Last week I had the privilege of introducing Dan Savage at a banquet honoring him as 2013 Humanist of the Year.
Previous winners of this award include Gloria Steinem, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonas Salk, Margaret Sanger, and Buckminster Fuller. Why does Dan deserve to be part of this group?
"Please keep it to 5 minutes," I was helpfully told. So I decided to answer this question using Dan's own words, from his books, columns, and speeches.
His discussion of bisexuality as a transition strategy for gay people is full of compassion—and challenges the common idea that only bad people lie. When he first came out,
"I told my friends I was bisexual because I was afraid. I didn't think they could handle the truth, and I knew that I couldn't handle living without friends. So I lied."
Dan explains that bisexual people don't lie about being bisexual (although some do allow others to think they're gay or straight); some gay people lie about being bisexual as part of their coming out strategy. Although Dan has been vilified as "bi-phobic" for this politically incorrect but accurate description of reality (including by an audience member during the banquet Q/A), it stands as an important contribution to our understanding of the coming out process (and, unintentionally, of the politics surrounding sexual orientation).
Dan's work redefines our culture's narrative around monogamy:
"If you've been with someone for 20 or 30 years and your spouse only cheats on you once or twice, your spouse is good at monogamy. Not bad at it, good at it."
Dan notes that "We should place a higher value on marital stability than on marital monogamy," a position that would save a lot of good, albeit imperfect, marriages (is there any other kind of good marriage?). In fact, he takes marriage so seriously that he sees cheating as a strategy some good people use to stay married:
"If someone truly loves their spouse, has kids, has tried couples counseling, an endocrinologist and a shrink…I believe it's better to cheat than to leave."
Finally, he observes that advice columnists are too eager to punish those who lose interest in a partner but want to stay married:
"This guy doesn't find his wife attractive anymore. So he loses desire—no affair, just loses desire because he wants to stay with her. And I'm supposed to criticize him? Some things—love, devotion, loyalty—are more important than sex."
If the American profession of marriage counseling were to consider Dan's ideas, we'd have more sophisticated marriages, fewer divorces, and more sexually satisfied people. Marriage counselors would have to grow up, too, which may explain the profession's instinctive resistance.
Dan has spent many years in the struggle for marriage equality. When then-Senator Rick Santorum famously compared same-gender marriage to bestiality and pedophilia, Dan and his readers redefined "santorum" as "The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex."
For ten years, this has been the first definition that comes up when someone Googles "santorum." More importantly, Google helpfully explains that the definition originated "After Santorum made statements equating homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia…" This will be on the internet, of course, until the end of time—certainly during 2016, when Mr. Santorum expects to run for president. It's hard to think of a more effective anti-defamation tool.
In response to a series of suicides by tormented gay teens, Dan and his husband Terry started the "It Gets Better Project." They made a video discussing their own experiences of being horribly bullied as teens, noting that their lives got much better in adulthood.
When Dan and Terry invited others to make similar videos, they received 100,000 entries—including videos by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, Suze Orman, and Joe Jonas. Viewed over 50,000,000 times, the videos continue to give hope to gay and other bullied or self-tormenting teens. And they continue to undermine the historic narrative that bullying is cool, inevitable, or ultimately benign.
Coming full circle, I quoted Dan describing his adolescent struggle with the contrast between his upbringing in Catholicism and the growing awareness of his own homosexuality.
"My intuitive sense that the Church was wrong about homosexuality—and me—led me to wonder what else the Church might be wrong about: Virgin births, maybe? Resurrection? It didn't take long to arrive at the biggest doubt of all: the existence of God."
And that's what makes Humanism the most dangerous idea on Earth: its call for everyone to think rationally, challenge conventional wisdom, live ethically, and oppose traditional restraints on the integrity of human thought, emotion, and identity. Dan has consistently embodied the Humanist ethic, supporting his millions of readers in living more moral, more human lives.
And that's why Dan Savage was honored as 2013 Humanist of the Year.
This weekend I spoke at the annual meeting of the American Humanist Association. I started by explaining why humanists need a better understanding of sex:
- Some people are scared about sex, and are therefore superstitious;
- Some people believe sexual morality is impossible without religion;
- The Religious Right uses the issue of sexual regulation to undermine secular democracy;
And, of course, sex is a great subject to discuss at cocktail parties. Here's an outline of what I presented in Ten Things Humanists Need to Know About Sex:
10. All sexuality is constructed
Sex has no inherent meaning. Sex has no inherent goal or purpose. We owe sex nothing. The social norms that govern sexuality (ideas about what is sexy? What is sex? Who is eligible for sex? What is normal sex? etc.) are a product of their unique time and place (Victorian England, 1920s Paris, 1950s American South, etc.). They do not reflect some deep truth about the "real" nature of sex.
For more on this, see www.MartyKlein.com/the-meaning-of-sex/
9. Sexual problems are generally not about sex
They're generally about:
- Self-image (including body image)
- Lack of self-acceptance
- Ignorance & misinformation
- Guilt & shame
- Unreasonable expectations
- Existential issues (e.g., fear of aging)
- Not wanting to make choices
- The desire for a sense of autonomy
- Performance pressure
- Ambivalence about the relationship
And, of course, power.
8. Everyone makes assumptions about sex, love, & intimacy
Everyone tells stories about (their) sexuality. Does love drive desire? Are sex and intimacy the same? Can a relationship be intimate with little or no sex? Does monogamy prove love? Does infidelity prove the lack of love?
There's nothing wrong with having ideas or opinions about questions like these. The only problem is when we forget that they're stories rather than "truth." You know, the way traditional religion is always portraying its stories as "truth."
7. Everyone has conditions for good sex
In order to enjoy sex, we might have conditions about our self (say, being clean or feeling like we're in love), our partner (say, smelling slightly of alcohol or having a big nose), and/or our environment (say, quiet or the possibility of being observed or heard).
When we have sex without getting our conditions met, we're usually disappointed with the outcome. If, for example, you know that trusting and feeling special are important aspects of sex for you, picking up strangers at bars (no matter how good-looking or technically expert) is not a good strategy for you.
6. Desire and arousal are different experiences
Desire is a mental phenomenon. Arousal is a physical one. They come from different places, and we experience them differently. Confusing the two makes sex more complicated.
Erection and lubrication indicate arousal (assuming that a person is willing to enjoy these physical processes). Fantasies, toys, talking nasty, and playing games are all ways to enhance arousal. But enhancing desire? Humans have been looking for ways to do that for thousands of years. Frustrated, most people settle for, "You should be sexier, so I feel more desire." Understandably, this doesn't work too well.
5. Religion's attitude about sex is complex
It's helpful to think about religion regulating sexuality rather than preventing it.
What do religious people fear sexually?
- Offending God
- Being out of control
- Ruining holy marriage
- Expressing satanic energy or intention
- Hurting their community, as one's private sexual behavior accrues to everyone
- Slipping on a slippery slope
Of course, the idea that God is such a trivial creature that God actually cares which one of your partner's holes you put your finger in—instead of what's in your heart and your relationship when you put your finger where you do—makes the whole religious enterprise seem overwhelmingly silly.
4. Porn use does not lead to violence, addiction, or child porn
According to the FBI, the rate of sexual violence and child molestation has declined in the 12 years since broadband brought free, high-quality porn into almost every American home. This correlation has also been found in Germany, Japan, Denmark, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere.
Consumers who look at adult pornography are a different group from the small group of people who consume child pornography. Think: If you're not into child porn, could anything—including sexual boredom—make you watch it and get aroused from it?
Watching pornography can't be an addiction in the same way that watching TV can't be an addiction. Calling someone who watches too much porn (or TV) addicted—and even hurts his life doing so—trivializes the real process of addiction to substances like alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine.
3. Sexually, male-female similarities are more important than the differences
Men and women are not the "opposite sex;" nothing on this earth is more similar to a man than a woman, and vice versa. I don't know what the "opposite" of a man is—a bicycle? A turtle? A pineapple?
Most adult men and women want the same things from sex, they're worried about the same things, and they both experience enormous performance pressure and anxiety.
The categories of "men" and "women" each have three billion people, and the members of each category differ widely. We can generalize about the "average man" and the "average women," but since each category is so large, those averages tell us nothing (knowing that a person masturbates twice a week, or prefers to shower before sex, is no help in determining if it's a man or a woman).
Unless you're having sex with all men or all women, thinking about what the average man or woman likes or does is of no value whatsoever.
2. "Normal sex" is a dangerous idea
Many people want to be sexually normal, and fear that they aren't. Because of this, they're dishonest with their partner about who they are, where they've been, and what they want now. And because they won't acknowledge (must less ask for) what they want in bed, they settle for much less sexual satisfaction than they might actually have.
Ideas about normal sex are enshrined in American laws regulating sodomy, sex toy sales, thought crimes in chat rooms, who has to register on sex offender lists (and the punishments that derive from that), and the consequences of benign but unwanted sexual attention.
1. What most people want from sex is…
Pleasure and closeness. And a little less emotional pain.
Not huge orgasms, or orgies, or to discover a new position. Just a little more comfort and relaxation, a little less anxiety and self-consciousness.
Surely, trying to have sex without offending God, or revealing oneself as abnormal, or disappointing one's partner, or wetting the bed, makes this far more difficult. Let's try a new approach: focus on what you enjoy, not on what you fear.
To see the powerpoint slides from my presentation, go to www.SexEd.org/slides/AHA