An Open Letter To Dan Savage About Porn




Dear Dan,

I’m a long time Savage Lovecast listener and a big fan of yours. I’m a 38 year-old, straight, blue collar worker and man of color from Boston. I love the show and I look forward to it in my podcast feed every week. Your words have had a positive impact on my marriage and my personal relationship to sex and sexuality. It makes such a difference to have a place in my life where sex is talked about openly and thoughtfully. So thanks for that.

In your last episode (495) you began the show with a rant about this article by Gail Dines, where she claims that porn is a public health epidemic. You called her “paranoid” and “a liar” and cited two articles that disagree with her anti-porn position.  About two years ago I attended part of Gail Dines’ conference in Boston on Pornography (and Prostitution) and I was hoping you would be open to hearing, from a friend of the show, why I think she’s right.

First off, I’ve heard you say several times that you are not, yourself, a big consumer of mainstream porn (by which, I assume you mean mainstream gay porn). You seem to be saying that it just isn’t what makes your motor run. To boot, you started Humpfest, which clearly DOES make your motor (or maybe in some cases just your intellect) run. For me, the most important difference between between Hump and mainstream porn (and there are many differences) is that Hump is made by individuals and is intended to be a positive contribution to the cannon of human sexuality; mainstream porn, on the other hand, is really only driven by one factor: profit. A small group of (almost exclusively) white men are getting VERY rich off of mainstream porn, which makes up about 1/3rd of all internet traffic. These are generally the distributors of porn (the tube sites, hotel chains and cable companies, ISP’s) and not the producers, who make substantially less (though enough to keep them doing what they’re doing).

And I think this matters – the intention behind the porn matters. Because the folks making Hump-vids are generally trying to challenge our perceptions and excite our curiosities about the sexuality of other human beings. The mainstream guys are asking themselves “how can we sell more of this shit?” I suspect you are not drawn to mainstream porn because you are interested (as are many of us) in an authentic exploration of human sexuality, which is harder to find in the repetitive, predictable, vulgar universe of the mainstream.

When men call into the show with concerns about their porn use, you frequently impel them to be more choosy; to search out feminist or independent porn productions and to avoid porn where the actors are being taken advantage of. Similarly, you said at the top of this episode that people who have a problem with porn use should…well, stop over-using porn.

I find this curious because this is generally the way conservatives argue a position. It’s always about personal responsibility and how the society “doesn’t owe you anything”.  People are poor? They must be lazy and not working hard enough. Women get sexually assaulted at absurdly high rates? Stop dressing like a slut. Porn is having a negative impact on LOTS of people’s lives? What’s wrong with you that you don’t just stop watching porn?

You seem to be surrounded by a community of sex positive friends and fellow travelers and I wonder if you might be insulated from the experience of the majority of Americans, those who have not put in their 10,000 hours thinking about healthy sexuality and who have not devoted extensive work to the flourishing of their (and other’s) sexual health.

A digression is needed here, because I’m going to talk about straight porn and not gay porn. I assume that, since you don’t consume straight porn, your ideas about porn are most heavily influenced by gay porn. You obviously have a lot of information about straight porn, but when you jerk off, I’m assuming you generally watch gay sex. One important distinction between gay porn and straight porn is that sexism does not play the same role in gay male porn as it does in straight porn. It does play a role – sexism is at the root of homophobia, in that gay men are attacked for being female-like, implying the inferiority of women to men.

I’ve talked to a few gay men (I haven’t talked as much to GLBTQ women) about porn, including a very prominent international gay activist and it looks to me like mainstream gay porn poses many of the same problems as it’s straight counterpart. But majority of men in the U.S. who watch porn are straight (due to most men in the U.S. being straight), and the incredible majority of porn produced is for them[1]. When Gail Dines talks about porn, she is focusing on mainstream, straight porn (this is clear from her book “Pornland, as well as from her talks) but when you disagreed with her article on the show, it seemed clear to me that you were addressing the broader category of porn – porn as you see it. Porn as a category of sexual expression.

Here are some VERY common themes in mainstream straight porn: sex with very young/practically underage girls (“Barely Legal”), institutionalized racism (“Pimp My Black Teen”), incest (this one seems to be gaining in popularity, “Sister and Brother Almost Get Caught By Dad”), sex with asleep or unconscious women (also increasingly popular), coercing women in desperate situations into sex (“Desperate Teen F@#$s Stranger For Cash”)…and the list goes on. “Abused” has become so common a word in the titles of straight porn videos (as in “[Insert Woman’s Name] Used and Abused”) that any straight male watching porn immediately translates this in his head to “someone had sex with that woman” and not that she was literally abused. If you type “porn” into google and click the first three links, then select the first three videos from each of those sites, you will almost definitely find one of these themes in more than half of those 9 videos.

You have been an outspoken advocate for (among many communities) the fetish community and I am well aware that all of these themes have been defended as, for lack of a better term, reasonable fantasies. People in the fetish world would say that a responsible adult has the right to fantasize about and consensually act out fantasies of rape, slavery, incest, physical abuse etc. And I agree that consenting adults should have that right. And as a result, this kind of porn is often defended as an extension of those reasonable, consensual fantasies.

I’ve heard you speak about teens and porn on several occasions, and your attitude is clearly that teens watching porn is both inevitable and an acceptable part of their sexual awakening/development. While I would agree that it is at this point inevitable, I would say that it shouldn’t be. No 11-year-old boy should be exposed to videos of men choking women during an act of rough penetration – and most teen boys are seeing this and worse. This is a far cry from the playboy magazines, (sexist in their own right) of my youth.

Porn has become the de-facto sex education in our country and I think this should worry all of us. A lot. Girls having their first sexual experience deserve to have a shot at a loving connection with someone they care about, and not a guy who thinks it’s his obligation to call her bitch and cum on her face – because that’s what he’s learned from porn. Studies with teenagers and college students are finding this to be more and more the case. I’m not saying that sex must be between people who are in love in order to be “healthy”, but surely young people deserve better than what we as a society are setting them up for. Ran Gavrielli in his terrific Ted talk about why he stopped watching porn says something like, “we agree that it’s a bad idea to put unhealthy foods into our bodies, why do we accept casually putting violence and degradation into our minds?” And I’m not talking about adults who have decided to investigate consensual violence and degradation, I’m talking about children who didn’t ask for this.

I often hear porn advocates say that it’s a parent’s job to protect their children from porn. Good luck with that! Porn is so easy to access at this point, if young people want to see it they will see it. The average age boys see hardcore porn is 11 and for girls it’s 14. There are piss poor regulations for porn distribution and I believe the society needs to take responsibility for protecting our children from porn and stop dumping this impossible job on parents. My 2-year-old is an expert with my iPhone (and we have made a gigantic effort to minimize the presence of screens in our lives) and I suspect this will be even more difficult for his generation. Much is being tried in other countries to this effect (David Cameron’s ISP “opt in” system, for example), though our government has shown next to no concern on the issue.

You spoke at length about an organization called “Fight The New Drug”, an anti-porn group from Utah that is backed by the Mormon Church. You called them “the biggest anti-porn group in the country” – and I think you have been misinformed about this. They do appear to be the most well funded anti-porn group, which makes sense given their ties to the Mormon church. There is, so far, very little money in anti-porn work; the people who do that work (overwhelmingly women) do it because they (like you) are fighting for their vision of a better world and this issue matters to them. They have a wealth of analysis and information on this issue and they have shared it, though books and talks (like this Gail Dines talk) and other work. The foundation of the movement is not religious, it is largely academic and concerns itself with building a social movement.

From inside the movement it is crystal clear to me that Fight The New Drug is not the center of the anti-porn movement. The Stop Porn Culture conference that took place in the summer of 2014 (that I attended) did feature a talk by Fight The New Drug – and they stuck out like a sore thumb in that very academic, feminist conference. I won’t speculate here as to why they were invited to the conference, though I have guesses. Anyhow, to regard them as “the biggest anti-porn group in the country” is misleading, I think. They are trying to be sort of a cool and hip anti-porn organization are clearly trying to appeal to young/college aged people…but their message is convoluted and their program seems to be more about making it cool not to watch porn than really addressing the issues or talking about sexism. They are clearly one of the more visible groups, but they are on the periphery of the movement at large. There are plenty of religious anti-porn efforts, and they are really very separate from the secular anti-porn movement, for which Gail Dines is probably the most important leader, domestically and abroad.

As a side, questions regarding the production of porn and the health, safety and wellbeing of porn performers (mostly women) is a relevant part of this discussion, but I think it needs to be treated separately, as it risks derailing this particular conversation.

Lastly, I think it is important to say that being anti-porn is not the same thing as being anti-sex. I can say with confidence that Gail Dines and almost all of us who speak out against porn are emphatically pro-sex. We are though, as I know you are, anti sex-ism. Yes, some anti-porn activists are against all porn (which would include humpfest) and view it all as a vehicle for sexism and male domination. I think that is also a separate conversation. This conversation is about finding a common ground regarding heterosexual, hardcore, mainstream internet porn (the bulk of the porn on the market), it’s lack of regulation (both in its production and distribution) and fact that we as a society are not taking seriously the effect that this glamourized, sexualized violence and degradation is having on the world – particularly on children.

I wanted to submit my thoughts to this conversation before the buzz died down regarding those articles. I’m sorry it took a full week to post this letter to you, I’m a busy working parent and had to write it on my lunchbreak – and it took several lunchbreaks!

I would welcome any dialogue – on the phone or over email – with you on this issue. If you respond to me with your t-shirt size, I will gladly send you the “Fight the New Drug” shirt of your choice, to wear ironically.

Thanks for your time,


[1] I’ve made a “back of the napkin” calculation and my guess is that 90 million men and boys in the U.S. are watching porn, see this article I wrote, trying to crunch the available data.