The Walrus—"the magazine about Canada and its place in the world"—published a long piece this week by Micah Toub about a number of Canadian sex researchers whose work I follow and admire ("Just Do It: Sex Researchers Have Found a New Way to Keep the Spark Alive"). They're almost all sex researchers who've made appearances on my podcast and in my column; one of the researchers Toub profiles, Dr. Lori Brotto of the University of British Columbia, wrote the "SL Letter of the Day" while I was on vacation earlier this summer. Toub's piece is about a new school of thought when it comes to otherwise loving relationships where one person wants sex and the other doesn't: It might be a good idea for the low-libido/no-libido partner to go ahead and fuck their higher-libido partner—take one for the team—but only if the low-/no-libido partner isn't traumatized by going through the motions.
Until Impett and Muise came along, most researchers in the field explored only the negative outcomes of sexual sacrifice. They use a different term: sexual compliance. If someone is having sex when they don’t really want to, the theory goes, a manipulative partner may have primed them to fear saying no. They may be suffering from low self-esteem. Going through with it leads to an entrenchment of the problem. Impett and Muise acknowledged the existence and dangers of compliance, but wondered whether it might not be the whole story. Communal theory—established in social psychology in the early ’80s—suggests we benefit from being altruistic in our relationships instead of viewing them as a tit-for-tat exchange of resources. The interdependence theory of the ’90s observed that we can sometimes feel better about ourselves when we take a hit for our partner. But no one had applied these ideas to the bedroom. Impett and Muise wanted to know: Could a tendency to place a partner’s carnal needs first actually boost levels of desire in the partner doing the sacrificing?
Spoiler alert: It can. Toub does a good job unpacking the issue—and it's a complicated and controversial one (a delightfully indignant Lindy West even makes an appearance)—and for the most part I was nodding along in agreement as I read. Until I got to this paragraph near the very end:
Leah found Paul’s appreciation of queer porn confusing, and they had to talk a lot before either could figure out how it might actually be a good thing for them.... [But those conversations have] helped them refresh their relationship. “We’ve shared more, and I think our sex has gotten more personal, more open,” she said. “Dirtier, probably. We have a very good sense of what we like. But it’s a tricky one. Sex columnist Dan Savage is always advising you to do whatever your partner wants, regardless of your own boundaries. I don’t know. There are some things that I know Paul would like me to do more of that I’m not super comfortable with, and I feel some guilt about that.”
Excuse me? I do not advise people to do whatever their partners want. I do advise people to be GGG—good (in bed), giving (of equal pleasure), and game (for anything—within reason)—but I have never ordered anyone to do "whatever [their] partner wants, regardless of [their] own boundaries." Quite the opposite:
People should be "good, giving, and game" for their partners. But GGG doesn't mean a person has to do any damn thing their partner wants.... There are definite risks when someone heads out of his or her sexual comfort zone to please a partner. But anyone who learned about being GGG by reading my column will also have learned about the importance of good communication, mutual respect, and honoring a partner's boundaries. And sometimes respect for a partner's boundaries—respect for a partner's limits—means a particular fantasy/kink/desire is forever off the table.
This was my advice to a woman who wrote in—more ten years ago—about her husband's desire for her to fuck other men:
After ordering my readers, married or not, to be "good, giving, and game" in the sack, lots of non-good, non-giving, and non-game readers angrily inquired as to whether or not there was anything I wouldn't order someone to do for his or her kinky partner. And that brings us to your letter, HH. While I think people should be GGG, I didn't say "game for anything." There are things that fall under the AFTF label—"a fetish too far"—and your husband's sudden desire to eat some strange man's come out of your pussy is definitely AFTF. You are under no obligation to risk contracting an STD to indulge your husband, HH. Your husband also can't ask you to risk picking up some stranger in a bar who, for all you know, might turn out to be a nutty, diseased, violent asshole.
I could cite dozens of examples—hundreds—of me telling readers (and listeners) that they don't have to do "whatever [their] partners want" or, conversely, that their partners are not obligated to do whatever they want.
We asked the editors of The Walrus for a correction—or that a note be added to the piece—and we were told, essentially, to go fuck ourselves. They're going to let the quote stand. The Walrus has allowed someone to accuse me of endorsing anything and everything up to and including marital rape. This is complete bullshit. Defamatory bullshit. The quote may be accurate—Leah may have told Toub that I advise my readers and listeners to do whatever their partners ask regardless of their own boundaries (even if what's being asked of them is potentially traumatizing)—but slapping quotes around an assertion doesn't free The Walrus from their responsibility to verify Leah's statement of fact (which they did not do) or seek a comment from me (which they did not do). Quotation marks aren't magic; they don't turn defamatory statements into non-defamatory ones. (I would also like a correction in the piece because I would hate for someone who 1. knows of me (but doesn't actually read me) and 2. isn't very bright to read that at The Walrus and attempt to act on it, i.e. pressure a partner to do whatever they ask or submit to whatever their partner asks.)
As of yesterday Toub's piece—the most read piece at The Walrus had just one comment on it:
Kevin McHargue • a day ago
Dan Savage has never even come close to advising anyone to "do whatever your partner wants, regardless of your own boundaries." Quoting that characterization without giving any sort of explanation of Savage's actual views (which have been expressed in countless venues for many, many years) is grossly irresponsible and unfair.
Readers of "Savage Love" are invited to go read the piece and leave a comment. You can do so here (scroll all the way down). And while you do that... I'll be talking with my lawyer.