We writers can be such attention whores and will drop to our knees and pucker up whenever someone offers us professional kudos. But only a precious few will ever achieve the industry’s highest honor: coining a phrase infectious enough to enter the mainstream vernacular.
George Orwell did it in 1984 with the word, “newspeak,” as did Joseph Heller with the title of his book, Catch-22. And in 2003, Dan Savage, sex-advice columnist and editor for the Seattle alt-weekly, The Stranger, pulled it off when he coined the phrase “santorum.”
Admittedly, “mainstream” vernacular may be overstating it. The term, which is defined as “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex,” is known and used primarily within the gay community. But Savage launched the santorum-as-sex-juice campaign in “honor” of former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. It was his way of sending the right-wing Republican, known for his homophobic rants, a loud and enduring “fuck you!”
Today, Savage, 43, is best known for his internationally syndicated sex-advice column, “Savage Love.” In it, the openly gay writer lives up to his name by routinely skewering both straight and gay readers for their often contemptibly clueless questions. Savage has also written five books and has appeared on scores of TV and radio shows, most recently as a political commentator on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
In June 2002, Savage gave the stand-in performance of the year when he agreed at the last minute to host the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ annual awards ceremony. Armed with a bottle of Jim Beam and a lightning-quick wit, Savage required all award recipients to shed an article of clothing and down a shot of whisky. For those winners who didn’t attend, Savage stripped and downed the shot himself — 14 in all by the meal’s end.
In 2004, Savage volunteered to work on the presidential campaign of conservative Republican Gary Bauer. Sick with the flu at the time, he later wrote in his column how he went around Bauer’s campaign headquarters in Iowa licking doorknobs and office supplies in an effort to infect Bauer and his staff. Savage was later charged with a misdemeanor — not for being a Typhoid Mary, but for voting in the Iowa caucuses when he wasn’t an Iowa resident.
Such antics, combined with columns that are both hilarious and insightful, have earned Savage the closest thing to celebrity status within the alternative press. “The dirty secret of my success is that I’m a terribly sexually repressed person,” he confessed last week in a phone interview with Seven Days. “It’s overcompensation. I affect a blasé tone about letters that shock me to the core.”
SEVEN DAYS: So, who have you most enjoyed pissing off lately?
DAN SAVAGE: [Laughs] Oh, my gosh! I’m still basking in the refracted glory of the Santorum campaign. I don’t sit down and say, “Who shall I piss off today?” I just throw what I believe out there and the howling winged monkeys come flying out of asses . . . I sometimes have not very complImentary things to say about cunnilingus, which I constantly get angry letters about. But as a gay man, I should be able to be open about finding cunnilingus mystifying while still supporting it in theory.
SD: You never met Rick Santorum, but have you thought what you’d say to him if you did?
DS: Besides “Suck my dick, preferably right after I fucked my boyfriend?” No. I’m about to write a pick-apart of Rick Santorum’s column in the Philadelphia Inquirer blasting the California Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. Rick Santorum is a toxic weenie who can’t get out of bed without thinking about what I did in bed last night.
SD: Have you come across anyone else who deserves something comparable named after them?
DS: People get nominated all the time, like anytime some right-wing politician like [State Rep.] Sally Kern of Oklahoma opens her mouth and says idiotic things about gays and lesbians . . . The thing people need to remember about Santorum is, he said idiotic things about straight people. The Supreme Court’s decision on Lawrence v. Texas imperiled the state’s right to regulate masturbation and heterosexual sodomy and premarital sex. It wasn’t just an anti-gay agenda he was advancing but an anti-straight one . . . But I really think you couldn’t get lightning to strike twice. “Santorum” was the perfect intersection of a name that sounded like a quasi-medical/sexual term to begin with that didn’t really mean anything, and a brilliant suggestion by a “Savage Love” reader. That was just perfect!
SD: CNN interviewed you after Sen. Larry Craig was busted in the Minneapolis Airport. Were you flattered or insulted that they assumed you’re an expert on hooking up in bathrooms?
DS: [Laughs] I’m always happy to be on a cable news shout-fest. I was flattered. It’s good. Once upon a time, the only people who got to go on TV and discuss homosexuals were people who weren’t homosexuals . . . It’s progress to have me on CNN to point out that the people who engage in this toilet sex in airports and get busted in anonymous hookups in parks are straight-identified, not the openly gay men dancing down the street at the Pride parade that you’ve been instructed to fear by the Religious Right.
SD: I read somewhere that you often piss off the “gay establishment.” Who is that, exactly?
DS: Like all gay writers, I have opinions that sometimes get me in trouble with the self-appointed guardians of gay orthodoxy . . . Invariably, you write something and someone jumps up and says, “He doesn’t speak for the whole gay community!” And that person, of course, is claiming to speak for the whole gay community while they’re accusing you of a thought crime.
SD: Your trip to Burlington is a benefit for the R.U.1.2? Community Center. It was called the R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center until recently, when the word “queer” was dropped from the name. Any thoughts on that?
DS: The taking-it-back thing has been extremely successful. They do call it “queer studies program” at a lot of colleges, and the name of the Pride Parade a few years ago was “Year of the Queer.” The word does seem like “dyke,” which used to be an insult and now lesbians everywhere use it to refer to themselves. “Queer,” like “dyke,” seems to have been, in most locales, drained of all toxins. But all politics is local, including queer politics, and one of the things about gay life in the United States is that you really have to look at a map to know what rights you enjoy and what decade it is. And you can only move people so far so fast . . . I don’t think “queer center” is a bad name, and it would fly in Seattle. But if it doesn’t fly in Burlington and that’s the [executive director’s] best judgment, that’s cool. It does sound like George Lucas chose the name, though. R.U.1.2? is like R2-D2’s gay little brother.
SD: Last month on a TV panel discussion, you said we should get sex education out of the classroom. Really?
DS: I’m being a bit Swiftian taking this position, but I think all sex ed should be out of the schools, because the sex ed that can get into the schools and pass muster with the lowest-common-denominator, idiot parent . . . is going to be such dysfunctional, crippled, incomplete sex ed. It would be better not to have any at all than to have sex ed that tells you condoms cause AIDS, or the AIDS virus can pass through latex and that Jesus throws up every time someone has premarital sex.
SD: I thought it was that a kitten dies whenever you masturbate.
DS: And that gay people don’t exist and aren’t worth a mention. It would be better to get sex ed out of the schools and make sure the Internet is in the schools, because there’s a tremendous amount of sex education on the Internet. Everything from “Midwest Teen Sex Ed Show,” which is brilliant, to my column, which is idiotic, to “Scarlet Teen,” which is run by Planned Parenthood and is fabulous. Rather than fill children’s heads with lies about sex, we should encourage them to get online and learn as much as they can.
SD: Have you ever thought of designing a sex-ed curriculum yourself?
DS: Oh, no! The sex-ed curriculum we need is one that would never get into schools. What passes for sex ed is really reproductive biology, which you can literally cover in four seconds: Guy puts his penis in a woman’s vagina, ejaculates, sperm meets egg, and there’s a baby. Ta-da! Done . . . What we really need sex education for is: How do you talk people into having sex with you? Try getting that into schools. Here’s how you articulate your desires. Here’s how you obtain consent or withhold consent. Those are the important things.
SD: Are you ever concerned about your own safety because of who you are and what you say and write?
DS: Uh, no. No one’s ever taken a shot at Barney Frank or Ellen DeGeneres . . . This is going to sound really horrible, but nobody hates me quite like a small number of gay men hate me. I get next to no letters from the Religious Right. I get crazy, vicious hate male from gay men. It’s the narcissism of small differences. And there are some deeply disturbed gay people out there . . . We arrive in adulthood severely damaged. That’s why gay people smoke more, do more —and often harder — drugs, commit suicide at a greater rate. And we need to be honest about that.
SD: In your columns, you seem to relish tearing clueless people a new asshole. Is there anyone you’ve ever done that to then later regretted it?
DS: No. I have a short-term memory problem, so I often do it and don’t remember it long enough to form regrets. Seriously, I get letters that say, “You’re so mean! Think of the poor, defenseless people who come to you crying out for help and then you shit on them and call them names.” People who write me, read me. I’m not stealing [“Ask Amy” advice columnist] Amy Dickinson’s emails. I’m not raiding Ann Landers’ old filing cabinets. They either know they run the risk of a thrashing, or they want one.
SD: Do you get approached on the street by people who confide their sexual dysfunctions to you?
DS: I have had that problem. Since I’ve done a little bit of TV, I get recognized more often in airports . . . A lot of the people who’ve approached me are real nice . . . But I did have someone reach up from behind me and grab my dick once. [He said] “I love your column, man!” just as I turned around and was ready to either say hello to my boyfriend, who suddenly materialized behind me, or deck the person. What do you say at that moment? “I’m glad you love my column, and now I’m calling the police”? Please do not sexually assault the sex-advice columnist.
SD: Are you getting involved in the presidential race this year? Licking any doorknobs?
DS: No, I won’t be doing any of that . . . It looks like I’ll be going to the Republican National Convention, but I’m gonna keep Republican knobs out of my mouth.
SD: Probably a good idea, since you don’t know where they’ve been.
DS: We will know that they’ve all been through the Minneapolis airport.
Dan Savage is the speaker at the tenth annual RU12? Community Dinner, Saturday, May 31, at the Sheraton Hotel, in South Burlington. Doors open at 6 p.m. Limited ticket availability. Must reserve tickets in advance. For more information, visit www.ru12.org.