The mere mention of the name “Dan Savage” can stop a conversation. People either love him or hate him, with fans and foes on all ends of the political (and sexual orientation/gender identity) spectrum.
So an article by Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times focusing on Savage and his theories on monogamy was certain to cause a commotion. And a commotion it has been, although the exploding heads have been mostly on the right and focused less on the article (which some apparently didn’t read very closely) or on a critique of Savage.
Here’s a flavor of the article:
Savage believes monogamy is right for many couples. But he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest. Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes. We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy.
“I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy,” Savage told me, “when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”
The view that we need a little less fidelity in marriages is dangerous for a gay-marriage advocate to hold. It feeds into the stereotype of gay men as compulsively promiscuous, and it gives ammunition to all the forces, religious and otherwise, who say that gay families will never be real families and that we had better stop them before they ruin what is left of marriage. But Savage says a more flexible attitude within marriage may be just what the straight community needs. Treating monogamy, rather than honesty or joy or humor, as the main indicator of a successful marriage gives people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners. And that, Savage says, destroys more families than it saves.
Oppenheimer describes Savage as quite conservative when it comes to families and children and praises Savage’s It Get’s Better effort. In an online addendum to the story, it’s clear that Oppenheimer is a Savage fan, comparing him to Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch when it comes to articulating a theory on gay lives and sexuality generally.
The article, unsurprisingly, has caused a firestorm of teeth-gnashing on the political right. Kay Hymowiz, at Forbes, appears to have skipped reading the article and instead launched an attack on something Savage wasn’t arguing for (and in fact specifically criticized). It’s a bizarre read. Here’s what the City Journal contributor and Manhattan Institute fellow had to say:
What makes me so sure? Simple. I looked at the relevant research, something the Times oddly overlooked. Here’s what I found: People who live together but who are not married – cohabiters as they are known in the literature – are unfaithful at a much higher rate than people who are married. To be sure, it’s hard to get reliable data on rates of infidelity for a variety of reasons: people lie about sex, some define cheating as only vaginal intercourse, others would include sexting, others might feel guilty over long, soulful phone calls with a co-worker. But one conclusion that shows up consistently in the research is that infidelity is more common among non-married couples.
By Dan Savage’s logic, those relationships should last longer since “infidelity keeps them together.” Except they don’t. Cohabiting relationships are much more unstable and they break up at a much higher rate than marrieds. What these two facts suggest – that married folks are more faithful to their spouses and that their relationships last longer – is that vowing to “forsake all others” actually means something to the people who say it. It makes them behave differently.
While an interesting argument, it has nothing to do with what Oppenheimer wrote about or what Savage theorizes about. While the idea of consensual non-monogamy may be, at first, hard to wrap your head around, Hymowitz is supposedly an expert on marriage issues and should be able to parse out what Savage is talking about.
The folks at conservative media watchdog Media Research Center seem especially annoyed about Oppenheimer’s description of Savage as being “family values” oriented.
While omitting Savage’s history of unsavory activism, Oppenheimer praised the “It Gets Better project, Savage’s great contribution to family values.” Spurred by incidents of antigay bullying, it’s a collection of clips from celebrities and others, including President Obama, encouraging gay teens that things will get better.
MRC largely parrots a critique by conservative pundit Mollie Hemingway at religious journalism watchdog site Get Religion. Hemingway never really engages the article, instead complaining Oppenheimer left out information about Savage, who she accuses of participating in “hate speech” and violence.
This puffy discussion of the benefits of consensual adultery could be seen as part of the political and cultural movement to divorce marriage from the purpose of the creation, care and raising of children, but at least the topic is broached of how social norms change as laws governing sex change. But this biological reality of how intercourse and intercourse alone result in procreation, around which the institution of marriage has traditionally been based, is only given the briefest possible mention — a phrase — before being basically ignored for the rest of the piece in which monogamy is characterized as little more than “boredom, despair, lack of variety and sexual death.”
If you are looking for a more balanced exploration of Savage’s sexual ethics, one that also praises his writing while asking some pretty tough questions about his views on what sex is and what it means, you’d be much better served by reading the Washington Monthly piece by Benjamin Dueholm.
Hemingway says more analysis of the actual story is upcoming–although I think we can predict what it will say–but it seems odd to engage in a little pre-emptive character assassination of Savage before doing an actual critique.
Sadly, however, that’s where we are at. Oppenheimer acknowledges critics who say there should have been more talk about religion and the destructiveness of infidelity, but rightfully defends the magazine piece.