urge is quite primitive…the urges of cavemen essentially. Monogamy, I’d argue, is a construct of the amazing, rational, tempered, progressive part of the brain: the prefrontal cortex. I’m of the opinion that monogamy is better simply because it takes the more progressive parts of us for its success. I think the way forward for humanity is monogamy…not settling for the pure urges of our primitive pasts.

      But maybe I’m just being a bit elitist? Maybe some of us don’t find the idea of one partner for life all that constricting or difficult – but perhaps I’d sing a different tune if I was so chemically inclined?

      I dunno. Just my 2 cents…”

    • Hey, thanks guys! I submit that you are all awesome.

      • scottsp64

        Several of you have posted that you’re not sure if you agree with the evolutionary basis of non-monogamy and I just wanted to suggest you read Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan. I found it to be very persuasive of the idea that are primate / hunter-gatherer ancestors practiced sexuality that was very similar to the Bonobo and that was definitely not monogamous.


        • darren

          Quite the contrary, Scott. I am *quite* sure of the non-monogamous evolutionary aspects of our ancestry. My point, however, is that as the prefrontal cortex has developed (that part of our brains that puts the brakes on instant pleasure for the sake of higher gains) is what has facilitated monogamy. And as such, we should pay attention to that fact. The trajectory of human development is geared towards higher rationalism and the functions provided by a more advanced prefrontal cortex. I think the way forward for human relationships lies in monogamy as a result.

  • Scot Miller

    On Tony’s issue of whether ” Savage’s ethic jibes with a biblical, Christian view of sexuality,” the recent work by Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (HarperOne, 2011) (http://tinyurl.com/5trjtm6) suggests that there may not be a single biblical view of sexuality. If Knust is correct, Savage’s sexual ethics may be consistent with some parts of scripture and not so consistent with other parts of scripture. It is therefore probably a mistake to insist on one monolithic version of Christian sexual ethics.

    However, is Savage’s insistence on honesty in relationships really that far removed from Kant’s categorical imperative or even the “golden rule”? Isn’t honesty necessary in free and autonomous relationships? So I’m not so sure that it’s a stretch for Christians to be faithful to the Bible and open to Savage’s sexual ethics.

    Finally, I’m glad that the misunderstanding about pragmatism has been addressed. Pragmatism is not the equivalent of moral relativism (the absence of objective values). There are objective values (i.e., what works), but what works may be understood differently in different contexts. Objective values may apply differently in different situations. And “what works” doesn’t mean “what feels good to me.” Getting drunk or high may feel good, but it doesn’t work so well when I’m driving or trying to work.

  • Amanda

    I, too, am attracted to a pragmatic theology. I love reading James and Santayana and Harvey Cox, because I think they make religion a vital experiment and not an idealistic straitjacket.

    However, I’m not convinced that Abram’s sexual philosophy fits into a pragmatic religious framework. I mean, do ‘open’ marriages really “work”? How do open marriages, for instance, really affect children? What about that emotion called Love? What are “the rules/” I just foresee a mess!

    I am a liberal gal even. But “liberal” for me signifies a commitment to what works for the good of the whole. I don’t think Savage’s ideas–even if they proclaim to answer man’s evolutionary needs–work for the good of the whole, since they don’t make sense pragmatically. True pragmatism, in my view, accepts the real paradox of humanness–that is, that we are half animal/half god, that we are ethical animals in an unethical universe. As humans, we must live with this tension, not pretend that we live without a will, a conscience, morality.

    Wendell Berry, a exemplary pragmatist, has a beautiful chapter in his book, The Unsettling of America, called “The Body and the Earth,” in which he presents, I think, a solution to this dilemma. There, he argues, you can (and should) be “open” in a marriage, but not sexually so.

    • Dan Hauge

      Amanda, this kind of pragmatism I like–that genuinely wrestles with what is best for the whole person (including our ‘spiritual’ nature, however you want to define that), and society. I recognize that there will always be tensions between ‘what has been said’ and ‘what we need now’, I just think that it is also possible to jump too quickly from being honest about our complex, sometimes conflicting desires–to deciding that those complex desires need to lead the agenda and set parameters for ‘what works’ sexually in our society.

      • Somebody

        Or…it’s possible that the institution of marriage, as traditionally understood, is simply not the only way for people to live as ethical animals. There can be multiple solutions to the problem created by human beings’ need to be loved, feel sexual desire for lots of people, feel jealous, feel secure, reproduce, etc. In fact, there are lots of solutions on display throughout history and throughout the world…but most of them feature a lot of built-in dishonesty and/or patriarchy. Since we are now demanding a solution that is both egalitarian AND honest, I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask that married people accept that monogamy is an absolute good and an absolute necessity. Monogamy is a moving part in an instrument designed to promote love, stability, sexual satisfaction, and equality. If replacing that part (for some couples) makes the machine work better (and it very clearly does for Dan Savage), then they should do it. If it makes the machine break down, they shouldn’t. Of course, acknowledging that one cultural solution isn’t right for every person has its dangers, but since we live in a pluralistic society, I think that’s a set of risks we have no choice but to accept.

    • scottsp64

      Amanda, I agree with your musings about the practical and pragmatic affects of our changing sexual ethics. I think we have yet to completely figure all that out. What I think is an unequivocal good, though, is the emphasis on honesty. I am in the midst of a divorce after a long marriage, and one of the things that tore me up over the years was the feeling that I could not be myself and be truly open and honest with my wife about sex. I felt like I was living a double life, and if there is anything I appreciate about Dan Savage, it’s his emphasis on not lying to yourself or your partner. That idea has become primary as I think about the life ahead for me.

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  • The other night I saw a tee-shirt on a guy stating “WE ARE READY”. Did he mean ‘rapture-ready’? Thankfully, no. He said it was from a Hope College campaign to the administration prodding them to open a discussion about the college and students’ views on sexuality and homosexuality. It was funny and brilliant. And a good-looking tee shirt! What a great way to get the point across. Even young people on conservative cxn campuses are begging their institutions to have an honest dialogue about sexuality (and school policy) these days!

  • Dude are you featuring Howard Stern in this series?!?

  • Korey

    Never know what you are going to post about. Great thoughts. I am skeptical of some of the resistance to monogamy that strike me as simplistic. I think the origin and predominance of monogamy are more complex then explanations I encountered when a lot of discussion was going on in the blogosphere of the book Sex at Dawn. I still get the sense that one’s ethical perspective on monogamy or polyamory will influence one’s analysis of its root causes and impacts on human well being. Nonetheless, more open and realistic discussions of sexual desire and ethics are fascinating, sometimes disturbing, but probably quite important in my judgment.

  • “I don’t know if Savage’s ethic jibes with a biblical, Christian view of sexuality.” Well, Tony, as a theologian you should be able to discern one. You know a lot about Savage, you profess to know a lot of other things in the last paragraph. A more honest statement from you would be that you don’t want to say as opposed to that you don’t know. And you keep hammering on how superior honesty is.

  • Christians can get as pissed as they want about his ideas, but why would they ever expect non-Christians to stick to monogamy and avoiding pre-martial sex? I agree this is a very necessary conversation to have – especially as the average age of marriage continues to go up – it’s honestly unnatural for a person to not have sex until they are 29, and by then they’ve spent tons of time suppressing those urges and trying to convince themselves its wrong. It messes with your head, for sure.

  • I put Dan’s quote about me on my blogsite:


    (I’m also the “wonderful Christian blogger” Dan talk about 40 seconds into this video: http://www.youtube.com/user/dansavage#p/u/4/1a1JHBIveG8)

  • (ooops: I too soon hit “submit.” I wanted to add, Tony, how very much I enjoy your blog. You do great work.)

    • John, I’m a big fan of you, too. Want a celebratory quote from me for your site? 🙂

  • Katrina Soto

    I respect anyone’s religious views, or lack thereof. However, I cannot abide the wholesale rejection of any religion when that rejection or derision (I’m thinking particularly of Bill Maher) is based on someone’s one-sided, subjective opinion. I am sick and tired of Christians being all lumped together as gay-hating (or at least gay marriage hating [we love them and pray for them to ‘get better’]) people. In Christianity, as in, I would imagine, all religions, there is a vast variety of belief and believers. I experience this personally in the church that I attend. Our congregation espouses many points of view, yet we all call ourselves Christian by virtue of following the teachings of Jesus, which can be boiled down to one word: Love

  • I actually met Dan Savage several times. Back when everybody called him Danny. I knew his brother Bill. I also remember having great talks with their mother, Judy. She was one of the easiest persons to talk to I ever met, and by far, one of the most open and accepting souls. My theory is that Dan’s basic common sense, and his thorough-going acceptance of people and their interesting differences, comes from her. My memory is that Judy was also a deeply faithful Catholic woman.

  • Okay, fine. Be that way. Fine. No problem. Forget it. It’s fine. My feelings aren’t hurt. Never mind. Forget it. I understand. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine. Never mind.

    • Scot Miller

      I’d give you my celebrity quote… if I was a celebrity.

  • Terrific post, Tony. I’m a soccer mom & Savage Love reader. I like that Savage advocates honesty and suggests that we could all benefit from greater openness about what happens when we as humans fall short in our relationships with others.

    I also like that his column and yours foreground both pleasure and the emotional pain of dishonesty. As a college professor, despite the welcome embrace of LGBTQ identifications on campus, I still see a great deal of painful dishonesty in students’ relationships. A lot of that pain rests not in premarital sex or in experimentation (two topics conservative campus Christian groups like to be vocal about in discussions of “temptation”). The pain happens when you feel that someone has misled you or betrayed your trust, as well as when you discover that *you’ve* betrayed someone’s trust. We need to discuss these issues, and Savage (and your reflections) can put them on the Christian agenda in a way that really helps.

    I wanted to draw your attention to Oppenheimer’s thoughtful reflection on the writing of the cover story featuring Savage: http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/extra-savage/?scp=3&sq=oppenheimer%20savage&st=cse In this piece, Oppenheimer talks about his discomfort with the fact that his article on the “natural” urge to infidelity seemed to give permission for at least one guy to broach the topic of an affair with his monogamous wife: “I don’t enjoy being part of his wife’s pain,” Oppenheimer wrote.

    Those within Christianity have not been terribly interested in discussing the fact that there are always unmet needs within monogamous relationships. For women, these needs are probably more often in the realm of emotional rather than (only) sexual pleasure, and I can envision an interesting feminist take that would provide a counterpoint to Savage’s focus on honesty about sexual desire. I think Savage’s gift to those who would be monogamous is to help us to be honest about the fact that we need to think honestly about balancing our needs with those of others so that we make our choices thoughtfully and out of love and respect for those with whom we are in relationships.

    Christianity has long been a part of pain for those in the LGBTQ community. Thankfully, people like Dan Savage are at least willing to speak to those who find some value in Christianity in spite of this fact (thanks to Eric Barreta for sharing the clip of Dan Savage on progressive Christianity’s need to get out of “silent complicity” mode).

    I appreciate your willingness to extend this conversation.

  • doyouwantmore

    “These people come near to me with their mouth but their hearts are far from me.” Isaiah 29:13

    “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of many will grow cold.” – Matthew 24:12

    • Jorge


  • Since I do so much intermediary work in the glbt community I have many relationships with people who have walked away from faith and have even come to the point of despising Christians. I understand that.
    I have sat in my local Starbucks in my fairly small, well connected community and taken the HEAT and anger from a pretty dang militant lesbian who vented loudly at me. I am just symbolic, but I sure was the temporary target. In the end, in the parking lot, she said “do you know what the real fucking problem is with you?” Oh no, I thought, round two. She said, ” You are so fucking nice that I can’t hate you.” And we have been friends since.
    This is how I try to do my part in the repair of this division too. I have stayed an extra day on a trip to a conference to SPECIFICALLY meet with an high profile activist just to do relationship. Since that time, the synergy has been wonderful.
    We HAVE been asses and why wouldn’t glbt people mistrust us and even hate us? As with most stuff I do, it is about people. Connecting and listening and really trying to understand.
    I am moving more and more into those spots on both sides where people hold onto the lines tightly. One toe in, one leg in, whole body in, whole heart in. It works. Intentional, genuine and gracious relationship.
    Check out my blog–I talk about relationship, glbt Christians, the Bible and repairing the breach a LOT. http://www.canyonwalkerconnections.com

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  • Tony,

    Thanks for sharing this. I agree with Dr. B, too. I think honest communication in relationships is SO important, and if the situation has changed between the two of you, then decisions must be made–to protect and honor both parties.

    I loved one of your last, passing comments (“many Christians are ready for our conversations about sexuality to expand beyond “what to do with the gays,” and instead have a more fully-orbed dialogue about sexuality and human identity”). I agree. I’ve often stated, although I cannot prove, that I wouldn’t flinch in the least if I found out, on a normal Sunday morning, that 98%+ of the men (and I’m choosing men here, just because we rip on the homosexual men especially, without considering the norm for heterosexual men) sitting in the pews have struggled or are struggling with porn or lust or whatever Christians normally consider to be stumbling blocks in a monogamous relationship. Let’s start talking about sexual honesty…period. It would force us all to admit the logs in our own eyes.

    You made me think. Thanks.

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  • Scot Miller

    “I pray God rid me of God.” — Meister Eckhart, German sermon 52

    • Scot Miller

      Whoops. Meant to post this somewhere else.

  • KM

    Mkay… From a non-religious perspective. Tony:

    1. Please educate yourself a bit better about the LGBT community if you’re going to attempt to speak for us. Please read other commentators. Savage can be funny, but you know… Many people out there are saying far more important things. Just look around (generally, big celebrities like Savage aren’t doing the most cutting edge work or discussions).

    2. Please do not hold Dan Savage up as de facto Speaker for the Queer Community. I respect the It Gets Better project, but I respected Dan Savage not at all before that started. Why? He has a long history of transphobia and biphobia. He can also be incredibly misogynistic. I notice you talk a lot here about being “pro-gay,” whatever that means, but not a lot about sexism. Sexism and cissexism (look it up if you haven’t heard the word) are still issues in progressive queer and not-queer, religious and secular, communities. Savage is just one example.

    3. It is incorrect to present polyamory as a “queer issue.” I know far more straight folks doing polyamory than queer folks. I haven’t seen much data on the issue, but it’s important not to cast this as a “queer” issue just because Savage talks about it. Seriously… It’s a sexuality issue without a specific sexual orientation.

    Going back to the sexism thing: It’s also something that I think should be interrogated more by progrsesive folks, both religious and secular. I’ve seen too many people (usually women) pressured into sexual experiences that make them feel uncomfortable. I’ve seen people who think they’re far too enlightened to be sexist pieces of shit (usually men) engage in high stakes manipulation–I think that’s coercive. I think manipulating someone into doing something sexual that they don’t want is tantamount to sexual assault. I’ve seen several people use it as an excuse for fucking around behind their partner’s back. I know one family in which polyamory has worked well, and I try to keep them in mind when I think and write about the issue. But this needs to be at the center of any progressive talks about polyamory because progressives too often think they’ve transcended abusive patterns and sexism and other problems. They haven’t. Furthermore, I’m suspicious, frankly, of anyone (and no one is doing this here) who posits polyamory as a Politically and Morally Superior Way of Fucking. They’re out there, and they’re self-important and ridiculous.

    • eli

      Did you read the article? I’m only asking because he doesn’t equate Dan Savage with the queer community. The only mention of Savage’s sexuality is indirect- saying he started the “it gets better” project. He was talking about Dan Savage being a sex advise columnist and ethicist. The article was mostly speaking about Christian couples with no mention of whether they’re straight or gay. He even specifically said Christians are asking about a biblical view of sex BEYOND what to do about the gays.

  • Tony,

    You wrote:

    “Looking for that consistent revelation in the Bible regarding sex is important — and elusive.”

    Please explain what you mean when you say that the biblical revelation regarding sex is “elusive.”


  • lw

    So, if I don’t like being called a liar mean that I can say I’m not a liar or that today’s moral relativity says I am not?

    “and I’m committed that my theological/ethical response to them be both Christian and pragmatic/realistic.”

    So, that means I can be! lol

    It seems to me that Jesus was very plain about sex and whom to have sex with. Whether one likes what the Jesus and HIS bible says about sex or not, really isn’t debateable. Oh sure, we can debate it, but the bottom line is that the bible is His Truth. You and I are not.

    I may not like that the bible says I’m not supposed to cheat on my wife, but guess what, it does! Whether I like the fact that I am a reformed adulterer or not doesn’t matter. I am what I am and there’s nothing that can change that.

    Same with homosexuality, polomory, adultery, cheating or being a liar.

    • Jorge

      Amen! Thank God that there are believers such as yourself still out there. Sometimes I feel so alone in my thinking, when attempting to live biblically and see and hear all these “Christians” just trying to copy the culture. People get angry at me when I say that the culture is not our pattern to copy in , speech, dress, behavior, thinking, etc.. They call me a legalist for wanting to please my Lord. I just don’t get it. What has happened to Christianity? Lord help us!

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  • Jorge

    “I also know that, for the first time in my life I’ve met Christians who are in “open” marriages or are practicing polyamory — and I’m committed that my theological/ethical response to them be both Christian and pragmatic/realistic.”

    You gotta be kidding me!! Pragmatic?!!! How about biblical? This is why Christianity today is the mess it is! “Christians” taught grace in an unbiblical manner who want to copy the culture and not the CHRIST!

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