When the Covid-19 pandemic first began in the US in March 2020, the American author Dan Savage had a message for listeners of his sex-advice podcast: call off your polyamorous relationships.
It sounds obvious: the outbreak of a deadly disease spread by close contact meant it was no longer responsible to have multiple sexual partners, at least in person. But as governments across the world imposed lockdowns of various intensities, guidance on what this new virus meant in terms of sex – and how to have it safely – was virtually absent.
“There were so many questions,” he recalls, when we speak on Skype in May 2021. “Questions about bargaining with the pandemic: if I do this, can I do that? Trying to guess how many people this person you want to fuck, who’s not living in your household, has been in contact with; how safe they’re being; how safe their roommates are being.”
Savage – 56, married to Terry Miller, his husband of 16 years, and in an openly open relationship – is used to people oversharing around him. For 30 years he has received desperate letters and calls begging for his advice on every aspect of human relationships, initially for his “Savage Love” column in the Seattle-based newspaper The Stranger, and since 2006 for his associated podcast.
The Savage Lovecast – which boasts 300k unique monthly downloads and 100k paying subsribers for the premium “magnum” content – often ranks as one of the top iTunes podcasts. For the uninitiated, its content may come as a shock. Standard relationship questions – whether to leave a cheating spouse, how to handle difficult in-laws, what to do about a crush on a colleague – are interspersed with the more X-rated variety. Obscure kinks and alternative relationships don’t raise an eyebrow. If you want advice on how to introduce your new partner to your swimming-cap fetish or whether to invite your wife’s girlfriend to your parents’ for Christmas, you’ve come to the right place. Very little throws Savage: he can turn from advising a young gay teen on how to come out to their religious parents to discussing the relative benefits of silicone vs glass sex toys.
The advice can be as unorthodox as the questions. One common refrain from Savage is that people should do what they need to “stay married and stay sane”, which may involve a flexible approach to fidelity. Another is that anyone in a relationship must decide to “pay the price of admission” and accept certain fixed facts about their partner, whether that’s their untidy nature or their predilection to watch porn.
In short, the Savage Lovecast is the ultimate sex-positive safe space – where people can share their most intimate fears and desires, free from judgement. So, as the pandemic upended every aspect of normal life, the questions sent to the podcast began to change too, offering a fascinating insight into how Covid-19 was shaping our sex lives.
It wasn’t just people wondering how safe it was to hook up with new partners. There were “so many questions about being unable to end a relationship because you wouldn’t be able to get out there and start a new one”, Savage recalls, as well as the reverse: people in loving relationships suddenly struggling because “we’re not designed to sit in a one-bedroom apartment with another person day after day, month after month”.
And then there was the kinkier variety: questions about whether wearing latex gloves and a gas mask would protect you from catching coronavirus from a partner; or if it was safe to have oral sex as long as you didn’t kiss.
This last point – the sudden risks associated with the most innocent act of affection – fascinates Savage. He draws comparisons to his experience as a young gay man during the HIV/Aids epidemic in the 1980s, which similarly redrew the boundaries of sexuality.
“It turned everything on its head,” he explains. “Things that had been gay-normal, such as anal intercourse, were suddenly super risky, and things that were gay-kinky or considered perverted even by other gay people, including fisting, were safer. During the pandemic we saw that inversion again with the things that were normal and considered safe. One of the messages in HIV prevention was that kissing was safe; now kissing is dangerous.”
This, he predicts, will have an impact that long outlasts the pandemic. In the same way that hyper-stylised Nazi imagery remains a common sight in fetish clubs today, the cultural memory of the pandemic – masks, gloves, and the thrill of someone else’s saliva at a time when kissing was deviant and risqué – will persist in our erotic imaginations.
“It’s inevitable when it comes to humans – the way kinks are formed – that something taboo during the pandemic is going to become a kink or a fetish and eroticised.”
It’s impossible to separate Dan Savage the agony aunt from Dan Savage the activist. While people might tune in to his podcast to hear about sex, they can’t escape without a hefty dose of progressive politics.
“I’ve always gotten letters from people saying we read you for sex, please stick to sex and leave politics alone. And my answer is always I will leave politics alone when politicians start leaving sex alone – but they can’t resist and so I can’t ignore it,” Savage laughs. Indeed, the introductions to the podcast episodes are often devoted to championing Democratic causes or tearing apart the hypocrisies of conservative politicians. Savage even managed to turn the name of a prominent right-wing Republican into a sexual slang word (google “Santorum” to find out more).
“Sex and politics are stirred up together in the United States,” he explains. “Canada got the French, Australia got the convicts, and we got the Puritans. Consequently, everything that’s about sex, pleasure or people controlling their own bodies is politicised in the US to the point where it’s not in other places.”
And it’s not just that political decisions – such as LGBT equality and reproductive rights – impact people’s sex lives. The way Savage sees it, sexual desires tell us a lot about how politics works too.
According to Justin Lehmiller, a sex researcher who’s a frequent guest on the Savage Lovecast, the most common fantasies for conservative Republicans concern extra-marital affairs and cuckolding, because the biggest taboos for them surround the near-sacred importance of marital fidelity and the nuclear family.
Liberals and Democrats, in contrast, are more likely to fantasise about bondage, dominance, submission and sadomasochism. Why? Because, says Savage, “the taboo in Democratic land is power – any sort of power differential, power dynamic that could possibly be exploited”.
That taboo around power is why the left struggles to act as decisively and ruthlessly as they need to. While Republicans are “unashamed about exercising power when they have it and feeling legitimate when they exercise power”, Democrats wring their hands and dither. “We spend so much time thinking about, apologising for, and taking steps to mitigate and control for abuse of power that we never get around to exercising power when we have it,” Savage says.
For four years under Donald Trump, the Democrats watched while established political norms and precedents were trampled over. Now that Joe Biden is in power, Savage backs those urging the president to be more radical: on adding Supreme Court justices to balance out the three controversially sworn in under Trump; on ending the filibuster in the Senate that allows minority Republicans to thwart progressive legislation; on reforming the electoral college system that means Democrats can win the popular vote by millions but still lose the presidency (“It’s a Rube Goldberg contraption, a trapdoor we keep falling through that we can’t do anything about”).
He doesn’t necessarily think these policies are achievable, but the refusal of Washington Democrats to even attempt them exasperates him.
“If the shoe were on the other foot and Republicans could do it, they would,” he says. “There’s this idea that Democrats are in Washington to set a good example for Republicans, whereas Republicans are in Washington to jam shit through. To cut throats. And when the throat-cutting knife is in our hand we’re not meant to use it, because then they might use it. Well, that knife is covered in blood because they use it whenever they get it.”
Yet for all his pessimism, when it comes to Biden – who was not Savage’s first choice for the 2020 Democratic nominee – he is pleasantly surprised.
“He’s certainly rolled out the most progressive agenda since FDR [Roosevelt],” he says, referring to Biden’s $1.9trn stimulus package.
“Biden’s swinging for the fences in a way that I think has surprised many of his critics on the left, who wanted to paint him as a centre-right moderate. He is governing in a way that has so pleased Bernie Sanders that Sanders has shut up.
“And I like Bernie Sanders… But it is a measure of how far left Biden’s agenda is that Sanders isn’t out there complaining about him the way he complained about Obama.”
In 2010, in response to a series of suicides by teenagers bullied for being gay, Savage and his husband launched the It Gets Better project: a collection of videos by LGBT adults promising young people struggling with their sexuality that “it gets better”. After a decade, the site has more than 70,000 submissions, and same-sex marriage is now legal in 29 countries including the UK and US – just one of the signs that it really has got better.
Social progress, however, can go backwards as well as forwards. Despite Biden’s victory last November, it’s hard to look at the state of liberal politics across the world and feel optimistic. The culture wars didn’t end when Trump lost. The reactionary “anti-wokery” that propelled him to power continues to be a force in US politics – as the Republican right launches a renewed assault on abortion access and LGBT communities – and has been exported to other countries in the form of the battles over trans rights and the backlash at confronting historical racism.
On the day that I speak to Savage, the UK is holding local elections in which the Conservatives will increase their electoral dominance, even after the government’s botched pandemic response. He expresses disbelief that the left in the UK is struggling to such an extent.
Yet when considering the state of progressive politics post-Trump, Savage is surprisingly hopeful.
“You feel out of step with the cultural moment to feel optimism at all,” he says. “I don’t want to whistle past the most densely packed graveyard on the planet, which is the human capacity for cruelty and the ability of societies to collapse on themselves and fall into a state of immorality and terror. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
This should not be mistaken for complacency. Savage continues to use his platform to rail against conservative illiberalism and draw attention to progressive causes in the US and beyond: reproductive rights, the legalisation of recreational drugs and sex work, racial justice, action against climate change. He explains he has “Worst Case Scenario Disorder” (probably a by-product of his Catholic upbringing) and is inceasingly anxious about hard-won advances being reversed. But he argues it is unhelpful for liberals to only focus on the bad.
“There’s a right-wing myth that we can’t risk progress or the sky will fall,” he says. “If we let black people vote, if we let women vote, if we let gay people serve in the military, if we teach sex education to kids, the sky will fall and society will collapse…
“The left-wing myth is that there’s been no progress. That we’re as homophobic and anti-Semitic and racist a culture and society as we have ever been.
“The best way to undermine the right-wing myth that we can’t risk progress is for left-wingers to point out where we have made progress [interracial marriage, gay adoption, voting rights] and society didn’t collapse… You were wrong then, and now you’re wrong about this, whatever the new argument is.”
Homophobia, racism, sexism, sex negativity – none of these issues is solved in the US. Almost every week, Savage has a new example: a teacher fired from a Christian school for marrying her lesbian partner in Indiana; Asian massage therapists, presumed to be sex workers, gunned down in Atlanta; parents at risk of being jailed for supporting their transgender children in Texas. But for him, the very fact that these instances make the headlines and provoke outrage is a sign of how far we’ve come. He remembers a time when gay teenagers could be murdered and their killers acquitted on the grounds that the victim might have made a pass at them. Today, there are still incidences of homophobic hate crime. But now society takes notice.
“Whenever you say things have got better, people are like ‘look at this example of bigotry’,” he says.
“Well, the test isn’t, ‘Are there bigots?’ The test is what happens when there are bigots. When bigotry is manifest, what happens? How does society respond? That’s the test.”