I don’t want to make a habit of dissing Dan Savage in this space, but his response to one letter this week was so staggeringly offensive and actively harmful that I can’t let it pass without talking about it.
A person (who Savage assumes is a man, although if this was mentioned in the original letter it was edited out for the column; I’m going to go with this assumption in my response here but it’s a pretty big one to make) wrote in to ask Savage for help with a relationship that, to me, is CLEARLY abusive. Let’s count the signs: screaming matches triggered by minor events, one-sided rules for verbal fights, arguments culminating in physical attacks, and a sense that “everything’s great” outside of these incidents. I’m not a domestic violence expert, but this seems like a pretty classic example of an abusive relationship.
As an advice columnist receiving information about an abusive relationship, your first responsibility should be to identify and address the issue of abuse, no matter what the original question is. Can we all agree on that? Instead, Savage just breezes by the issue and asks the poor guy if he’s ugly and offers that as his only theory as to why his girlfriend is acting the way she is. That’s all he says in his response. Not “she’s setting up rules that you will never be able to follow.” Not “if you aren’t already calling this abuse, you need to name it for what it is and get help.” Just “are you still there because you’re ugly, or something?” He doesn’t point the letter writer to any domestic violence resources, or even touch on the details of what’s happening. He doesn’t warn the letter writer that people in abusive relationships are in the most danger as or right after they leave.
He just tells him he’s probably ugly.
It sounds like this person has already tried to reach out to some extent; he and his girlfriend are both seeing a therapist who knows at least some details about their relationship. I’m pretty disturbed by the fact that the therapist hasn’t said THIS IS ABUSE to the letter writer, at least not that he mentions. I worry that if he keeps talking to people about his situation without someone telling him that he is in an abusive relationship and pointing him to appropriate resources, he might start to think his situation is normal and focus on understanding and following his partner’s rules so he doesn’t set her off. Of course, this will never work – abusers who set up elaborate “rules” will always come up with new transgressions to trigger their abusive episodes.
Holly at the Pervocracy (a great blog that I highly recommend) has written a fantastic post here that covers a number of reasons why someone might stay in a relationship with their abuser; without much of a stretch of the imagination, I can guess that numbers six, nine, and sixteen could be at play here, with several others as possibilities; we just don’t know that many details about the situation. As part of a more detailed response to this letter, it could have been helpful to talk about some of these reasons; maybe this person really does feel like he couldn’t find a better situation than his current relationship and stays for this reason. Maybe his girlfriend tells him “no one will love you like I do, no one else will put up with you” and he believes it. But to just assume that he’s coming from a sense of inferiority, without any real indication of that in the letter, is irresponsible and winds up sounding like victim-blaming.
And yes, Savage does advise this person to break up with his girlfriend; I don’t want to ignore that. But he doesn’t frame it as an issue of abuse, just as the girlfriend being a “psycho.” Men are already less likely to report being abused in romantic relationships, and less likely to be taken seriously when they do reach out for support. Dan Savage’s large readership means he has the power to influence thousands of people; by ignoring the issue of abuse in this letter, he’s not only trivialized the writer’s abusive situation but passed up the chance to talk to his audience about the reality of male victims of domestic and relationship abuse and how they can access support and resources. I’m worried about this guy, and I hope he gets the help he needs to leave his relationship safely and quickly.