Suffice it to say, Dan Savage is not the most obvious heir to Ann Landers’ ultra-mainstream legacy. His columns answer a Chaucerian panorama of correspondents: gay Mormons, incestuous siblings, weight-gain fetishists, men yearning to be cuckolded, and otherwise ordinary Americans grappling with an extraordinary range of problems and proclivities. By the standards of a family newspaper, his advice is not only explicit but broad-minded to the point of being radical, encouraging people to embrace or at least tolerate previously unmentionable sexual inclinations in their partners, praising open relationships, and celebrating behaviors that might cause even the most intrepid reader to balk.
After 20 years of churning out Savage Love, the Seattle writer can lay a legitimate claim to being America’s most influential advice columnist. He is syndicated around the world in more than 70 newspapers—mainly alternative weeklies in the United States—with well over 1 million in total circulation. Online, he reaches millions more readers. He is a frequent contributor to the popular radio program This American Life, and a Savage Love television show is under discussion with MTV. His podcast has a higher iTunes ranking than those of Rachel Maddow or the NBC Nightly News, and his books have sold briskly. And when it suits him, the range of his commentary has become increasingly broad. In the space of one column—the one where he announced his purchase of Ann Landers’ desk—Savage offered advice to a 30-year-old woman who wanted to sleep with a 17-year-old coworker, fielded a question from a man with a childbirth fetish, and then, for good measure, advised the Bush administration to take a harder stance on Saudi Arabia.
But for all his prowess as an advice writer and viral activist, Savage’s most lasting influence on American culture may ultimately register in a deeper and more enduringly significant realm: ethics. Wading deep into the free-fire zone of modern sexuality, he has codified a remarkably systematic—and influential—set of ethics in which traditional norms have fallen away.
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