Chris endorses two misconceptions about Savage. The first is that his sex advice peddles a normative vision of society; the second is that the content and grounding of that normative vision is that we should indulge our every sexual whim as long as we’re honest with our partners because, hey, that’s basically what bonobos do. The suggestion, not entirely without support in Savage Love, is that Savage aims to promote a community of over-articulate, turn-offishly matter-of-fact, cosmopolitan horndogs who alternate between rimming random assholes’s assholes and holding spontaneous confessionals with their primary “partners” in area coffee shops. And if the primary partners aren’t into kink then (a) they’re probably members of GOProud (or would be, if they weren’t bisexual, or, which happens once in a blueball moon, straight), and, anyway, (b) it’s well past time to jilt them for the local bondage outfit. What, after all, would a bonobo do?
The problem is that Savage’s sex advice column is not primarily about effecting broad normative change. Instead, it aims to help people navigate, and think clearly about, the society in which they already live. The people it aims to help, moreover, are those who need help, i.e. those who are writing to a sex advice column, or who don’t, but have similar problems.
Chris hones in on Savage’s purported exultation of “the removal of inhibitions and the fulfillment of individual desires above all other concerns” as specific component of the normative vision he seeks to realize. It is in support of this ambition, Dueholm suggests, that Savage likes to report that humans are not naturally monogamous. He writes, quoting Savage:
“What the authors of Sex at Dawn believe—and what I think they prove—is that we are a naturally nonmonogamous species, despite what we’ve been told for millennia by preachers and for centuries by scientists.” Culture—represented here by hectoring, fanatical preachers, and hectoring, misguided scientists—is a long postscript, an imposition on our true selves.
But culture is not so controllably plastic:
[M]onogamy 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. … [On the other hand] 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.
Savage’s goals are not nearly as exalted as Chris or Dueholm think. First, the sentence after the one Dueholm quotes disconfirms Savage’s rejection of culture’s relevance:
I’m not saying that everyone everywhere has to be nonmonogamous … The point is this: People—particularly those who value monogamy—need to understand why being monogamous is so much harder than they’ve been led to believe it will be. In some cases, this understanding may help people find the courage to seek out nonmonogamous relationships … But understanding that monogamy is a struggle for most people—andbeing able to be honest with our partners about experiencing it as a struggle—may actually help some people remain monogamous.
It’s true that Savage speaks respectfully of those who would eschew monogamy, but he doesn’t want to obliterate the institution. His aim is not transformative, but prophylactic; by explaining why it is difficult to follow prevailing sexual norms, Savage hopes to help people develop strategies for doing so (if they wish).
Where Savage at least has respect for those who aim to pursue non-monogamous relationships, he has, pace Chris, nothing but contempt for those who would pursue their own “individual desires above all other concerns.” Here he responds to someone with a couple of kids who, bored with his sex life, writes: I want out. I want to be a father to my kids and take care of my wife financially. But I want out. I am a few years from 40. What is the best course of action?
You say you want out, TYTF, but are you sure about that? In her book I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage, Susan Squire asks: “Why does society consider it more moral for you to break up a marriage, go through a divorce, disrupt your children’s lives maybe forever, just to be able to fuck someone with whom the fucking is going to get just as boring as it was with the first person before long?” (Emphasis added.)
destroy the only home your kids have known and put yourself and the wife through the hell of divorce, and here’s what happens next: You dog around for a few years and before long you shack up with a new woman—a woman who might want or already has a kid or two of her own—and a few years after that, you’re trapped in another monogamous relationship that bores you, and a few years after that, you’re writing to ask if you should put your second wife and your new kids through the pain of a divorce, all so you can make an embarrassing pass at a barista who has zero interest in fucking you.
Instead of putting your current family—and your hypothetical second family and that poor barista—through that, TYTF, why not risk leveling with the wife you’ve got now? Your marriage is already on the ropes, TYTF, so you don’t have a lot to lose.
His suggestion is not just to level, it is to level because “[y]our marriage is already on the ropes” – a realistic inference from a letter saying “I want out.” Nor is it uncommon for Savage to emphasize the value of stability and emotional commitment. Replying to a thirty-two year old “serial cheater” who can’t decide whether to leave her house and kids for a marginal “jerk who left me for one of my friends back in high school,” he writes
[W]hat should you do? Stay? Go? Frankly … I don’t give a fuck what you do. Stay or go, it’s not going to make a fuck of a lot of difference. Your personal life is a mess … and it always will be. Because, you see, wherever you go, there you are.
That said: If your current husband doesn’t mind being cheated on, if he can put up with your affairs and wants to put your children first, then I think you should stay with him for the sake of your kids. They deserve whatever stability and continuity you can provide for them between infidelities.
Again, sloppy reading would have this support the Chris-Dueholm hypothesis; sex über alles is Savage’s creed. But to whom he’s responding makes a difference – and to whom he’s responding is somebody who has a history of sexual infidelities. He takes that history for granted, but he does not celebrate it. As he puts it, “THIS BITCH CAN GET LEGALLY MARRIED AND I CAN’T?!?!”
One final point: Chris and Dueholm are right to detect a strain of anti-conservatism in Savage, but it has nothing to do with wanting to overhaul social structures. Rather, he wants to demystify sex in the Weberian sense – make it susceptible to rational analysis. Before overstating his case, Dueholm apprehends that this is all that Savage is up to: “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.” This is not quite right; Savage recognizes that the old constraints are there (as ineffective, he thinks, as they ever were), but he would have us think about them, too. I’m not really seeing the problem with this.
Update: Savage’s own (spoken – hence the infelicities of phrase) exegesis of himself, which I only just came across, hews pretty closely to my exegesis of him: “We need to talk about monogamy the way we talk about sobriety, which you can be monogamous and fall off the wagon and then sober back up. You can monogamous back up and get back on the wagon. And the truth of the matter is that if you’re with somebody for 40, 50 years and they only cheated on you a few times they were good at being monogamous, not bad at being monogamous. They were good at it. So I do think there needs to be some leeway. And a lot of really good loving relationships are destroyed because somebody wants a little variety or isn’t getting a need met and feels they have to step out and it explodes the relationship. I’m conservative. I think that we should do what we can to preserve marriages and long-term relationships, and one way to do that is to encourage people to have more realistic attitudes about sexual exclusivity.”