[Content Note: Fat bias; fat shaming; sexual coercion.]
Dan Savage has something of a history of saying mean and hurtful things. Indeed, he's had something of a history of saying mean and hurtful things about fat people. So it wasn't a surprise that he went to this well again in this week's column. Tiresome, sure, but this behavior has long ceased to be surprising from Dan Savage.
In his column, he responds to a letter from a woman complaining that her husband's weight gain had reduced her sexual interest in him. She feels she should have more frequent sexual encounters with her husband, but would like to use the promise of sex to
Now, right here, I'm going to say quite emphatically that it is never ethical to exploit a sexual relationship to fat shame someone. It is never ethical to withhold sex to fat shame someone. It is never ethical to promise sex to fat shame someone. Admittedly, I don't think it's ever ethical to fat shame someone, but using sexual manipulation and coercion is just a whole 'nother level of unethical. As it happens, though, Dan Savage is an enthusiastic supporter of both fat shaming and sexual manipulation.
Well, as long as the guy isn't "weepily sensitive about his weight," as Savage puts it. Which isn't exactly the kind of phrase you'd use if you actually respect the fat person's agency in all this. It's more the kind of phrase you'd use to shame and stigmatize fat people for not being appropriately apologetic about their bodies. If it also seems like a phrase that seems to play off gender roles, congratulations. You may know where Savage is headed with this.
"Weepily sensitive" is the kind of insult used to make a man seem feminine. If you're the sort of person who thinks making a man seem feminine is an insult. Which is just the sort of person Dan Savage is. Further, Dan goes on to passive-aggressively complain that he wouldn't be able to offer the same advice if it were a man writing about his fat wife before dramatically cutting himself off there not wanting to get into the "gendered politics of fat."
Except, of course, that his whole purpose clearly was to get into the gendered politics of fat. Or, perhaps more accurately, his purpose was to present himself as a poor, oppressed martyr to the evil gendered politics of fat. Long-suffering Dan doesn't get to attack fat women. Except he has. Repeatedly. Beleaguered Dan has to make due attacking fat men. Unless they are going to be stupid girls about it. Gosh, it's almost like poor, martyred Dan Savage is just trying to pick a fight with fat women so he'll have a better excuse to attack them in a future column. Which he's done. Repeatedly.
Pick a fight with fat people. Force them to choose between silence, which will be construed as tacit agreement, or responding in their own defense, which will then "prove" that they are oversensitive. Rinse and repeat forever.
Often when we see this kind of provocations of marginalized people, it's attention-seeking. But Dan Savage is a nationally recognized columnist with tons of podcast listeners, book readers, and even an MTV advice show. And, truthfully, attacking fat people doesn't gin up a lot of controversy. Everyone attacks fat people. Sure, everyone likes to feel like they are brave and courageous to attack fat people, but, in reality, it's so incredibly common that it'll hardly stand out. Especially for Dan Savage who picks fights with fat people pretty much annually.
This is for that other reason people pick fights: To put someone in their place.
Dan Savage, champion of an anti-bullying campaign supporting gay children, is really nothing more than a bully himself in his interactions with fat people. He picks fights with fat people just because he likes to insult and attack us. He does it because he enjoys taking it upon himself to enforce thin privilege. He does it because it makes him feel good to shame and belittle people he feels superior to, because he lost weight (and assumes all fat people are fat for the same reasons he was). Like many bullies, he also insists on viewing his bullying as a righteous act. He's not Dan Savage the bully. He's Dan Savage, the glorious hero who finally stood up to fat people.
His little martyr act is especially disingenuous here because he actually has had the opportunity to respond to a husband complaining that his wife has gained weight. Back in 2007. Surprise—he told him to fat shame his wife! Ya know. To be HONEST. After all, Dan notes, some fat people might not realize they are fat and do need to be told that they are fat so they can understand. No really. That's something Dan Savage actually said.
Even though in both cases, the spouses' concerns with their fat partners was clearly purely an issue of sexual attraction, in this article Savage doesn't avoid bringing up health. No surprise to fat people as we're used to people calling us ugly FOR OUR HEALTH. He didn't let it drop then, either. Just as he's now teasing a follow-up bout of fat shaming, in 2007 he devoted a follow-up column to moaning about how awful women are for not taking his abuse with a smile. He even foreshadows the current column at one point by passive-aggressively noting that men could take the prescribed fat shaming.
I imagine some of you may be wondering, "Well, if I can't fat shame my partner, what am I supposed to do?" Excuse me while I wait to be moved to compassion. Look, I don't think you have an obligation to have sex with someone you're not attracted to. It's okay to not be attracted to fat people. What isn't okay is thinking fat people have an obligation to become attractive to you. Yes, even in a marriage.
Bodies change over time. If you really cannot deal with it, then maybe that's a relationship you shouldn't be in. Just don't think your next partner is going to have any more obligation to stay the same weight forever. Writing self-pitying letters to Dan Savage is never a solution.