Redefining relationships and sex: monogamy, kink, and the "price of admission"
By: Kim Sedgwick
I have fond memories of being a teenager pouring over Dan Savage’s weekly column in NOW magazine, debating with friends whether he was giving the “right” advice and pondering whether the activities described were things I would try myself someday.
Almost twenty years later, Dan Savage still features regularly in my life but now his influence comes predominantly from his podcast, Savage Love. Unlike his column, the podcast offers a forum for him to address topics in more depth and in some cases, actually have a live conversation with his callers.
With Valentine's Day approaching, it seems like a good time to reflect on the theories proposed by America's top sex advice columnist. Here are five of Savage's key philosophies that I have found the most thought-provoking:
Price of Admission
Dan Savage says, “There is no settling down without some settling for.” What he means is that nobody is perfect and therefore we will all have to put up with flaws in the people we love. However, he suggests we should consider this fair exchange for all the ways our life is enriched by having a loving partner. Rather than trying to change someone, or focusing on how irritating his or her traits are, Savage proposes we consider it simply “the price of admission.”
He points out that some “flaws” are simply too high a price to pay (as in the case of abuse) but in general, if the things you have to put up with are minor compared to the benefits you receive, then consider it a fair exchange. He suggests we stop whining so much and instead focus on all the things we appreciate about our partner.
Perhaps his most iconic acronym, GGG stands for “Good, Giving, and Game.” Savage believes we should all strive to be good in bed, give "equal time and equal pleasure" to one's partner, and be game for anything…within reason.
I think it’s important to recognize the idea of striving to be good in bed – meaning that it’s something you work towards. Rather than assuming you should automatically know how to be an awesome lover, he suggests viewing sex as something you get better at with practice, education, and communication.
When it comes to “equal time and equal pleasure”, Savage doesn’t believe that in a long-term relationship every encounter needs to be “even.” Sometimes you pleasure someone as a gift without expecting anything in return. However, the idea is that in the long run things should generally balance out.
Lastly, I really like how he describes being “game for anything.” He’s very clear that you should never do anything that will cause emotional or physical distress. That said, Savage argues that we often lump activities that are neutral (things that don’t turn us off or on) into the category of things we shouldn’t do. Instead, he suggests being “game” for those activities for the benefit of your partner, especially if you’re in a sexually exclusive relationship where your partner has no other way for that desire to be fulfilled.
You can’t cheat someone out of something they don’t want
Savage is notorious for his position on cheating, which doesn’t jive with standard conventions on monogamy. He describes himself as “monogamish” - a term he coined to describe being mostly monogamous with occasional exceptions for purely sexual encounters. He’s married and believes wholeheartedly that there are benefits and values to marriage that go well beyond sexual fidelity.
Given the statistics about infidelity (roughly 50% of men and 50% of women in long-term relationships will cheat at some point), Savage argues it would serve couples better to acknowledge that they may not always be able to meet each other’s sexual needs and that this doesn’t negate all the other benefits of being in a stable, long-term relationship.
He also argues that there are situations when the negative effects of going outside the marriage for sex outweigh the impact of not having your needs met, or ending the marriage altogether (especially if there are children involved). If one person in the relationship is not interested in sex, he argues that it is not really fair to call it “cheating” since you are not cheating your partner out of anything. Instead you are simply finding an alternate way to have a physical need met that your partner can’t currently provide. While he would encourage transparency about this, he acknowledges that not all people are ready to break open the paradigm of monogamy, and for those people cheating might be the only option. I have a hard time imagining the practical application of this theory in my own life, but I do think his points are worthy of consideration and discussion, and help open up a new way of thinking about both sex and marriage.
The Four Magic Words to Better Sex
Dan Savage frequently points out how heterosexual folks tend to make ridiculous assumptions about what sex is going to look like – namely that’s it’s always going to involve a penis in a vagina.
He suggests beginning with the question, “what are you into?”
These four simple words open up a dialogue and an opportunity to learn about the particular turn-ons (and turn-offs) of the other partner. Personally and professionally I’d say this is my biggest takeaway. It’s practical and actionable, but also points to a more fundamental shift in how we can think about sex. It’s a reminder to start with a blank slate - something that’s hard to do given the enormous amount of social messaging that happens around sex. Asking, “What are you into?” won’t magically erase the baggage we all carry, but it’s a pretty awesome place to start.
We’re always evolving
Given the longevity of his career (he’s been writing for almost 25 years), Savage has witnessed huge societal shifts around sex and gender. I appreciate that he acknowledges his shortcomings (he’s the first to admit that he no longer agrees with some of the advice and terminology he’s used in the past) and recognizes the value of having a large community of readers and listeners who have helped educate him over the years. This mirrors his philosophy on how we should approach our own relationships. Whether it’s being “game” to explore a new kink, examining unconscious beliefs, or redefining the terms of your partnership(s), your sexuality isn’t static – it’s constantly evolving.
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Kim & Amy Sedgwick love to discuss sex, periods, and all the other things we’re not supposed to talk about. The co-founders of Red Tent Sisters and ecosex.ca, they’ve been featured in every major Canadian news outlet and have become a trusted resource for women seeking natural (effective!) birth control, a more joyful sex life, and an empowered journey to motherhood.