Benjamin J. Dueholm
Five months after the death of Esther “Eppie” Lederer in 2002, the bulk of her estate—a sprawling Chicago apartment’s worth of furniture, photographs, papers, and memorabilia—went up for public auction with some fanfare in Elgin, Illinois.
Lederer, who was better known by the pen name Ann Landers, had for almost fifty years written America’s foremost newspaper advice column. With an estimated 90 million readers, the self-described “nice Jewish girl from Sioux City, Iowa,” was often counted among the most influential women in the United States. What was most remarkable about that influence was its breadth: she advised teenagers about pimples and presidents about missile defense—and the presidents often wrote her back.
Before her death, Lederer made clear that the Ann Landers pseudonym, which she had inherited in 1955, would die with her. But that did not prevent would-be successors from seeking to assume her mantle in more symbolic ways. On the auction block that November were Lederer’s writing desk and typewriter, on which she had composed her responses to correspondents like Desperate in Denver and Nervous in Nevada. When the bidding was over, an advice columnist named Dan Savage happily walked away with them. Today, the desk sits in Savage’s office in Seattle, where he serves as editorial director of the city’s alternative weekly The Stranger and writes his own hugely successful weekly sex advice column, “Savage Love.” His correspondents have included a woman signing off as “Fucking Asshole Idiot Losers” (FAIL), who faced a very modern problem. “My husband and I have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy when we’re apart,” she began.
“A few months ago, I hooked up with a guy on a business trip who said he and his wife have the same arrangement. He was lying. His wife found out and started harassing me on Facebook. I truly feel horrible. How can I know if someone is really in an open relationship when they say they are? I am so done.”
Savage pointed out, “The only way to verify that someone is in an open relationship is to speak to that person’s partner—and as that would constitute ‘telling,’ FAIL, it would be a violation of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.
“But even a couple with a ‘please ask, do tell’ policy probably has a rule against 2:00 a.m. calls from drunken hotel-bar pickups. So you’ll have to trust your gut, FAIL, which failed you here. Just remember this on your next business trip: The further a married person is from home and the drunker that married person is, the likelier it is that that married person is lying to you.”
Suffice it to say, Savage is not the most obvious heir to Landers’s ultra-mainstream legacy. His columns answer a Chaucerian panorama of correspondents: gay Mormons, incestuous siblings, weight-gain fetishists, men yearning to be cuckolded, and otherwise ordinary Americans grappling with an extraordinary range of problems and proclivities. By the standards of a family newspaper, his advice is not only explicit but broad-minded to the point of being radical, encouraging people to embrace or at least tolerate previously unmentionable sexual inclinations in their partners, praising open relationships, and celebrating behaviors that might cause even the most intrepid reader to balk.
When he isn’t offering advice, the openly gay Savage has also made a name for himself by serving as a kind of gonzo avenging angel for the nation’s sexual minorities. In 2000, he went on assignment for Salon.com to cover the presidential campaign of the Christian right’s boutique candidate, Gary Bauer, while suffering from a bad case of the flu. After listening to one of Bauer’s harangues against gay marriage, Savage decided to pose as a campaign volunteer and infect the candidate by licking doorknobs, coughing on staplers, and slobbering on pens around Bauer’s Iowa headquarters, making that the subject of his dispatch. Then, in 2003, Savage went viral in a different way, after Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum compared same-sex marriages to “man on dog” relationships. In response, the columnist held a contest among his readers to redefine the word “santorum” as vividly as possible as a new term in the sexual lexicon. The winning definition—unforgettable and unprintable—quickly spread so widely online as to eclipse the Google ranking of the senator himself. Which was, of course, the point. Santorum lost his seat in 2006. Landers, who struggled with accepting homosexuality and whose idea of tough language was “kwitcherbellyachin,” probably would not have approved.
And yet, Savage took pains to clarify that his purchase of Eppie Lederer’s desk was not meant as an act of desecration. “While it’s highly ironic that the world’s smuttiest advice column will now be written at the same desk where the world’s most mainstream (and most popular) advice column was once written,” Savage wrote, “I intended no disrespect.” Indeed, he said, he had been a devoted fan of Ann Landers ever since boyhood. And strange as it may sound, Savage is increasingly playing the kind of culture-bestriding role that Ann Landers once did.
After twenty years of churning out “Savage Love,” the Seattle writer can lay a legitimate claim to being America’s most influential advice columnist. He is syndicated across the world in more than seventy newspapers—mainly alternative weeklies in the United States—with well over one million in total circulation. Online, he reaches millions more readers. He is a frequent contributor to the popular radio program This American Life , and a “Savage Love” television show on MTV is said to be in the works. His podcast has a higher iTunes ranking than those of Rachel Maddow or the NBC Nightly News, and his four books have sold briskly (a fifth is due out in March). And when it suits him, the range of his commentary has become increasingly broad. In the space of one column—the one where he announced his purchase of Ann Landers’s desk—Savage offered advice to a thirty-year-old woman who wanted to sleep with a seventeen-year-old coworker (“It would be illegal for you to GO AHEAD”), fielded a question from a man with a childbirth fetish, and then, for good measure, advised the Bush administration to take a harder stance on Saudi Arabia.
Savage’s ability to mobilize legions of readers has also matured beyond the lobbing of incendiary Google bombs. Last fall, a streak of suicides by gay teenagers across the country inspired Savage and his husband, Terry, to post a video testimonial on YouTube. The two men recounted their difficulties growing up bullied and harassed, then held up their adult lives—and happiness as a couple—as evidence that, for gay people living in America, “it gets better.” Savage encouraged other people to film their own testimonials and post them online under the heading of the “It Gets Better Project.” A torrent of videos poured in, first from Savage’s regular readers, then from various Hollywood celebrities, and then from leaders in Washington. Hillary Clinton was quickly followed by Nancy Pelosi and President Obama himself, who delivered the line, “Every day, it gets better” from the White House.
It’s not every day that a sitting president takes cues from a sex columnist who once licked Gary Bauer’s doorknob. But for all his prowess as an advice writer and viral activist, Savage’s most lasting influence on American culture may ultimately register in a deeper and more enduringly significant realm: ethics. While he built his following by talking without fear or euphemism about the technical aspects of intimate life, Savage has moved inexorably over the years toward focusing on the moral ones. In so doing, he has carved a unique place for himself in the culture’s discourse about sex. For years, there have been moralizing voices on the right standing athwart the rush of sexual freedoms yelling “Stop,” and there have been others whose policy is to remain nonjudgmental toward sex as a form of expression. Savage yields to no one in his sexual libertarianism, but he has not been content to relegate the ideas of right and wrong to cultural conservatives. Wading deep into the free-fire zone of modern sexuality, he has codified a remarkably systematic—and influential—set of ethics where traditional norms have fallen away. The question is, into what kind of world do his ethics lead us?
s he tells it in the introduction to his first book, Savage Love: Straight Answers from America’s Most Popular Sex Columnist , Savage grew up in a home crammed with newspapers and porn. His grandfather, in whose apartment he lived, was a sportswriter for two Chicago dailies. His older brother stashed away copies of Penthouse and Playboy in the bedroom. He attributes his trajectory toward the advice-giving business to the combined influence of Ann Landers and Xaviera Hollander, who wrote the “Call Me Madam” advice column for Penthouse . He also eavesdropped on his mother, whom he called “a one-woman support group” for neighbors with problems that couldn’t be taken to a priest. The sexual revolution was well and truly on, but in the Savage household, it seems, the distinctions of mid-century American propriety still held. Newspapers casually cluttered the front room, while dirty pictures lurked under the bed. There were problems for priests and problems for sympathetic neighbors, questions for Ann Landers and questions for Xaviera.
These distinctions will be at least vaguely familiar to most Americans over the age of thirty. Savage came of age in the Indian summer of American prudery. Before Savage was born, Alfred Kinsey had begun to vex the identification of moral and behavioral norms in a way that would reverberate through the coming decades. Upon close examination, the zoologist reported, it turned out that the sexual behavior of the human animal—the term is Kinsey’s, and the choice is significant—is a good deal more varied than previously assumed. According to Kinsey’s sensational research, Americans were a lot gayer, more prone to cheating, and more sadomasochistic than the Archdiocese or the Tribune would ever want to acknowledge. Perhaps it was not the conduct of a few on the margins that had failed our moral norms, these findings suggested. Perhaps it was our norms that had failed us.
The ground beneath American sexual conventions was shifting dramatically, but the tremors only registered in mainstream culture with a considerable lag. In a 1967 column, Ann Landers published a “teen sex test” that posed a series of questions (“Have you ever been kissed while in a reclining position?” “Ever gone all the way?”) and assigned points to each one according to its gravity. By tallying up their scores, teens could find out whether they were “pure as the driven snow,” “passionate and headed for trouble,” or “condemned.” As time went by, however, more and more kids drifted toward the “condemned” end of the scale, and Landers had to update the test—first in 1978, then again in 1996.
Landers made her accommodations, but she never did start addressing the emotional and practical difficulties of, say, having a husband who insists on dressing up as a woodland animal when making love—or who wants to deviate from strict monogamy with his wife’s consent. Indeed, it was long difficult to find any cultural medium that navigated successfully between bashfulness and outright smut. Unless, that is, you lived in a city with an alternative weekly. Here was a publication format with one foot in the Tribune and one in the tattoo parlor. No dirty pictures, most likely, but plenty of news and events from the counterculture, an uncensored style book, and a bunch of personal ads aimed at gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals, all available for free at bookstores, coffee houses, head shops, food co-ops, and bohemian-friendly bars. A better setting and a more receptive audience for Dan Savage’s style of advice giving could not have been designed.
What was rather less obvious in 1991, when Savage took his place in the advice game, were the ways in which the explosion of online culture would finally break down the wall between the papers and the porn stash. Once adherents of every kink and fetish could find chat rooms, support groups, specially tailored erotica, and even social networking sites, two things happened: the culture suddenly appeared more sex-drenched than ever, and alternative media sources like the ones that published “Savage Love” could no longer get by simply serving as a bulletin board and instruction manual for erotic explorers. Savage, for his part, seemed to relish this moment of creative destruction, which all but demanded the sex columnist to perform a higher function. To those correspondents who still simply wanted to know where to find other people who shared their special hankerings, or who inquired after the meaning of some obscure sexual term, Savage impatiently pointed out the existence of Google. Instead, in his second decade as a writer, he has increasingly addressed himself to those correspondents troubled by the questions of right and wrong on the new intimate frontier.