Everything I Needed to Know About Sex I Learned from Dan Savage

Dan Savage, the creator of the It Gets Better Project, sex advice columnist, and podcast host, has taken his particular brand of wisdom on the road. His mission? To answer the awkward, sometimes gross, sometimes frighteningly uninformed sex questions of America’s college students. The results of his cross-country tour are airing each week on MTV’s new show Savage U.

This isn’t just a cheap ploy to get ratings, and it’s not titillating, exploitative reality TV. It’s a necessary public service. The public education system has failed today’s college students; they often simply don’t have access to adult figures who are willing provide honest, accurate information about sex and relationships. Many young adults and teens don’t have anywhere to turn.

If you went through middle school or high school during the Bush years, chances are you didn’t receive anything even remotely resembling a comprehensive sex education. Even going through my high school’s sex ed program before the school switched to an abstinence-only curriculum was painful — while the school didn’t directly teach that homosexuality was wrong or that contraception was unnatural, they did allow evangelical groups to guest-lecture in class, and they didn’t contradict them.

As a self-righteous (and, admittedly, obnoxious), queer 15-year-old, I challenged the line I was given about waiting until marriage, asking, “What about gay people? They can’t get married – are you saying they can never have sex even if they end up in a stable, long-term relationship?” I was treated to a rant about how the “gay lifestyle” would invariably result in HIV and an early grave. And then I was told that girls were delicate flowers who would be ruined forever if they had sex with anyone.

Even going through the Unitarian Universalist Church’s controversial and comprehensive About Your Sexuality sex education program wasn’t as helpful as you might think. In a room full of bored, upper-middle-class straight kids, the one or two queer participants kept our mouths shut.

When the instructors tried to cover the topic of safe anal sex, they were shouted down with shouts of “gross!” and “ew!” It’s nice to know that the gay and bisexual boys in the group weren’t going to receive information on how to protect themselves from STIs just because it grossed out a couple of squeamish teenage girls. On reflection, I wish that the well-meaning members of the congregation teaching the course had said something. But they just skipped the subject and moved on.

One thing AYS did better than my school sex ed classes was covering contraception and talking about the emotional aspects of sex. It attempted to be nonjudgmental and impartial — something the classes in middle school and high school certainly weren’t. But it was sterile and detached on the part of the instructors, and uncomfortable for students a little too young to deal with the subject matter in a mature way. I learned more than most teenagers ever do about sex from an organized curriculum, but it wasn’t enough to prepare me to eventually become sexually active or navigate relationships.

But Dan Savage was there for me. I’ve been reading his column, Savage Love, since I was 15 years old. And let me tell you: everything important I’ve learned about sex — the emotional complexities, issues of queer sex and queer identity, frank discussions about kinks and fetishes, advice on navigating non-monogamous relationships — I learned from reading Dan Savage. None of this was touched on in any sex education program I attended. And it was this information that helped me become a sexually aware, informed and responsible adult capable of having safe and fulfilling relationships with men and women.

Dan tackles real-life issues you’re never going to hear discussed in a public school — especially not in today’s political climate. Even in AYS, there were questions too embarrassing to ask in front of a group of other teens. And there were things about my personal life and sexuality I just didn’t want a room full of kids from my youth group to know. (After all, outside of church, most of us weren’t even friends!)

While Dan’s had his share of controversy over the years (and, certainly, I’ve had issues with his column at times), it’s clear that he’s genuinely committed to helping people. And while maybe it’s not accurate to say that Dan’s column is always “safe” or completely nonjudgmental, there is one thing Dan always is: honest. He tries his hardest to give accurate information about sexual risks, even when writers ask about sexual practices he’s never heard about before. He will regularly bring in guest experts to answer questions related to trans issues, medical dilemmas, and even more exotic problems.

Along with It Gets Better, Dan’s been providing a sorely-needed service for queer teens for years: providing an accurate source of information about gay sexual acts and relationships, which teachers in most sex ed programs aren’t even allowed to talk about. Savage U is just the newest incarnation of this effort, and it’s one I think is poised to be wildly successful and reach millions of teens and young adults — queer and straight — who desperately need answers.

The first episode of Savage U is now available to view online for free. In it, Dan answers anonymously-submitted questions from his audience, reassures one young woman that her high sex drive is normal, helps one insecure bisexual boy learn how to get out of the “friend zone,” and delivers a reality check to one young couple who admit they don’t use birth control or condoms:

What do Care2 readers think of Savage U? Is this program helping fill the gaps for college students who didn’t get adequate sex education in public school? Would you want your college-aged child to attend one of Dan’s question and answer sessions?


Related Stories:

Why Abstinence-Only Sex Education Still Doesn’t Work

Abstinence-Only Education Lesson 1: Drink the Spit

Abstinence-only Education Lesson 2: “Girls Shouldn’t Have Ideas”

Abstinence-only Education Lesson 3: “We had a wedding at school today”

Photo credit: Better Than Bacon via Flickr

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Abbe A.
Azaima A.3 years ago


KS Goh
KS Goh3 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Natasha A.
Natasha Avital3 years ago

@coleen p.: A LOT (if not most) bisexual ppl are actually atracted to ppl of all genders, not only to cis men and women. They just (like me) prefer the label "bisexual" for one reason or another (the reason I identify as bi is cause there's a lot of ignorance out there, specially where I live, and if you say you're pan, some ppl think you have sex with trees or whatever. I'd rather use a word that makes most ppl understand that I'm atracted to more than one gender)

"a bisexual guy won't want to be with a female-to male person who identify as straight."

Says who?! Most bisexual organizations use the term "bi/pan/fluid", because most ppl who use those labels to identify themselves are all atracted to ppl regardless of gender. Organizations like Bisexual Index and many bi groups and activists define bisexuality as "atraction to more than one gender" and not only to cis men and women.

"they love all, they are attracted to people, not genders or sexuality" "it makes it look like they are better than anyone"

What?! Just...what?! You're offended by pansexual people's sexuality because you think the fact they can love ppl regardless of gender makes it look like "they are better than anyone"?!

Natasha A.
Natasha Avital3 years ago

@Bridget: I don't know, Bridget, it could be that you DON'T know that bi men don't have to "figure out what they want", since they already know they're atracted to more than one gender (hence the "bi"). It also could be that I know "a significant amount" doesn't equal "all" (where do you take that information from anyway?) And romance doesn't always leads to sex...there are a lot of asexual ppl in romances out there that can atest to that.

Bridget smith
Bridget smith3 years ago

@Natasha, I read Graces post. She was not insulting, just commenting that she reads it. Geeze. There have been news shows dedicated to talking about the different lifestyles and a significant amount of asexuals do not want romance. Yes, they want companionship but not romance. Romance leads to sex and asexuals have no desire for sex. And as a women who hangs with all walks of life a bi-sexual man can be destructive when young and not quite ready to figure out what they want. I don't know why you are so riled up. Do you know something a bunch of us don't?

Natasha A.
Natasha Avital3 years ago

@Grace A.: Yeah, he "covers the field" by saying asexuals "are not interested in love, romance or anything like that" (WTF?! At least know the basics abt the subject before trying to talk abt it!) and that they shouldn't "inflict themselves upon normal people". He also covers bisexuality by talking abt how bi men aren't interested in long-term relationships, how they should be avoided by gay men and how bi teens are actually confused individuals who don't know the truth abt their own feelings, desires and identity.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams3 years ago

There are four conceivable sexual orientations--hetero-, homo-,bi-, and a-. I read Dan Savage's column fairly often. He at least tries to cover the field.

Natasha A.
Natasha Avital3 years ago

@Lilith M.: People who are honestly commited to helping actually listen to criticism and try to change their ways, instead of meeting criticism with mocking. The Savage way is, after being criticized for his transphobia (doing things such as calling a transwoman who went trough sex-reassignment surgery when her son was in highschool a "stupid, selfish tranny who couldn't wait measly 36 months to cut off his dick" - yes, HIS dick) and calling transwomen "shemales", responding by saying trans ppl wanna be "the victimies victims" and that, if he stops supporting transgender rights (who needs attacks when you have "supporters" like that?) then the fight for trans rights "it's over, it's done" (what, oh what, would trans folks do without such wonderful help?)

Dan has repeatdly been called on his transphobia, biphobia and acephobia (among other "helpful" things, he has told asexual ppl to "stop inflicing themselves on normal people" and told an asexual woman whose bf agreed to a non-sexual relationship that her partner was either "a fool or a fag") Does this sound like smn who's "commited to helping people"?!

nicola w.
Jane H.3 years ago

Sex education isa huge leap of faith for parents - honesty , support and continued dialogue is the ONLY way to go.
Are you perfect ? why then expect your kids to be so ?

Lilithe Magdalene

Julie, I love your statement:

"While Dan’s had his share of controversy over the years (and, certainly, I’ve had issues with his column at times), it’s clear that he’s genuinely committed to helping people."

Spot on. Sometimes the man pisses me off, but I adore him! Love that he is doing this!