Brilliant celebration and complication of Dan Savage

A long piece about the excellent sex advice columnist Dan Savage has appeared on Alternet (via Washington Monthly).

It’s written by Benjamin Dueholm, who is a Lutheran minister… It’s highly entertaining and very very perceptive. Here’s the kicker –

In recent years Savage’s moral elevation of sexual fulfillment has been bolstered by his embrace of popularized accounts of evolutionary biology, which purport to find our true human nature in the primordial past or in our evolutionary cousins, the randy bonobos and aggressive chimpanzees. Last year Savage cowrote one week’s column with the authors of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, calling their book “the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey.” It caused a stir among his readers, so he followed up with his own comments. “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. People should live up to their monogamous commitments, which, after all, have the form of a mutually negotiated contract. But they should not expect anything unrealistic from themselves or each other, since such agreements, however binding, are unnatural. Sex will have its way with us one way or another — either by shaping our commitments to the form of its fulfillment or by making us miserable. For Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly do. For Dan Savage, we are what we enduringly desire.
As it happens, this vision fits rather well in a society built around consumption. If Savage’s ethical guidelines — disclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange, and minimum standards of performance — seem familiar or intuitive, it’s probably because they also govern expectations in the markets for goods and services. No false advertising, no lemons, nothing omitted from the fine print: in the deregulated marketplace of modern intimacy, Dan Savage has become a kind of Better Business Bureau, laying out the rules by which individuals, as rationally optimizing firms, negotiate their wildly diverse transactions.

Classical liberalism, however, may prove just as inadequate in the bedroom as it has in the global economy, and for many of the same reasons. It takes into account only a narrow range of our motivations, overstates our rationality and our foresight, downplays the costs of transactions, and ignores the asymmetries of information that complicate any exchange of love or money. For society as a whole, it entails a utopian faith in the capacity of millions of appetites to work themselves out into an optimal economy of sex — a trading floor where the cultural institutions of domesticity once stood. And for the individual, it may only replace the old sexual frustrations with new emotional ones. People who think they are motivated only by lust may end up feeling love; people who forswear any strings may feel them forming; and perfect transparency may prove an ideal no less unattainable than perfect monogamy.

It’s all good, and the final paragraph is spot on – I would quote it too, but it’s power derives from what has come before…


About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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2 Responses to Brilliant celebration and complication of Dan Savage

  1. Barry Bulsara says:

    Yeah, and you should read Anthony Giddens on modern relationships.

    • dwighttowers says:

      You’re gonna have to help me out, Mr. Bulsara. I assume that is sarcarsm from you and that you don’t like Mr Savage’s take on relationships?
      I gotta say for me there is a kind of prurient fun to be had about people’s kinks, and that is probably why I always drop by his advice column (advice columns generally are fun, IMHO). But reading the article about him, and especially the bit I quoted, I realise that he is, erm, limited.

      If you’ve time, would be very interested to read your critique of Mr Savage!!

      What’s Mr Giddens’ advice column like – “You write asking whether you should stay with your abusive partner or leave. I say there must be a Third Way.”?

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