Key Concepts: "Rules of Behavior - Dan Savage"
“Rules of Behavior—Dan Savage, the brilliant and foul-mouthed sex columnist, has become one of the most important ethicists in America. Are we screwed?"
By Benjamin J. Dueholm
[Page 2] By the standards of a family newspaper, Dan Savage’s advice is not only explicit, but broadminded 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 talk.
[Page 6] The basic criteria that Dan Savage uses in his advice column: full disclosure, autonomy, reciprocity, and a minimum standard of performance.
[Page 2, 7] And strange as it may sound, Savage is increasingly playing the kind of culture-bestriding role that Ann Landers once did. Underlying all of Savage’s principles, abbreviations, and maxims is a pragmatism that strives for stable, livable, and reasonably happy relationships in a world where the old constraints that were meant to facilitate these ends are gone.
[Page 7] In ways that his frequent interlocutors on the Christian right wouldn’t expect, Savage has probably done more to uphold convenient families than many counselors who are unwilling to engage so frankly with modern sexual mores. “A successful marriage is basically an endless cycle of wrongs committed, apologies offered, and forgiveness granted,” he advised one very uptight spouse, “all leavened by the occasional orgasm.”
[Page 7] People should live up to their monogamous commitments, which, after all, have the form of a mutually-negotiated contract. But they should not expect anything unrealistic from themselves or each other, since such agreements, however binding, are unnatural. Sex will have its way with us one way or another—either by shaping our commitments to the form of its fulfillment or by making us miserable. For Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly do. For Dan Savage, we are what we enduringly desire.
[Page 8] Classical liberalism . . . may prove just as inadequate in the bedroom as it has in the global economy, and for many of the same reasons. It takes into account only a narrow range of our motivations, overstates our rationality and our foresight, downplays the costs of transactions, and ignores the asymmetries of information that complicate any exchange of love or money. For a society as a whole, it entails a utopian faith in the capacity of millions of appetites to work themselves out into an optimal economy of sex—a trading floor where the cultural institutions of domesticity once stood. And for the individual, it may only replace the old sexual frustrations with new emotional ones.