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“Sex dread” education could be on the rise under Trump. Dan Savage is ready to fight it.

Dan Savage on why abstinence-focused education doesn’t work.

Dan Savage at Tiffany & Co in New York, New York in 2016.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Tiffany & Co.

Dan Savage has a message for liberals in the age of Donald Trump and Mike Pence: “There is a strain of the left that is really invested in show trials and purity testing and virtue signaling,” he said. “And would rather lose surrounded by perfect allies than win with an army that includes imperfect allies.”

For Savage — the LGBTQ rights activist and sex-advice leader most famous for his column and podcast Savage Love — the threats of the Trump-Pence presidency means the left needs to focus its fight, not be distracted by relatively minor things.

When it comes to sex and identity, the administration appears to be heading toward the 1950s social conservatism preferred by Vice President Pence, known for his staunchly anti-LGBTQ values and policies as a Congress member and later as the governor of Indiana.

Last Thursday, Trump tweeted his intention to ban trans military members, signaling the rollback of trans individuals’ rights. Then in mid-July, the Trump administration slashed more than $200 million worth of federal funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs around America. The administration’s proposed budget in May included funneling $277 million toward abstinence education programs. Abstinence-only education advocates such as Valerie Huber have been appointed to influential positions at organizations like the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The Trump-Pence administration’s recent actions represent a deeply antagonistic view toward sex and identity, Savage says. “They want sex to be dangerous and consequential so as to scare people out of having it.”

Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, covers Trump-Penceism’s dangers, empathy, Savage’s beef with leftist fools, and hope.

Alexander Bisley

“Sex is probably the most interesting subject in the world,” Paul Auster says. “Everybody is obsessed with sex,” data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz adds. Yet some people seem to have issues with discussing it.

Dan Savage

I think that a certain sex negativity is hard-wired into the human experience. When you’re told about sex before puberty you’re just appalled: Why would anyone do such a thing? And along comes puberty and the thing that you swore when you were 7 years old you would never do, ’cause that’s so gross, and before long, you’re drafted into this army that you never wanted to serve in. And I think that there’s always a bit of discomfort and alienation from your own body that goes on because in a way you experience it as a betrayal.

One of the things I like to say is that we’re told this lie when we’re children that one day we’re gonna grow up and have sex, when in reality one day we grow up and sex has us.

It can make it hard to talk about, because we’re all implicated and we’re all powerless in the face of our sexual desires and interests. Not in acting on them, we all have the ability to make our own choices and be sure that we’re acting consensually. But powerlessness in the face of desires existing within us. Our sexual interests, whether we’re talking about genders that people are attracted to, or even our kinks and what turns us on, in a way those are all assigned to us whether we like it or not. And that experience is always going to be a little alienating. It makes sex a little difficult for everyone to talk about.

Alexander Bisley

The Trump administration is moving toward abstinence-only sex education for teens.

Dan Savage

Mmhm. That’s going to be counter-productive. They don’t seem to learn much from research or data.

Alexander Bisley

Teen pregnancy rates go down when there’s access to contraception and sex education.

Dan Savage

And comprehensive sex education. But it’s no surprise that they’re going to revive or pump more money into abstinence education, which continued to receive funds all throughout the Obama administration. It was only toward the end of the Obama administration that they began to target abstinence-only funding for zeroing out.

It’s galling — it’s counter-productive and people are going to get knocked up. And people are gonna sexually transmit infections ’cause all the research shows that people who have abstinence-only education may delay the onset of sexual activity by about six months to nine months, but they’re still sexually active before marriage. Just less likely to use birth control or any form of protection, so more likely to get pregnant or get an STI.

That said, what we talk about in this country as comprehensive sex ed, really isn’t. The sex ed that is out there that’s not abstinence-only tends to be what sex researchers and educators call “sex dread education,” because it just is all about sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies. Even if they’re offering information about birth control and other things, they’re still trying to scare kids out of being sexually active, which does not work. It all still sucks.

Alexander Bisley

The St Louis Choice project replicated Obamacare’s birth control provision with a free birth control initiative for poor women, which led to a big drop in abortions in St Louis. Yet the anti-choice folks even brought their same-old scorched earth opposition to that.

Dan Savage

There was also a statewide effort in Colorado that was hugely successful, that brought the unplanned pregnancy and abortion rates down to historic lows. And Republicans and conservatives opposed refunding it, opposed the continuance of each program, even though it dropped the abortion rate down. Because Republicans and conservatives aren’t actually anti-abortion. They want sex to be dangerous and consequential so as to scare people out of having it.

It’s the reason they oppose the introduction of the HPV vaccine, because they had long used cancers related to HPV, which is sexually transmitted, to argue for abstinence.

Alexander Bisley

You’ve revived your charity, ITMFA, or Impeach the Motherfucker Already. All the funds you raise are going to organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Dan Savage

And Planned Parenthood continues to exist in the face of Republican efforts to murder the organization. We’ve raised a lot of money for those three organizations. We’ve also, hopefully, given people a moment where they can bond over their dislike of Trump and their desire to see Congress step up and do the right thing and impeach the motherfucker. I wear my [ITMFA] T-shirt all the time.

Alexander Bisley

“Sex is powerful and you must approach it thoughtfully because it can destroy you,” you told Playboy.

Dan Savage

Some people in the sex positive movement discuss sex in a way that makes it sound harmless, like it’s a stuffed animal sitting on a bed that could never hurt anyone.

Maybe it was growing up and coming out as gay in the early 1980s, before the HIV/AIDS epidemic started. Then seeing that, witnessing that, watching my friends die — it was hard to go through that experience and then conclude that sex is always wonderful and could never hurt you or harm you. Whether you’re talking about sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancies, intimate partner violence, sex is potentially dangerous.

But so is dinner. Dinner is dangerous, you know what I mean? If you don’t cook the chicken thoroughly, or if you start cutting up raw vegetables on the same cutting board that you cut up the chicken breast, you can get salmonella and die. You want to eat the chicken, it’s delicious, but you also want to mitigate your risks. You’re still going to eat the fucking chicken. Same applies for sex.

Alexander Bisley

Trainspotting’s Irvine Welsh warns of the dangers of excessive pornography consumption, talking about friends “masturbatin’ themselves into oblivion.”

Dan Savage

It’s possible to abuse anything. Too many goddamn potato chips. You can waste too much time watching too much sport. You can fall down a porn-Tumblr rabbit hole and not come out for hours if you’re not careful. It’s usually the person that has the problem, not the porn that is the problem. If you are watching porn compulsively you need to do something about that [laughs]. Because the world isn’t going to come and take your computer away from you.

Alexander Bisley

Did you read that New York magazine missive, “Pornhub Is the Kinsey Report of Our Time”? Maureen O’Connor argues that internet pornography usage data documents contemporary sexual desires.

Dan Savage

It’s good that we have this data now and it’s not all self-reported. It’s what people are doing when they’re alone and they don’t feel scrutinized. They’re being authentically themselves and looking for exactly what their conscious wants.

It further demonstrates, and it comes to something I’ve believed for a very long time, so it’s nice for the data to catch up with me, which is that when it comes to human sexuality variances are the norm. We talk about normal sex and we picture an opposite sex couple, married to each other, having missionary position, vaginal intercourse in the dark, in their house, in the bedroom, with the door closed. And that sex that we think of is normal is freakishly abnormal. The overwhelming majority of sex happening on any given night is not that.

Alexander Bisley

I appreciate the empathy you bring to your work, Dan, like your recent column advising a disabled virgin. Meanwhile, the Republicans are obsessed with repealing Obamacare despite repeat CBO reports showing this will cause millions of Americans to lose their health insurance. Is empathy a quality some Republicans lack these days?

Dan Savage

Yeah, there’s a Republican empathy gap, and Republicans seems to lack moral imagination. They can’t project themselves into the experience of someone who’s different, which is why you always see Republicans supporting things like drug treatment when they themselves get addicted to drugs, as is the case with Rush Limbaugh. Only supporting gay marriage when their son comes out. As is the case with Sen. Rob Portman.

We need Republicans who can imagine what it might be like to be trans and have to go to the bathroom.

Alexander Bisley

On policy grounds the likes of Ted Cruz and Mike Pence and Paul Ryan aren’t any better than Trump.

Dan Savage

No, they’re not. They’re worse.

Alexander Bisley

What’s your general political advice for liberals?

Dan Savage

There is a strain of the left that is really invested in show trials and purity testing and virtue signaling. And would rather lose surrounded by perfect allies than win with an army that includes imperfect allies. And it is self-defeating and it is exhausting and it is a real problem for the left.

Show the fuck up and vote. Voting is not a platform on which you perform or call attention to your purity. You’re giving away your vote; you’re not giving away your fucking hymen.

Don’t drive people out by attacking them for not being as pure and woke as you are. The less evil you have at the top, the better direction the country is going to go in. The lie the Greens peddle every four years, “If we can just election Ralph Nader or Jill Stein everything will be glorious and wonderful tomorrow.” That’s just not how things play out politically.

Alexander Bisley

George Saunders, the author of Lincoln in the Bardo, sees Trump-Penceism as this last gasp of the bad old days.

Dan Savage

Yeah, maybe. Who knows? What we’re seeing though is an effort to purge voter rolls, and put more voter ID laws in place, make it harder for poor people, people of color, urbanized college students, to vote.

Maybe Trump is the last. Maybe this will bring people to their senses. But the Republicans have control of the system right now. The Republicans are reshaping the system to make it even more favorable to them. So we can’t be complacent about the odds that next time we’re gonna beat the motherfuckers: because right now those motherfuckers are writing the rules of the game we’re all playing. And we’re going to have to beat them with new rules that they wrote and it’s going to be harder.

Alexander Bisley

Having grown up through and survived the ’80s, Dan, having survived more overt and aggressive forms of homophobia and discrimination, isn’t there hope in terms of the progress that has been made?

Dan Savage

Yeah, there’s hope. But hope is in action. Hope isn’t a mood. If you want the progress that’s been made not to be entirely held back, you’d like some forward momentum again in the future, you have to get off your ass and get out there and work, fight, and make it happen. It’s not just gonna happen. Progress ain’t the weather, it’s not just gonna rain one day.

Alexander Bisley last interviewed Rashida Jones. In April, Howard Dean was optimistic about a progressive American future.