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Dan Savage speaks frankly about Savage Love

Dan Savage has written Savage Love, his love and sex advice column, for 25 years.
Dan Savage has written Savage Love, his love and sex advice column, for 25 years.Rachel Robinson

Eight years ago, when I started writing an advice column (Love Letters), I stopped reading them.

I didn’t want other columnists’ advice to sway my opinion. I also didn’t want to spend too much time reading people’s issues. (I figured it was probably best to spend a few hours a day not thinking about relationships at all.)

But sometimes I cheat. Usually, when I do, it’s because I’m having a craving for Savage Love.

Dan Savage’s 25-year-old love and sex advice column — which features questions I would never be allowed to run in The Boston Globe — is full of information, humor, and empathy. It has made me laugh and cry, sometimes all at once.

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When I was younger, it taught me things I needed to know about my body, things I would have been afraid to ask out loud. As I’ve gotten older, it’s made me feel less alone in the world.

Savage, who cofounded the It Gets Better Project for LGBT youth with his husband Terry Miller, now has a popular podcast and takes his advice on the road, to venues such as the Wilbur Theatre, where he’ll appear Wednesday, Jan. 25.

We spoke by phone about lessons from his column, his favorite letters, and why he chooses to read the comments section.

Q. I saw your last performance at the Wilbur. You seemed so comfortable onstage. Not every writer can do that.

A. I feel more comfortable on a stage speaking than I do in front of my laptop writing. I have a background in theater. ... For me, the live shows and the live taping of podcasts are kind of the reward for the isolation and tedium that I’m sure you’re familiar with as a writer.

Q. With my advice column, people write in, but I never really have to see them in person. Except for when they e-mail me from an account that shows their picture. That’s always jarring because I prefer not to know what people look like.

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A. Well it kind of got out years ago that if you enclosed a picture, I was likelier to respond ... so people occasionally enclose photographs. The truth about a sex advice column, especially one as explicit as mine, you don’t want to know what people look like …. That’s why sex advice is best with the anonymity of a newspaper column or podcast or a radio show — because we hear the voices in our head when we’re reading it ... but then it’s all in our imaginations and it’s all Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and the people we fantasize about.

Q. How often do you get a letter that surprises or shocks you?

A. Rarely. I used to joke that every once in awhile I would get a letter that I would handle with tongs — but it’s all e-mail now. These days, because every sex act has a Wiki page, and every sex toy has a Wiki page, you don’t need me to tell you what it is and how it works. So the questions I get are mostly situational ethics, like this is what happened, this is what I did and this is what they did, who’s right and who’s wrong, and it’s much less instructional.

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Q. Do you read the comments threads on your column?

A. On a few different sites. I look at the Onion, I look at the Stranger’s comment thread and the Mercury back in Portland. I’ll look at the comment thread just to see what people are saying. That’s valuable, you know. I’ve always said the column is as much an education for me as for the readers. ... For example, last week after the Donald Trump/Russia/pee story broke, I repeated what I had always believed, that urine is sterile. And it turns out that based on new research conducted in the last couple of years . . . what we believed for decades about urine was untrue — it’s not sterile. And I learned that in the comments thread. Someone said, “Savage, in 2014 here are all the studies you need to keep current on urine.” So I am now current on urine.

Q. You bring up Trump, and I was thinking about how the last time I saw you at the Wilbur, the questions from the crowd were about sex and relationships. I wonder how the themes will change this time around. People probably want you to talk about the election. They’re probably looking for comfort.

A. In a live taping of the show a few weeks ago, I said to the audience that I was trying to put the fight back in them when I wasn’t quite feeling it myself, but they asked me to fake it ’til I made it. I never expected that Trump would get the nomination and I certainly didn’t expect Trump to win. ... This is going to be the first live show after Trump’s inauguration, five days after. I imagine a lot of questions are going to be about that.

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Q. Where do you do most of your writing?

A. I like to write in cafes for the same reason I like to work out in gyms. If you’re in a gym and you’re not working out, you look like an idiot and people wonder what you’re doing. If you’re in a cafe with your laptop open and you’re not writing, you look weird.

Q. I have some favorite Savage Love letters. One was from a man who was aroused by bread. I still read that one a lot. After 25 years, do you have favorites?

A. You know, there are two relationship situations that I think of, because I still hear from them intermittently over the years. There was this woman who wrote because [her partner] was into BDSM and she wasn’t, and they were always at war with it. She would do it for him, but she hated it. I answered her letter ... and I said, “Let him see a [professional dominatrix] if you can afford it. ... If he wanted to go bowling, you’d let him go bowling with his bowling friends. Let him go out together with his SM friends.” And she did, and she wrote me like a year later to say I saved their marriage. ... With another [relationship], before “cuckolding” was coined as a term, I got a letter from a guy whose wife had had sex with his best man on their wedding night. And that was a condition for her marrying him. Because she didn’t ever want to be monogamous — but she wanted him to be monogamous. They didn’t know what to call it back then, nor did I. I got a letter from them 10 years later saying they were still together, and that they now knew what to call themselves, that they felt kind of like pioneers, after all these people wrote in saying they would never last, that this is sick and depraved. Here are two people who, you know, have unique qualities that snap together like puzzle pieces, and I think that’s lovely.

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Q. There’s a theme with these favorites. You tell people to be who they are, and ask them not to define themselves based on who they think they should be.

A. What works, works. To look at what’s working and say, “That’s not how it’s supposed to work” — working is how it’s supposed to work. ... My husband and I have been together for 22 years, we’ve been monogamous for four, and non-monogamous for 18 years. I’ve literally had a conversation over and over and over with people who say that they couldn’t do what we have done because they value commitment too highly, and then the next thing out of their mouths is, “All three of my marriages have been monogamous.” I’m like, “All three of your marriages have been monogamous, and you value commitment more than I do?” I’m still with the only guy I’ve ever married. We’re not monogamous because we’re more committed to each other than we are to neither of us touching anyone else again .... You’re committed to monogamy, you’re not committed to a human. I’m committed to Terry.

Q. The night I saw you at the Wilbur, it felt like the most comfortable and welcoming room. Everyone was so lovely. Do you get that sense when onstage? That you’re surrounded by love?

A. Yeah. I mean, sometimes people come to confront me or yell at me, and I’m up for that, too. I love a good argument.


Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com