Benjamin Dueholm has a cover story in the Washington Monthly assessing sex advice columnist Dan Savage as an ethicist:
Savage yields to no one in his sexual libertarianism, but he has not been content to relegate the ideas of right and wrong to cultural conservatives. Wading deep into the free-fire zone of modern sexuality, he has codified a remarkably systematic—and influential—set of ethics where traditional norms have fallen away. The question is, into what kind of world do his ethics lead us?
That's a really interesting question.
Dueholm starts off with a pretty good summary of Savage's recurring themes: Disclosure, autonomy, reciprocity, and a minimum standard of sexual performance. I was surprised at how badly Dueholm misinterprets Savage's views on monogamy. Like Dueholm, I'm a longtime fan of the Savage Love column and the Savage Lovecast--and I think Savage makes his views on the subject pretty clear.
Dueholm sets up his own view of monogamy as the opposite of Savage's:
If there is something to treasure in the old, traumatized ideal of lifelong monogamy, it’s not that it demeans sexual fulfillment. Rather, it’s that monogamy integrates sexual fulfillment with the other good things in life—having someone to pay bills and raise children with, having a refuge both emotional and physical from the rest of the world.
Ironically, Savage could practically have written that sentence.
Savage's main point is not that monogamy is bad, or even unattainable. He just knows that it's hard work for most people. He wants to debunk the myth that if you're a normal person, and you really love your partner, you will never want to have sex with anyone else. Savage wants people to stop torturing themselves because their desires don't line up with an arbitrary social ideal.
As he sees it, there are two ways of dealing with this predicament. You can either embrace monogamy as a difficult but worthwhile project because you like to live that way, or you and your partner(s) can figure out some other arrangement that you like better. The first step is being honest with the people you date and choosing people who want what you want. That's one reason why Savage is always harping on disclosure. It's no longer ethical, or practical, to assume everyone wants the same thing.
Dueholm sees all this as bleak and transactional compared to traditional sexual mores. He thinks Savage is a perfect ethicist for a consumer age. I think he misinterprets Savage as being an ultra-individualistic hedonist. The "Love" part of "Savage Love" isn't incidental. Savage thinks people should be free to seek sexual fulfillment, but that doesn't conflict with his emphasis on community, respect, affection, and love.
Savage is not advocating ruthless self-centeredness, just assertiveness and open communication. His default assumption is that despite the overwhelming diversity of preferences and interests, there are people out there whose desires overlap enough to make each other happy. If everyone would just be upfront about what they want, people could pair off accordingly, and everyone would be much happier.
As Amanda points out, love was at least as transactional in the old days, it was just a worse deal for women and gay people.
Savage's ethics may sound businesslike because he sees healthy relationships as negotiations between equals. If the old cultural scripts don't apply, each couple has to figure out their own rules. One-size-fits-all is dead. These days, every relationship is bespoke. That's exciting and romantic and, evidently, more than a little scary for some people.
Dueholm's vision is actually much bleaker than Savage's. Savage tells his readers that they don't have to buy into every detail of traditional monogamy in order to have that loving, bill-paying, childrearing life partnership, if that's what they want. For example, Savage and his husband are monogamous, apart from an occasional threesome with a mutual friend. This arrangement satisfies their desire for variety and their need for a stable long-term loving relationship. What's bleak about that?
What's really bleak is promising to be with one person forever because that's what's expected of you, even if you don't want to live that way.
[Photo credit: Bob.Fornal, Creative Commons.]