Savage Humanist

When I look at the list of all the amazing people who’ve been the Humanist of the Year—people like Jonas Salk, Barbara Ehrenreich, PZ Myers, and Richard Dawkins—and then I see my name on top of it, it just looks to me as if you’ve run out of people to give it to. Then I have to remind myself I think that because I’m still a little culturally Catholic.

Years ago, when Ann Landers passed away, a radio station invited me to come and talk about her, about her work, and how she changed the culture. They also invited her daughter, Margo Howard, who’s also an advice columnist, on the show. I was supposed to be the radical, swear-word using, butt-sex approving advice columnist who would shit on Ann Landers’ legacy and say that she was full of it while on the radio with her grieving daughter. That was the plan according to the producers.

I actually grew up reading Ann Landers. I loved Ann Landers. I even loved her when she was wrong, which I hope is how my readers feel about me—that they can love me even when I’m wrong as I am sometimes. I got to be friends with Margo, and then, a couple of years later, there was an auction of Ann Landers’ effects. One of the things that was being auctioned off was the desk she’d written her column on for forty years. So I took some money out of the bank and went to the auction expecting that I’d be bidding against the Smithsonian, who would want this desk to put next to Archie Bunker’s chair in the National Museum of American History.

But first I called Margo and I said, “Is it okay if I go buy your mother’s desk?  Because it will be spun by people who hate me (and who will spin anything I do in a negative way) as if I’m insulting your mother’s memory.” She said, “No. My mother would love to keep her desk in the business. Go get it.”

I’m embarrassed to say how much money I took to the auction, but it was a lot. Because, again, I thought I’d be bidding against the Smithsonian. I got Ann Landers’ desk for $198, and then I had all this extra cash. A lot of the other items coming up were awards, medals, and honorary degrees that Landers had been given over the forty-plus years that she wrote her advice column. Awards from the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, the American Society of Social Workers, and so on. All these plaques. So I started buying them, and I ended up with about fifty. (They’re all over my house.) Because in 2002, when this auction was held, I figured if I ever wanted to get an award for writing an advice column, this was my only chance because they didn’t give awards to people like me who wrote advice columns and used dirty words and made dirty jokes and wrote about dirty sex acts.

I’ve often felt that by writing in a dirty or funny way I was able to come closest to the way people actually speak to their friends when they talk about sex, as opposed to the kind of sexual Sanskrit that you were required to write in prior to my column’s arrival. So you see, because I’d never gotten an award myself, I was going to take Ann Landers’ awards. And now it’s healing and meaningful for me to accept the Humanist of the Year award, particularly from this organization that I admire so much and its cause that I admire so much and that I believe I’m a part of.

I recently spoke at the University of South Carolina. Typically, when I give a talk, I do a live version of my Savage Love podcast where people submit questions on cards. And whenever I go to the South, especially the Bible Belt, along with questions about sex problems or relationship problems, someone will invariably ask: “Do you believe in God?” My shtick, when I get this question, is to read it out loud, answer no, and then go on to the next question. Because I don’t believe that it should be a controversial thing to say or something you should necessarily have to unpack, or explain, or justify at great length. Then, usually in the live Q&A after, someone will ask me to go into it, which I will do, but thankfully I don’t need to do it here.

I’m an unlikely humanist. I was raised Catholic—my dad was a Catholic deacon in the ordained permanent Catholic diaconate, which was their desperate effort to stop the flow of priests leaving the priesthood. My mom was a Catholic lay minister. I was a seminarian. I often speak of how my sexuality brought me into conflict with my faith. I was speaking recently with my friend Andrew Sullivan (whose sexuality, incidentally, also brought him into conflict with his faith and yet he didn’t then leave his faith). I remembered an incident as we were speaking from much earlier in my childhood that I hope now points to the fact that I would have—even if I wasn’t gay—seen through Catholicism and other irrational belief systems eventually.

I remember very distinctly when I was seven or eight years old looking at an illustrated world encyclopedia for children and seeing a procession of Mayan temple priests wearing robes and big, crazy hats and carrying weird things, and then turning the page and seeing a procession of priests in ancient Egypt and thinking, this shit looks really familiar. It looks like mass. I was seeing my dad in these processions, and I realized that some other kid probably saw his dad in similar processions at Mayan temples and in ancient Egypt. These people, I remember thinking, probably believed whatever it was they were processioning about with the same passion and fervor that my family felt in a Catholic Church on a Sunday afternoon. That was the beginning of my doubt, a doubt that would then one day be resolved when my sexuality gave me the coup de grace and ended it.

Anyway, because I work in a Q&A format I’m happy to take your questions. Any relationship problems you want to talk about in front of your spouse? A sore on your genitals you’re having trouble identifying? I am here for you.

Q: Hi, Dan. I was wondering if you could talk about your negative opinions and negative comments on bisexuality, and how participating in a systematic erasure of a legitimate sexual identity by using the same rhetoric that straight people use to talk down to queer people and religious people use to talk down to secular people is helpful to the LGBTQI community.

A: You left TS and LF off LGBTQI. On behalf of the two-spirited and leather fetish communities, I’d like to condemn that erasure.

But seriously, there’s a whole chapter—8,000 words—in my new book about bisexuality where I unpack just this issue. I think you’ll be really happy after you read it.

I started writing Savage Love when I was twenty-six years old. I don’t think most people, when they’re twenty-six, quite know their asses from a hole in the ground. I trafficked in what I thought were jokes and asides about there being no such thing as a bisexual guy that some people were really angry about. Then came a 2006 New York Times article about a Northwestern University study conducted by Michael Bailey and others that failed to document bisexual arousal patterns in males. A lot of people wrote about it, including me.

The point I often made about bisexuality that got me accused of being bi-phobic was that, for many of us, identifying as bisexual was a phase before coming out as gay. This was common to the gay and lesbian experience because it was often easier for friends and family to hear. The tragedy or the unfairness is for actual bisexual people who have to live with the it’s-a-phase thing forever because some of us lied about being bi.

Incidentally, the 2006 study that failed to document bisexual arousal patterns in males was recently replicated, and this time researchers controlled for something they hadn’t before. As with the first study, they showed gay porn and straight porn to gay-, bi-, and straight-identified men. The straight guys in the new study responded to the straight porn. The gay-identified guys responded to the gay porn. The bi-identified guys responded to both the straight porn and the gay porn, whereas in the original 2006 study men who identified as bisexual did not respond to the straight porn. What was different the second time? Fifty-three percent of the subjects who self-identified as bi to take part in the study were eliminated because the researchers didn’t believe them when they said that they were bisexual. It was only by controlling for this that they were able to come up with definitive proof that bisexual arousal patterns existed in males.

I don’t hate bi people and I’m not bi-phobic. I like bi people so much I wish there were a lot more of them. Another thing that happens is a lot of bi people default into a kind of bisexual invisibility that isn’t the fault of straight people, or gay people, or lesbians, or anybody else. If you’re a bisexual person with an opposite-sex partner who does not actively identify as bi, you disappear into presumed heterosexuality. We know there are three times as many bisexual women as there are lesbians. If all of those women were out to their friends and family, things would be better. There’d be less bisexual invisibility but also less anti-LGBT prejudice for everybody—bisexual, gay, lesbian, and trans. In my column I’m always importuning people who are bi to be out, because it will undo that bi-phobia and that bi-invisibility that is indeed a problem for the bisexual community and to which, early on in writing my column, I did contribute.

Q: Dan, could you explain what you think is the bottom line for a healthy sexual ethic for everyone?

A: The bottom line for a healthy sexual ethic is consent. The bottom line is also do unto others as you would have them do unto you (which, in the context of my column, can have all sorts of different meanings). Consent makes a sex act or sexual relationship legitimate. It doesn’t necessarily make it healthy. You also have to examine the choices you’re making. You have to question the health implications of the choices you’re making, the mental state of your partner. But consent, I think, is the bedrock. If two people are doing it and they enjoy it and neither are being harmed by it and they’ve thought it through and considered its implications, then it is absolutely moral in every respect. It’s good for them: for the pleasure it creates for them and also for the wider culture because the more people who are happy and content and sexually satisfied and partnered up—even if that partnership only lasts an hour—the more relaxed and more centered and content the society we all live in will be. So for me, consent is the beginning, the middle, and the end of sexual ethics.