Visi(bi)lity: How the Savage U Premiere Barely Exceeded My Extremely Low Expectations

A woman and man lay on the floor of a gymnasium, making out. The text above them, in black, white and yellow lettering reads "Savage U."

Throughout this series, I have tried very hard not to write about the gigantic elephant in the room: Dan Savage. He's a controversial figure, particularly when it comes to his statements on bisexuality, and though I quoted him in my post about Bi the Way, I haven't wanted to dwell on him. I find much of his commentary on bisexuality thoughtless and insensitive, but he insists he is not biphobic, and I choose to believe him. I may disagree with a lot of his ideas, but I like some of them, I respect his efforts to campaign against LGBT youth bullying and suicide, and I am not interested in making assumptions about what lies in his heart.

But in discussing bisexuality and the media, mentioning Savage is unavoidable. And since his new MTV show, Savage U, premiered on Tuesday, there's no better time to open this can of worms.

The basic premise of the series involves Savage visiting college campuses with his producer, Lauren Hutchinson. Hutchinson doesn't actually get to do much other than drive their van, emcee his Q&A sessions, and laugh at his jokes, but maybe this will change in future episodes. Savage, on the other hand, spends his visit (each one its own half-hour episode) answering questions at large Q&As, talking with students about their sex lives in man-on-the-street interviews around campus, and meeting individually with students who have written to him with specific concerns. Those private conversations are the moments I liked best, as Savage shows a sensitive and serious side that isn't typically part of his public persona.

The good news is that Savage U is not the utter disaster I had anticipated. The premiere is set at the University of Maryland, and much to my surprise, it actually addresses bisexuality twice—with mixed results. About halfway through the episode, a woman at the Q&A tells Savage that she recently dated a bisexual man, and asks him about the line between “guys trying out other guys” and guys being “actually into guys.” Savage replies:

Most guys who try out other guys are into guys on some level. That's a pretty high bar in our very homophobic culture. Not a lot of mostly straight guys go, 'I think I'll put a penis in my mouth just to see, because it's an experiment, and I want to see what happens.'

Like many of Savage's comments, this one was aiming for laughs, and it received them. I'm not sure that I agree with reviews that say that the comment was specifically meant to imply that bisexual men are actually gay, but I wish he had broached the issue differently. For starters, we've already established that some “mostly straight guys” actually do experiment with other guys. Additionally, rather than pointing out how hilarious it is to suggest that men experiment sexually, Savage could have taken a moment to educate this student about bisexuality. The way she asks her question makes her seem nervous about the idea of bisexuality, and it may have been helpful for him to explain that being bisexual does not mean that her boyfriend would cheat on her or leave her for another man. But this is Dan Savage, so I can't say I'm surprised that his answer lacked thoughtfulness.

Dan Savage sits on steps outside of a college campus building with an overweight man in his early twenties. There is snow on the ground and they are both wearing winter clothes.

His thoughtfulness came through in the next scene, however. Hutchinson introduces Savage to Marty, a student who had written to him about his difficulty leaving the “friend-zone” with romantic prospects. Savage asks Marty if he is looking for a relationship with a man or a woman, and he reveals that he is beginning to come to terms with his bisexuality and is looking for a boyfriend. Rather than advising him to pick a side, Savage offers sensitive words, telling him not to let rejection get him down and encouraging him to feel confident and play up his assets. It's a touching scene, and at the end of the episode, we find out that Marty has moved out of the “friend-zone” with a partner. Though Savage's shtick is usually more abrasive and confrontational, particularly when bisexuality comes up, the one-on-one intimacy of this scene is a refreshing reminder that, yes, Savage truly does want to help people, and his biphobic statements are likely more intended to get a rise out of readers than incite actual bigotry.

The moments that bothered me the most during the premiere were not biphobic ones—they were sexist ones. A lot of the young men interviewed liberally threw around the word “slut” and shared various slut-shaming sentiments, and while Savage insists that he “was always challenging guys on that,” the statements went unchallenged in the final cut. He also responds to a question about sex during menstruation by calling it “sex during Shark Week” and making objectifying jokes about vagina dentata. I imagine that Savage will be addressing women's issues more frequently than bisexual-specific issues, so I hope his attitude toward women shapes up fast. Otherwise, no amount of bi-sensitivity will outshine those failures.

Dan Savage's advice is often a mixed bag, so I'm not shocked that his show is similarly muddled. On one hand, I'm thrilled to see that Savage is addressing bisexuality and not completely dismissing the issue as he tends to do in his advice columns. On the other hand, his sensitivity toward bisexuality is still at the bare-minimum level, which doesn't exactly earn him a cookie. It's too early in the series to tell precisely which direction it is heading, and I'm honestly not too hopeful. But the premiere had moments that pleasantly surprised me, so I'll keep tuning in, just to see what happens next.

Did any of you watch the premiere of Savage U? What were your thoughts?

Related: Frisky Q&A: Dan Savage Talks About “Savage U,” And The Prevalence Of Birth Control Use And Slut-Shaming On College Campuses

Previously: Invisi(bi)lity in the Culture Wars, Performing Bisexuality

by Carrie Nelson
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Carrie is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in NYC.

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27 Comments Have Been Posted

Way Too Sensitive!

You're being way too sensitive, I mean really. Dan Savage has done so much for the sexual revolution for everyone - straight, bi, gay, otherwise. He is controversial and uses shocking language - that's what he does. He offends people because he's blunt and brutally honest. He is trying to identify with these kids when he's saying "sex during shark week" or such things. I mean come on. He's NOT misogynistic, he's a gay man. He's honest, he's real, he makes sense, and he uses a little shock tactic to keep people interested and not take themselves too seriously, and he has changed lives and made people more comfortable with their sexuality.

And personally, as a bisexual woman, he's made ME more comfortable with that fact. I've never had an accepting circle of bisexuals, just friends that think I'm weird for that.

Don't insult Dan!

I don't have an opinion on

I don't have an opinion on Dan Savage because I don't know enough about him, but I'm confused by the previous commenter's line: "He's NOT misogynistic, he's a gay man." Is it to be inferred that gay men can't be misogynistic? Or that things that are misogynist coming from straight guys are okay coming from gay guys? How exactly am I meant to interpret that sentence?

I'm saying the way he talks

I'm saying the way he talks about lady parts might be because he's a gay man, therefore not exactly comfortable with vaginas.

We also have to keep in mind this is a show on MTV - just wanted to point that out.


I'm a dyke, and while I personally prefer not to interact sexually with penises, I manage not to be overwhelmingly grossed out by the fact that I live in a world where penises exist, you know, in general. I don't feel the need to make constant offhand comments about the grossness of penises, or to make a performance out of cringing whenever they are mentioned in my presence. My own personal preferences aside, I tend to think that it's not okay to uniformly treat other people's genitalia as disgusting, because it's not okay to mistreat people and their bodies in such a manner.

I think it is more than reasonable to expect gay men to react to vaginas in a similar manner. They don't have to have sex with vaginas, but they have to respect them, because vaginas are body parts that belong to people, and it's never okay to mistreat people, or treat their bodies as disgusting. (To say nothing of the fact that vaginas are, you know, responsible for bringing most gay men into the world.) I don't see why we should let Dan Savage off the hook in this department.

That line of reasoning is

That line of reasoning is often accepted and it's always bothered me that it is.
A gay man saying something misogynistic is considered somehow harmless because he isn't interested in having sex with women, and that just doesn't make sense. To oppress someone you have to want to have sex with them?
I think it's a misguided backlash against straight privledge, and that the comments are supposed to be aimed at straight men but that doesn't make them not misogynistic because women are the ones that are being talked about. On a message board I even once saw the old nugget 'don't trust anything that bleeds for 6 days and doesn't die'.

As for being uncomfortable with vaginas, why should gay men be uncomfortable with vaginas? If he doesn't want to have sex with someone who has a vagina, that's fine but why should he be uncomfortable with hearing about them or the idea that they exist? Is that not a similar argument to the homophobic statement that how gay people choose to live is their business, but that they shouldn't flaunt their lifestyle in public?

You need to look up the word misogyny

woah 'He's not misogynistic, he's a gay man' ??!
That comment is utterly ridiculous AND scary.
Dan Savage has made many many comments about women and their bodies which suggest that he IS indeed a misogynist, and even though he may be 'doing good' in other areas that you like to point out, does not mean that we should ignore his misogyny!!...actually I think it's even more important to point it out BECAUSE he is looked up to by so many people (including women).

I think you're playing into your own misogyny by suggesting we should stop being so 'sensitive' that something DS taught you?

You are absolutely entitled

You are absolutely entitled to your opinion on Dan Savage. If he has helped you, that is great. I don't think anyone here would try to take that away from you. Just like many of the topics brought up here, the author is suggesting we examine his impact beyond just "Queer visibility, yay!" It's not good enough to say "He can do no wrong" just like it's not good enough to say "He's objectively horrible, because he's not good enough on certain issues."

Being a gay man does not exempt him from being misogynistic, and being controversial does not exempt him from criticism for offensive remarks. If the shock tactics that he uses to keep people interested have the effect of reinforcing bi-phobia or misogyny, we shouldn't accept that as a necessary tactic to keep him relevant. We can examine whether or not we think he is doing those things, and I think that is what the author was doing, but we shouldn't excuse those things on the basis of shock tactics.

Samantha, have you read any

Samantha, have you read any critiques of Savage? Lots of women, bi people, trans people, people of color, and fat people <i>don't</i> think he's "done so much for the sexual revolution for everyone." I'm truly glad he's made you comfortable with your sexuality -- some of his comments have made me comfortable with my sexuality, too. But people aren't being too sensitive when they point out the troubling comments he's made in the past.

Also, I never used the word "misogynistic" to describe Savage, but please keep in mind that "gay man" and "misogynist" are not mutually-exclusive categories.

I agree with you, Samantha.

I agree with you, Samantha. I'm a bi woman and a huge Dan Savage fan (mostly familiar with his podcast rather than his column, and I haven't watched Savage U yet). Just because he has a little personal squeamishness about lady parts doesn't mean he lacks respect for women. And I've always found his comments on bisexuality to be pretty thoughtful and even-handed overall - it's a frequent topic on the Savage Lovecast, and he's not at all "dismissive" of the issue.

Savage is in a unique

Savage is in a unique situation. Yes, "He is trying to identify with these kids when he's saying "sex during shark week" or such things" but he's also in the position to combat that mindset in the first place. Why is it okay for a 20-something to comment about "sex during shark week" in the first place? By trying to identify with that person, Savage is missing an opportunity to stand up for women and for sex during menstruation. I also agree with the other replier that just because he's a gay man it doesn't mean he gets a pass about misogynistic comments.

Spot-on, Bronwyn. I

Spot-on, Bronwyn. I understand that Savage is doing his best to connect with young people, but you nailed it -- he's in a position to combat sexist and ignorant remarks about women's sexuality, but he cares more about being funny and "edgy." Which would be fine if he was a straight-up comedian, but it's less fine when fancies himself a sex educator and unofficial spokesperson for the LGBT movement.

Have you ever listened to the

Have you ever listened to the Savage Lovecast? It is all Dan talking to people, and, while I don't agree with everything that he has to say, that doesn't mean that he has nothing to contribute to the public conversation about sex, gender, and sexuality. Dan can be abrasive and say really dumb things once in awhile, but he doesn't hesitate to air listeners ranting and raving about how he is wrong and presenting their own, often divergent, points of view.
Dan Savage has opened many conversations about sex and sexuality that are invaluable. Plus, when I agree with everything that someone says, I don't learn much about other points of view or how to combat them. Sometimes we need someone to make us angry and get us talking.

rose_red, I don't remember

rose_red, I don't remember saying that Savage has "nothing to contribute to the public conversation about sex, gender, and sexuality." In fact, I said that I like some of his ideas, and that his columns/podcasts/public appearances tend to be a mixed bag for me. I appreciate a fair amount of what he says and does, for sure, and I understand why people love him. But for the most part, what he says about bisexuality is troubling for a lot of folks, and I think it's important to remember that.


I always preferred Tristan Taormino's columns. She tended to treat people with dignity and respect while managing to write useful, sex positive advice. Dan Savage is certainly not the face of this queer fatty's sexual revolution.


I am a big Dan Savage fan. That being said, there are definitely times when I cringe at the things he says on the podcast, but I really appreciate his willingness to dedicate space in his column or time on his show to people who disagree with him completely. He is far from perfect, but I think his fallibility is something that makes him loveable to a lot of his audience.

While I was watching the show, I got the feeling that this might not be the best medium for him. There were so many times during the half hour, when I thought "I know that glib one liner doesn't fully represent his views on that issue." I think the producers and editors of the show have clearly favored Dan's more controversial, attention-getting statements and cut out a lot of his thoughtful discussion of the complexity of human sexuality. I am 100% certain that he went more in-depth with the girl who was worried about dating a bi guy, but it was edited out of the show, which was clearly problematic. I have a feeling there are going to be similar problems in future episodes, but I don't know if Dan will be entirely to blame, since I don't think he had much control over the editing.

You're probably right,

You're probably right, bilawstudent. Any sort of reality-based show is heavily influenced/distorted by editing, and I'm sure <i>Savage U</i> is no different. The problem is, we can only judge the show by what we see. So as much as I want to believe that he gave that girl some spot-on advice about her boyfriend (and believe me, I do), I have no way of actually knowing that.

But I agree he should not be blamed for the editing, and I didn't mean for my statements to imply otherwise. The editing in general was pretty weird -- so many bleeped words that I didn't realize would need bleeping on MTV!

Terrible editing

I agree. While Dan Savage has obviously put his stamp of approval on the show, it was obvious to me as a filmmaker that there was a LOT of manipulative editing happening (in standard reality show style).

Dan has been putting videos of himself doing college Q and A sessions on YouTube for years, and they will give you a much better idea of what he's like in those situations. It's much more like his podcast, and he doesn't come off as a sexy standup, as he did on the show. If you looked carefully during this first episode, you could actually see that there weren't very many people in the Q and A audience, and the laughter seemed so forced that it was practically a laugh track!

I agree that there are some definite issues with Dan and how he speaks about vaginas and bisexuality. However, I've been reading his column pretty religiously since I was a teenager and it's clear that he's become more nuanced and open over the years. He really comes off as much less fatphobic, transphobic, and biphobic than he used to. It would be nice if he actually apologized for past statements, but at least he's not saying them anymore.

The show was in typical, frenetic MTV style and didn't give ample time to anything, so I think a lot was just edited out and dumbed down. Overall, I think the problems with the show have less to do with Dan Savage and far more to do with the producers.

I haven't watched Savage U

I haven't watched Savage U yet, but I have to agree that editing is probably playing a big factor. I know I've heard many conversations on his podcast that begin with a crass, attention-grabbing one-liner and then moved into a deeper analysis.
And as a far as someone else said, of course Dan can be a gay man and a misogynist but ultimately I don't think he is. I haven't been a podcast listener for very long, but recently he started a podcast with a discussion on all the latest anti-woman legislation and how terrible it is for women, which I appreciated. Though, thinking back on it, there was an aspect of "Come on ladies, I know a way you can fight this, why haven't you thought of this yet?" to it...hmmm. Anyway, I'll continue to listen to him, and I'd like to watch Savage U, but no one, even someone who is "fighting the good fight" should be exempt from criticism.

savage needs some schooling

I think Carrie's analysis is quite apt. Savage has done a lot for many people of many orientations, but his track record on bisexuality is problematic. It is particularly disturbing since his column and other media are unabashedly sex positive. His comments about bisexuals, specifically bi men, reinforce stereotypes about them and are potentially damaging to men who are questioning their sexualities and do not only feel same sex desires. It is clear that he uses humor to relate to his target audience of young people, but they include bi people who deserve his respect, not his tired jokes.

I didn't see the show, but...

I noticed that you covered instances where Savage spoke with/about <i>male<i> bisexuals. I appreciate that those were the conversations that made it onto the show, instead of conversations about female bisexuals/bisexuality, which can far too easily stray into the entertainment-for-men, beer commercial make-out category. So, whatever your take on Savage and his perceived prejudices, you've got to admit that that's pretty cool.

Too precious and misguided.

When we get upset about views on sexuality, we are missing the opportunity to show how strong we are.

I have no qualms with Dan Savage or anyone else who is expanding the general awareness of sexuality. I believe the very fact that a semi-polemic sex commentator, who on the whole seems genuinely interested in helping strangers, is as popular as he is should be something to hold hope in. He's making people talk, this is what is needed.

What is not needed is a tunnel vision criticism. Have a problem with Misogyny? Attack those many in the media who regularly behave and speak as misogynists, and direct their views to a gullible and docile public. Conservative, rich old men hold a much poorer attitude toward women (gay, straight or bi) than a figure like Dan Savage ever could. To criticize him is like ordering a meal and sending it back because there is pepper on it.

One should also realize that this show is on MTV, honest editing is not their forte.

Additionally, there is the segment during which he asks guys about "sluts". This is not slut shaming. They answered the questions, but did not question the phrasing. The manner in which the questions were asked, using this hot term "Slut", is a test. Not one of the guys stopped and thought whether they believe that is an appropriate term for how they view women. This exemplifies the ignorance towards this issue. It is not Savage who is slut shaming, it is the men who don't even hesitate to say that they would sleep with a slut, but never date one.

As far as bi-sexuality is concerned, this is where I say we must cease to be so precious about other people's views on how we choose to live our lives. One view is one view, not every view, not every possibility. An off-handed comment can never contain the whole of a persons worldview. We need to be stronger and not feel like we are constantly under attack. Visible confidence is the best way to curb another person's so called phobias. If we nit-pick, we undermine that strength.

He may mention a "shark week", but I believe that underneath the chaffing manner and wit, there is an honest heart who is merely poking fun at menstruation while acknowledging that sex does and will happen during that time-of-the-month.

Someone who is fighting, for good or ill, to desensationalize sex is clearly not the one to point a finger at.

Seth, I won't repeat what I

Seth, I won't repeat what I said in my comments above, which address some of your points, but I do want to respond to this:

<i>Have a problem with Misogyny? Attack those many in the media who regularly behave and speak as misogynists, and direct their views to a gullible and docile public. Conservative, rich old men hold a much poorer attitude toward women (gay, straight or bi) than a figure like Dan Savage ever could. To criticize him is like ordering a meal and sending it back because there is pepper on it.</i>

There is not a finite amount of criticism and accountability in this world. It's possible to challenge both the Rush Limbaughs and the Dan Savages of the world for the very different ways in which they demean women. I'm not saying that what Savage says is comparable to what Limbaugh says -- not even close. But I am saying that when Savage messes up, I'm not going to give him a free pass just because he's not as bad as some other people.

I truly believe that Dan Savage is fighting the good fight. We're not disagreeing on that point. And that's why I want him to be better than this. He's on the right side, and I fundamentally agree with most of his beliefs. So why does he have to intentionally make comments to further marginalize the marginalized groups who <i>want</i> to agree with him? What ultimate purpose does it serve?

I agree.

If we agree that Dan Savage is fighting on the right side (though not the Right side), then pointing out where he falls short is so important, in part so that others realize that he falls short sometimes, but also so that he might realize why his comments are sometimes counterproductive. As an activist, the best thing someone can do is point out when I'm exerting my privilege. Otherwise, I'll probably keep doing it, and continue to marginalize others.

dan savage convinced me never to have a family

I've decided to enter into the awesome new playground that sex positive feminism has created for single men. My entire life I was conditioned to believe that women are the fairer sex, a creature to be respected and honored. I was taught to live a productive honorable life and work hard for family. But after reading dan savage's work, I realized life is about sex , sex, and morew sex! Wow, I just never realized women have blessed single men with such easy access to their bodies. I still have my career, hobbies, friends etc....but now instead of committing to one woman I can have commitment free sex with multiole women at the same time. And I'm also doing my part to help young girls become sexually liberated. I defintately missed out on the casual sex market in college because is still thought women want love and commitment. But mtv u made me realize that I was a sucker and showed me how empowering feminism has been for attractive, succesful alpha males. Thank you dan savage! One day I will probably settle down witha. Nice family girl, butr for now I'm getting laid baby! Dam this is easy....thank you, thank thank you! Sucha relief to be free from the pressure of commitment! Commitment free sex is feminisms gift to mankind...well the select few of us that get all the p@ssy!

Not this isfishing expedition

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Biphobic recovery

Dan has been recovering from his biphobia. Unfortunately he and much of the gay community still does not understand bisexuality. Why? Well partly because bisexuality is very different and varied from person to person everything from the heteroflexible to the homoflexible. I have lived openly bisexual for years because I liked the spontaneity of attraction and bewildered people in the process. But even with this openness I largely pursued women because of not merely the sexual pull (which seems often equal) but my emotional/romantic pull towards women. But when I say "I am bisexual" people usually think the opposite that occasionally I have sex with women - when 80% of my sexual life has been hetero. I have had experiences with both gay and straight people where I can list off the 26 female sexual partners I have had in my life and still I am a half closeted gay. Truly bizaare denialism. This denialism is wearing thin but has horrific consequences for real bisexual people. It is a good sign that Dan is leaving the denialism in the past.

Dan Savage

Savage is sensitive only to those who remind him of himself. Therefore, the young bisexual stuck in the "friendzone" (which is by the way a horrible term, and no one should confirm the supposed existence of such a zone) is merely a young Dan on the way to accepting homosexuality.
This is also why he is hit and miss with his advice to women. He cannot treat women as full human beings. He can't relate; he doesn't need them for anything, except of course for progeny. To this end, he adopted a boy (naturally!) from a gutter punk couple someplace, with all the self-righteousness of a man who could not get pregnant by accident (explicitly mentioned a number of times in his book, as if a biological coincidence --his sexual orientation-- immediately implies superiority. It'd be quite hilarious if it weren't so damn ironic).
While I understand and can relate to his hatred of straights/straight culture, in the same way I understand black people hating whites/white culture, I think his attitudes cross over into misogyny frequently. If ever there were a more heterosexual pastime than hating women, tell me now.
Moreover, his blind acceptance of all kink is problematic. To explain away a cultural obsession with (sexual) violence as individual kinks is deeply reactionary.
This man, imo, is a tool of the military-industrial complex, and is guilty of reinforcing patriarchy, and actively encouraging the vulture capitalism we live in. This is why he supports the Republican Party. Any support of the current political system is bound to be anti-radical and will not reap any lasting or meaningful change.

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