I used to be a Dan Savage fan. Back in the 90s and early aughts. Read his column religiously in the DC City Paper. So, before I turn into Chump Lady and go all snarky…
… let’s just get this out of way. Dan Savage was a pioneer. He was tackling frank sex talk and LGBTQ+ rights back in the day. I’m sure this doesn’t seem revolutionary to Millennials and GenZ, which goes to show how much the world has changed for the better since 1991. To his credit, Savage gave us GGG — good, giving, and game — per sex. He renamed “Santorum” (for homophobic politician Rick Santorum) as a frothy byproduct of anal sex. And most of all, he started the It Gets Better Project — an anti-bullying campaign for LGBTQ+ kids.
Dan, a grateful nation thanks you. So it pains me to say this man has utterly taken leave of his senses when it comes to monogamy and sexual ethics.
My sad theory is that, as the world has progressed, Dan Savage finds himself no longer as relevant. And so he grabbed ahold of the Esther Perel gravy train of monogamy-is-unnatural-affairs-are-acts-of-exuberant-defiance zeitgeist and that’s his new schtick. I honestly think he hasn’t thought this out, because his arguments are so muddled and contradictory. Dissing monogamy is a stupid person’s paradigm shift. How novel! How cool! And if you want to seem edgy and hip to the times, cool is your currency. Like a midlife crisis Celtic arm band tattoo.
So, without further ado, I’m going to debunk Dan Savage. (The UBT is having a lie down, so send me the Lebkuchen.) These excerpts are from this week’s interview with Savage on the Ezra Klein podcast in the New York Times. (Where he constantly invokes Esther Perel.)
The idea that monogamy is a choice a couple makes, and a choice a couple can revisit, that monogamy shouldn’t be a default setting, it should be something that you opt into and can opt out of over the life of a relationship. When I first came out as gay and began to meet gay couples, I was surprised. You know, I moved into dating and relationships with expectations and wants that had been handed to me, and I was surprised by the numbers of gay couples I met who were writing their own script and doing their own thing. And, at first, I found that threatening, and then I got used to it, and then I saw the logic and the utility of it, in that you should do what works for you and for you two as a couple, and that should be a conversation.
I think that’s primarily what came over it. I don’t think everybody is monogamish or open now. If there’s anything that I’ve really tried to hammer home over the years, it’s to attack these myths, these lies that we’re told when we’re children that being in love means you aren’t going to want to sleep with anybody else. Not true. Being in love, if you’ve made a monogamous commitment, might mean you don’t sleep with anybody else, out of respect for your partner, and the choice you made, and the choice you made together, but you’re still going to want to sleep with somebody else, and expecting that other person to pretend they don’t want to sometimes, that they aren’t tempted, and getting angry whenever you stumble over evidence that your partner might be attracted to somebody else, which isn’t me giving permission to people to be insensitive or cruel about sometimes finding other people attractive, if you’re in an exclusive relationship, but it’s such an engine of conflict. That’s what I began to see when I first started getting a lot of letters from straight people, that these expectations — that love meant you didn’t sleep with anybody else at all, true and lasting relationships were monogamous relationships, it created so much stress and tension, and it wound up ending a lot of really good relationships and imperfect ones. And monogamy is sort of my hobbyhorse. Monogamy is literally the only thing humans attempt where perfection is the only metric of success.
Let’s break this up.
1.) Monogamy means monogamy. An open relationship is an open relationship. Don’t confuse them. Just because you prefer an open relationship to monogamy, doesn’t change the meaning of monogamy.
The idea that monogamy is a choice a couple makes, and a choice a couple can revisit, that monogamy shouldn’t be a default setting, it should be something that you opt into and can opt out of over the life of a relationship.
Okay if a couple decides to chuck monogamy — and this is a mutual decision (many can attest to the discovery that they were in an open relationship and didn’t get the memo) — there is consent. But then you’re not monogamous. “Opting in and out” of monogamy is an open relationship. You’re saying you have entire intervals where you’re not having sex with other people. That’s not monogamy.
Oh, it’s monogamish.
I’ve debunked monogamish elsewhere. Words have meaning. Why would you obfuscate this?
2.) We’re attracted to other people is not a revolutionary statement. It’s what you do about it. And that’s a matter of character and ethics.
being in love means you aren’t going to want to sleep with anybody else.
Okay. And so? People are attractive. We manage to work together, stand in airport queues, and coexist. There’s such a trajectory from being attracted to someone to actually sleeping with them — and it seems like you’re conflating this.
expecting that other person to pretend they don’t want to sometimes, that they aren’t tempted, and getting angry whenever you stumble over evidence that your partner might be attracted to somebody else, which isn’t me giving permission to people to be insensitive or cruel about sometimes finding other people attractive, if you’re in an exclusive relationship, but it’s such an engine of conflict.
Why is it an engine of conflict if you respectfully keep your fantasies in your head? “Stumbling over evidence” can mean any number of things. What are we talking about here? Porn? That’s a whole other rabbit hole. A Farrah Fawcett poster? A dating profile? Generally speaking, if you find EVIDENCE of your partner’s sexual attraction to another individual, there’s a relationship. They’re having sex. Or are auditioning for the part. And if you didn’t consent to an open relationship, that’s rightfully upsetting.
3.) I’m sorry monogamy is hard for you. Perfection is not the standard. Consent is the standard. If you don’t want to be monogamous, then don’t be. It’s really that simple. This wanting credit for only fucking around a few times and being faithful for entire months? Bitch cookie.
that love meant you didn’t sleep with anybody else at all, true and lasting relationships were monogamous relationships, it created so much stress and tension, and it wound up ending a lot of really good relationships and imperfect ones. And monogamy is sort of my hobbyhorse. Monogamy is literally the only thing humans attempt where perfection is the only metric of success.
Monogamy is not the problem. Polyamorists can be cheated on too. Cheating is changing the rules of an agreed upon relationship unilaterally. Monogamy is one sort of agreed upon relationship, polyamory is another. But basic shitty human nature will always find a loophole for entitlement. One set of rules for me and another for thee.
Making monogamy your foe seems like a cover for preserving entitlement and unilateral decision-making in your relationships. Otherwise you would fashion the argument as one of consent.
But, you know, if perfection is your measure of success, you’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment in a committed, long-term, sexually exclusive relationship. You know, the world’s greatest chef sometimes burns an omelet. Still the world’s greatest chef. Shaun White is the world’s greatest snowboarder, has fallen down and gotten up and still been Shaun White. world’s greatest snowboarder. If you’re with somebody for 50 years and you find out they cheated on you once, they were terrible at monogamy, they failed at monogamy, they never loved you, it wasn’t a real relationship. We believe these things and then they destroy not open relationships, they destroy monogamous relationships that are imperfect, as all relationships are. And, if anything, if there’s any windmill I tilted against that I feel like I knocked over, it was that one.
Let’s call a thing a thing — “failed at monogamy” is cheating. “Imperfect relationships” is a false equivalency. The harm is so much greater than just sex. The sex is almost besides the point. (Other than the STDs.) It’s being conspired against. Lied to. Deceived. Used. It’s years of sunk costs. Paternity testing. Financial theft.
It’s the fact that our partners were willing to dish out that level of harm for furtive orgasms? No. You have to look larger. Who can resent a man for a few furtive orgasms? We object to the ABUSE. It’s the gaslighting. It’s the risk-taking. It’s the POWER TRIP.
So to have this implied that people who are cheated on are simply too demanding, too intolerant and expecting “perfection”? That’s DARVO mindfuckery.
Millions of us (there have been millions on this blog) managed to achieve “perfection” and didn’t cheat on our partners.
Yeah, people doing what they need to do sometimes to stay married and stay sane, and everybody looks at that, and it’s suddenly white hats and black hats, and the person who cheated is a terrible person. I like what Esther Perel has said — that sometimes, the victim of the affair is not the victim of the marriage.
If you need to cheat to stay sane, why not steal the pension fund to stay solvent?
How is betraying someone increasing the total sanity in the relationship? Oh, it isn’t. It’s just for you. The chump never knows. (This blog is an enormous data sample of that shit doesn’t stay secret.)
If you’re the “victim” of a marriage — there are many ethical choices on the decision tree — difficult conversations, therapy, divorce lawyers. Cheating is a choice.
Also, fuck you both. This blameshifting crap is toxic.
Cheating Is The Least Worst Option
I also like what I’ve said, that, sometimes, cheating is the least-worst option for all involved. You know, whenever I say I’m the guy who sometimes gives people permission to cheat, a lot of people jump down my throat, because they just think that must be awful. And then a lot of the examples that I cite, things that have come up in my column, are, you know, someone who’s in a long-term, committed relationship with a person who is chronically ill, and the sexual part of their relationship has ended. And is it the right thing to tell the person who wants to have sex outside that relationship — that’s about care and nurturing and commitment, but not about sex anymore? Am I supposed to tell that person, well, do the right thing and leave? Do the right thing and get a divorce? Don’t, like, slip out to discreetly get a sexual need met so that you can be there fully for your partner and not resent your partner for how deprived you feel of any sort of sexual outlet. Go do that discreetly and then be there. And that’s me somehow being against relationships, against commitment, and that’s me sort of wrestling with reality — that life is long and that, sometimes, contingencies have to be made.
You know, why don’t you let the chump decide on the Least Worst Option? Oh right, this isn’t about consent.
Also, this example is such bullshit. These sorts of dilemmas generally come at the end of life, when someone has dementia, or chronic illness, or can’t get their dick up any longer. And sex probably isn’t the biggest consideration. But if it is — again, CONSENT. Talk about it. Cheaters, however, cheat at ALL stages of life. And if their chump is vulnerable? Pregnant? Sick? Has cancer? Hey, the Almighty Right to Jizz is sacrosanct.
The Almighty Right to Jizz
You know, sex is bigger than we are, and we pretend that we’re in control of sex, and we’re in charge of sex. Sex built us and is building whatever comes after us. Through the processes of natural selection and spontaneous mutation, here we are. And we like to pretend that we get to define sex. I think we negotiate with sex from a position of relative powerlessness, and it has to be channeled. It can’t be dammed up, and that includes sexual desire, which is about a lot more than sex, even in the context of a committed relationship.
I don’t even know what negotiating sex from a position of relative powerless means. These urges are Just Too Strong? Must give in! No time for ethics!
Can we make this argument for violence? Evolutionary imperative and all. I’m a bigot and I saw a gay kid and I wanted to hit him. Are you going to believe my powerless-to-my-urges bullshit in court? Oh, it’s a matter of civility and self control?
Also, you know who negotiates relationships from a position of powerlessness? Chumps. Which is rather the point of chumping someone.
I think all relationships, if you really peel the layers back far enough, are, at some point, transactional. I pay for it with my husband. I don’t pay for it with cash money. I pay for it with time, attention, affection, concern, making sure he goes to see the doctor when he needs to go see the doctor. There’s a reason married people live longer. If I stopped paying in like that, if I stopped caring about him, if he stopped paying in like that, stopped paying me with those same ephemeral, intangible, but very important things, our relationship would collapse.
We see transactional relationships everywhere, and if you know people who are sex workers, a lot of what they’re paid for is not sex, it’s time, it’s attention, it’s focus, and if we have a culture that tells people that, if you ever had to pay for it with cash, you’re a loser, or a monster, or both, it makes the one outlet that some people may have, the one way that some people may pay for it, that other people who are also paying for it might not pay for it, it closes that lane down. It’s not a solution for people who are right now on Reddit, you know, celebrating violence against women, because they’re so angry about being low status, right? It’s a solution that could roll out over a generation or four, where we have less incels, less violence, less misogyny 100 years from now than we do now, if we could all just recognize — just like we should all recognize that being in love and in a committed monogamous relationship doesn’t mean your partner isn’t interested in the waiter — if we could also recognize that all relationships, all sexual relationships, all emotional relationships are, on some level, transactional, and, therefore, we shouldn’t stigmatize the ones that are more evidently transactional.
Okay, so we shouldn’t stigmatize people who pay for sex, unless those people are misogynistic incels.
I dunno Dan, that’s really going to substantially cut into the pimp profit margin.
Also, call me a crazy romantic, but I think caring about your husband’s health is what a loving partner does. It’s not transactional. It’s reciprocal. Invested. Committed.
But I suppose if you see everything through the lens of transaction, you can divorce it from ethics or love. This person is providing a service. You may need other services, while still requiring their service. Please use the service door. Your services are no longer needed.
God, this was depressing. Next time I use the machine. Send cookies, stat.