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How provocateur Dan Savage became MTV's sex advisor in 'Savage U'

March 30, 2012 | 11:33 am

Dan savage mtv savage u
Dan Savage never intended to be the anti-bullying Gandhi, and he couldn’t have predicted he would become a voice of reason for a generation of young adults confused about their sex lives. A controversial sex columnist and alternative newspaper editor, Savage regularly gets stopped at airports and asked for advice on sexual ethics and techniques these days. Gay teens hug him in gratitude for co-creating the “It Gets Better” campaign.

Now he’s launching a reality series: MTV’s “Savage U,” which premieres Tuesday at 11 p.m. It follows Savage as he travels to college campuses across the country to lecture and take questions from students seeking his sexual wisdom.

“MTV needed a middle-aged gay dude, and now they’ve got one,” Savage, 46, jokes over coffee at the network’s Santa Monica offices. “I’m as surprised as my teenaged son that I’m on MTV to do this show.”

In each of the season’s 12 episodes, the "Savage Love" columnist takes aside young people to discuss a specific issue or crisis in their lives. He travels with on-camera sidekick and producer Lauren Hurchinson, and the questions he hears can be bold or embarrassed, describing situations frequently hilarious or heartbreaking.

“Most of my mail is from people between 15 and 22,” Savage explains. “Those are the people who are wrestling with what they were told sex was going to be, what they are actually interested in, who they are. Some of them have glommed onto things they thought they would like, and then realized they don’t. Those are the ones hitting the wall, because they’re just starting out.”

Beginning in 2010, Savage earned increasing credibility with young people thanks to the “It Gets Better” campaign — co-created with his husband, Terry Miller, after several suicides of young gay men who had been bullied. They posted the first video on YouTube, offering hope to teens of a life beyond high school, and the campaign steamrollered into a viral campaign and website with more than 50,000 videos, including messages from President Obama and pop star Katy Perry.

The pilot for “Savage U” was already finished when MTV agreed to create a one-hour “It Gets Better” special, which aired in February. It presented the stories of three young people at different stages of sexual growth: a nervous teen preparing to reveal his homosexuality to friends, a 19-year-old lesbian working toward understanding with her family and a transgender man hoping to legally marry.

“The idea is we’re going to talk to these kids whether the parents want us to or not,” he said of the ongoing campaign. “It is an aggressive act. It’s not just feel-good, wishy-washy nonsense.”

When Savage first approached MTV about doing a series, the network was intrigued by footage of the columnist interacting with students on his college tours. It seemed a better approach for the subject than bringing young people into the artificial environment of a television studio, says David Janollari, head of MTV Programming.

“He's somebody who opens up the conversation for frankness and honesty and authenticity,” Janollari says. “That's what our audience responds to — the young Millennial generation who is our core audience right now doesn't really tolerate phoniness and fakery and talking down to them. Dan approaches every individual with automatic respect.”

Savage’s unorthodox path to television began when he created his notorious “Savage Love” advice column as a lark in 1991 in the weekly Seattle Stranger — the result of an offhand suggestion to publisher Tim Keck.

“It started out as a joke,” said Savage, who came to the irreverent newspaper from a Seattle theater company he was directing called Greek Active. He had no writing experience. “The idea was that I was going to treat straight people and straight sex with the same contempt and revulsion that heterosexual advice columnists had treated gay people.”

In the early days, Savage operated entirely on his own experience and common sense, “and getting a lot of things wrong.” Once the column was picked up at other weeklies, Savage took it more seriously, consulting with experts in sexual health and academia.

“I was unshockable and for everything as long as it was consensual and risks were responsibly mitigated. Have fun,” he says. “There really aren’t a lot of questions I get that stump me anymore.”

Savage became editor of the Stranger in 2001 and was promoted to editorial director in 2007. He’s also played a minor if outrageous role in the 2012 presidential race, inventing a sexually explicit definition for the word “Santorum” (unprintable here) in retaliation for comments by GOP presidential hopeful and former Sen. Rick Santorum that compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.

“If politicians leave sex alone, I would,” Savage said. “You can’t be a sex writer in America and avoid politics.”

Aware that they’re dealing with college kids on “Savage U,” the host and his producers pay close attention to how much a young person is revealing. During a stop at Ohio State, Savage said he decided to walk off camera with a student to continue the conversation in private for 45 minutes.

“We didn’t want people five or 10 years down the road to really regret this,” Savage says. “But people are more open. People live their lives online. Young people want to share their sexual stories — in a way, to compare and contrast them, and try to figure out what the new normal is.”

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-- Steve Appleford

Photo: Dan Savage at the University of Maryland for "Savage U." Credit: MTV.

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