Posted by: Chris | March 10, 2011

Living Like a Savage

This piece, from Benjamin Dueholm in the Washington Monthly, quite strongly lays out the strengths and blindspots of Dan Savage’s advice/worldview.  Savage, at least in the columns I’ve read, regularly delivers stellar advice to by repeatedly and frankly emphasizing the need for people to be pragmatic, candid, and responsible in dealing with their relationships and their significant others.  This seems, in the generic, like common sense, but it is surprising how utterly unreasonable people can be when they are in the thick of things.  However, Dueholm, notes (and I would concur) that the Savage mindset errs in exalting the removal of inhibitions and the fulfillment of individual desires above all other concerns:

Classical liberalism, however, 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 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. People who think they are motivated only by lust may end up feeling love; people who forswear any strings may feel them forming; and perfect transparency may prove an ideal no less unattainable than perfect monogamy…

If there is something to treasure in the old, traumatized ideal of lifelong monogamy, it’s not that it demeans sexual fulfillment. Rather, it’s that monogamy integrates sexual fulfillment with the other good things in life—having someone to pay bills and raise children with, having a refuge both emotional and physical from the rest of the world. It is an ideal that is powerful even when it is not fully realized (as it rarely, if ever, is), not a contract voided by nonperformance. A worldview in which sex is so central to life that it may be detached from everything else and sought apart from every other ingredient of happiness presumes a world in which happiness itself can be redefined—in which people can be retrained in what they expect and accept from one another. To approach the libertarian ideal of human relationships, emotional shock therapy of the sort contemplated by AHND will be required. The promised land of natural, ethical, autonomous sexuality lies across a desert of self-mortifying trade-offs between sexual fulfillment and all the other joys and comforts of life.

It may be the case, as Savage likes to argue, that humans are not by nature sexually monogamous. The great apes aren’t, after all. But of course, neither are the great apes especially interested in negotiating power-exchange contracts, engaging in long conversations about the contours of open relationships, or, for that matter, answering the anguished letters of anonymous strangers. As has always been the case, the answer to civilization’s discontents turns out to be yet more civilization. That is the tragedy of the human being in an age of proliferating options and stubbornly lingering dissatisfaction. The whole world may be normal at last, and yet to be good is as elusive as ever. Some things may not, in fact, get better.

This all, uncoincidentally, echoes the more sociological (as opposed to biological) criticisms posed, by myself and others, to Savage’s compatriots Drs. Jetha and Ryan about the efficacy of trying to recreate prehistorical social arrangements in a modern and civilized world (as well as broader criticisms of libertarian social schemes more generally).

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Responses

  1. http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove?oid=6265752

    RELEVANT ENTRY:

    I love it when you invent words, and I want to nominate a nameless phenomenon that sometimes afflicts boring het guys like me (as well as all other guys): The blockage that is created by dried semen on the tip of your dick after sex. You wake up at 3:00 a.m. to drop a line after dozing off after sex, and either the urine gets blocked for a moment and then bursts out like a geyser (which kinda hurts) or the blockage is only partial and the piss sprays off at some crazy angle and gets all over the floor or the walls (which kinda sucks). This phenomenon should have a name!

    Can’t Spell Neologism Without Gism

    I’m tempted to ask SUPER what his girlfriend’s name is, CSNWG, because if anyone on earth deserves to be forever associated with a crusty blockage that has to be pissed away after sex, it’s her. But I’m sure my readers—the folks behind “santorum”—can come up with something better. Gang?

    AWESOME COMMENT

    The crusty blockage? That’s easy: SEMENT!

    • HAHAHAHA. brilliant!

  2. […] endorses two misconceptions about Savage. The first is that his sex advice peddles a normative vision of […]


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