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Frisky Q&A: Dan Savage Talks About “Savage U,” And The Prevalence Of Birth Control Use And Slut-Shaming On College Campuses

Tonight at 11 p.m. is the premiere of MTV’s “Savage U,” the half-hour series in which Dan Savage, sex advice columnist and founder of the It Gets Better Project, travels to 12 colleges and universities across the country and talks to young folks about sex and relationships. Given his experience — he’s been doling out straight-forward advice for 20 years — and hilariously honest approach, “Savage U” is sure to have a refreshing, entertaining, and most of all important impact on the way mainstream television addresses sex and dating. I was lucky enough to talk to Dan about the show, what most surprised him about the sex lives of college students, and whether he thinks he’ll still be dishing it out in another 20 years. Check out our Q&A after the jump!

First of all, I have to say that talking to you is such a thrill for me. I listen to your podcast every Tuesday night, while I’m taking a bubble bath and drinking a glass of wine. It’s my Tuesday night ritual.

Wow, I feel kind of violated…

It’s very romantic.

You know I don’t like naked ladies right? I’m going to have to include warnings from now on when downloading the podcast that you have to remain fully clothed while listening to me if you’re a girl.

Fine, I’ll wear a bathing suit from now on. So, congrats on your show, “Savage U,” launching tonight — that’s very exciting. What compelled you to make the leap from print and, of course, the podcast, to doing TV? Why did you want to do this show in particular?

As a sex writer, and as a sex podcaster for the last four or five years now, whenever I tuned into television to listen to how sex was being discussed, it reminded me of the way sex was talked about in print when I started my column. There seemed to be one way people talked about sex with their friends and with each other when they were being honest and uninhibited, and then another way when it was discussed in an advice column. There was this disconnect.

It’s been the same thing on television. When I started “Savage Love,” the idea was to write a column about sex using the language people use when they’re actually talking to their friends about their own sex lives, when people are being, you know, honest and real. And there’s not a lot of that on TV. TV still does what print did 20 years ago. I think there’s a lot more attitude about sex in print now; not to suck my own dick — I’m not limber enough — but there’s a whole honesty about sex in print now, I think in part due to columns like mine. They’ve forced the issue. But not on TV. TV is still generally talking about sex in this way, you know, where you don’t talk about the sex people are actually having. Everyone seems to talk about sex that we think everyone else should be having.

Like, I was watching Nancy Grace the other day on CNN, and she was interviewing this porn star — basically so she could crucify him — pretending like she’s never heard of this porn thing. 

As if watching porn is this fringe activity that only weirdos and freaks are interested in.

Right. Every technician, every sound guy at CNN has been jerking it to internet porn for 15 years. But they have to pretend like, “Oh this porn! What is this porn? Oh my gosh, we’re going to have to sully ourselves here at CNN” — which I guess is Vatican City now — “and talk about porn.” And I hate that. I’ve always wanted to see on television the kind of talk about sex that I have in my column and in my podcast. And I’m just conceited enough to think that I should be the one who should bring that to television.  

You’ve jokingly called the show “18 and Not Pregnant” — what do you mean by that?

I haven’t cleared that with MTV, so I should probably stop saying that! I’m actually fan of “16 and Pregnant.” I had the same reaction a lot of people had when it first went on, which was, “Oh no, this is going to glamorize teen pregnancy and make the teen pregnancy problem worse.” But I’m a data guy and a science guy and even researchers who are just expressing moral disgust are acknowledging that one of the contributing factors to rapidly declining teen pregnancy rates in the last few years is that show. That show sort of de-glamorized teen pregnancy  and promoted either abstinence or birth control. People watch that show and they go, “Jesus fuck, look at that.”

I don’t want that life, that’s for sure.

The cover of In Touch magazine isn’t worth it. When I say “18 and Not Pregnant,” I mean what a lot of people in MTV’s demo are going to see when they watch our show is what’s possible for you if you act responsibly, if you use birth control. You can go to college! This is what college is like! College is still a blast. The choice isn’t “no fun in high school and then maybe you can go to college” — you can still have fun, you can still do your thing. Most of the people we talked to on the show are sexually active but they’re using birth control, they’re keeping it together. They party, but they keep the partying to a manageable level so they can get their work done too. And I think, without it being pedantic or scolding, the show introduces MTV viewers — many of whom are thinking about college or at that age where they might be, or their parents might be thinking about college — to what college is really like. 

That it’s a place where you can learn, but also have a good time.

Right, and you can be sexually active and you can keep it together and you can be responsible and you can continue to not get pregnant. 

As you traveled to these different cities and universities, were you surprised by anything at all? Did you find that these teens and young adults were more sexually savvy than you would have thought? Were they better about protecting themselves when having sex? 

One of the things that I always ask … well, I’m a jerk, so when I meet people and I talk to them, I’m always like, “Are you sexually active? Are you using protection? What kind? Are you using birth control? Are you using condoms?” And I just rattle those questions off and only once did somebody say, “Oh. No.” That happens in the first episode at the University of Maryland, where I stumbled upon this guy who wasn’t using birth control. That wasn’t what we were supposed to talk to him about, it just came up. But I was really surprised by how rare that answer was; everybody was down with birth control and condoms and protection. And I shouldn’t have been that surprised, because it’s self-select for being responsible if you’ve gotten your ass into college. You know what I mean?

Two other things: the degree of slut-shaming that goes on, the guys who would say that they would never date a girl they hooked up with. That there’s something wrong with a girl who’ll hook up with you. These guys, they can’t sort of connect the dots and realize they’re saying that no one should ever date them either because they hooked up. So I was always challenging guys on that. 

Where do you think that comes from, that rabid slut-shaming among young people? Is this something that they hopefully eventually grow out of?

I hope they grow out of it because if they don’t they’re going to destroy their own sex lives. Because the kind of girl that wants to jump into bed with you, the kind of girl who’s attracted to you, the kind of girl who’s spontaneous and is a bit of a risk taker, is going to be a better, more fun sex partner and partner partner, period. It’s sad to see so many guys replicating the Madonna/Whore thing that destroyed so many marriages in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s; that there’s one kind of girl that you have fun with, and one kind of girl that you marry. I wonder why they don’t like their wives very much, considering they say they want to marry someone they don’t have fun with. 

You know, it’s slut-shaming and it pervades the culture. Guys who get a lot are “studs” and women who get a lot are “sluts.” And we can’t just blame the men, because a lot of women reinforce those attitudes. There’s a lot of slut-shaming that goes on that’s just female to female, hetero female to hetero female; it’s not all just the boys oppressing the girls. 

It frustrates me, but it also shocks me. I’m gay — I don’t know if you realized that from the podcast — and there’s not a lot of that in Gay Land. There’s a lot of gender politics; we’re touched by it, you know, we breathe the same oxygen that everyone else does, so we’re not completely immune to larger current special forces. And I’ve met gay guys who have Madonna/Whore complexes and I want to slap them. But there’s not a lot left of it, so I’m always really shocked by it. Really? Really?! Is it 1952?!

Well, in this day and age … I never thought we’d see what’s happening now, with the GOP’s complete war on birth control.  

Talk about slut-shaming.

Yeah. I mean when it’s coming from the upper echelons of government, it’s no wonder.

Yeah, I mean I would include Rush Limbaugh in the upper echelons of government in this country, unfortunately, and he’s there calling Sandra Fluke a slut. Because she uses birth control! And for even having an opinion about birth control, she’s a slut. 

It feels like even 10 to 15 years ago, this wouldn’t have happened. I think even the first President Bush was a big proponent of birth control, if I remember correctly. 

And so was Mitt Romney! The problem I would say is that Canada got the French, Australia got the convicts, and the United States got the Puritans. Everything, from abortion to birth control to gay rights, is all about a religious impulse to punish people who are having recreational sex. Which is most of the sex most people are having most of the time. And they can’t get over it. Rick Santorum is out there campaigning against birth control, saying it allows people to do “that which is wrong.” What does he mean by that? Well, it allows people to have sex for pleasure, for connection, for love, for intimacy, not for making babies for Jesus. And that’s their problem with gay people, that’s their problem with abortion rights. They’re all linked.

Back to sex for fun … as you were traveling around the country, were there recurring questions or topics that young people wanted to talk about? 

It depends on the school. Like, I’d go to Cornell and there’d be what I call “varsity level” questions. “How do you have a threeway?” “How do you tie a certain type of knot?” And then you go to a college like the University of California Irvine, which seems to be a school where people who didn’t get laid in high school went away to college, and all the questions are, “How do I ask a girl out?” “How do I tell a boy that I like him?” Beginners questions. 

Did you find that young people are kind of kinky?

Absolutely! And not shy about it. Which is great! One of the things I’ve been hammering away at forever in the column is that whatever it is that turns you on, is going to turn you on forever, so you might as well have a great attitude about it and not to feel shame about it and to just throw it out there. If someone runs in the other direction, good riddance. You need to keep throwing it out there until you find somebody who’s like, “That’s my favorite thing!” Or “You’re my favorite thing so I’m going to learn how to enjoy this favorite thing of yours.” 

You always advise your readers to be GGG — Good, Giving and Game — and to “Fuck First.” What are some other bits of sex/relationship advice you would give to everyone?

The Price of Admission! Which is, you have to identify the things about your partner that annoy you, that you can’t change but are worth getting over because the rest of the package is wonderful. And then you stop bitching about those things. You say, “This is the price of admission. I’m going to pay this price to ride this ride.” And you don’t go off on it over and over and over again. You suck it up. And be aware that your partner is also sucking it up. Price of Admission — that’s a big one!

“Fuck First” really only applies to Valentine’s Day, but other people seem to be applying it to other things which kind of makes me happy.

I think on any major date night you should fuck first. If you’re going out for a big dinner, but feel kind of horny, fuck first. I’ve ruined many a night of potential sexy times by eating rich food first. 

I agree. It’s a bad plan. We should redesign date night, putting the food before the fuck. 

You’ve been giving sex advice for 20 years — will you still be giving it 20 years from now?

Oh yeah! They’re passing bills in Utah to ban sex education. Every time a state bans sex-ed or requires abstinence-only education, I want to write to all those Republican legislators and thank them for the full-employment program they’ve enacted for me. There’s going to be a whole generation of kids who won’t know their ass from a hole in the ground and I’ll have to help them out! Every time it happens, I’m like, “There’s going to be a lot of misery and pain and unplanned pregnancies and STD transmissions, but I’ll still have a job!” The upside for me — full employment for me and food on my kid’s table. 

Well, thank you so much for talking to The Frisky. We’re psyched to watch the show tonight. As I said, I adore you. You’re, like, my favorite person ever.

You need to get out more! But thank you — and see you in the bathtub!

“Savage U” premieres tonight at 11 p.m. on MTV. 

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