One thing I have often heard from men when I mention that I listen to Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast is ‘oh I don’t need to listen to that sort of thing.’

I find that attitude profoundly annoying, and I want to explain why.

Dan Savage does not dole out super FEELINGS-Y advice. His advice is extremely pragmatic. He’s been doing this since the early 90’s – first as a column, and in more recent years as a podcast. When his stuff is dismissed, it’s often dismissed for being ‘beginner level stuff’ or as ‘repetitive’ or, sometimes, people dismiss advice columns in general as a thing they don’t need to listen to. Presumably in the same way that people still dismiss therapy, since they can handle their own problems perfectly well on their own, thank you very much.

I find the last thing wearying, because it is, amongst other things, ignorant and arrogant. If you think your problems, you own self, are so transparent to you that you need zero help reflecting on your issues or personality, I don’t quite know what to say about that except, good luck to you, and well done on getting in your own way of ever growing or developing as a person.

Look. We ALL need help with this shit. If I were running the world, therapy would be free and easily accessible to everyone. Having an outsider reflect a problem back to you, and give you their own perspective, adds a sense of dimension and nuance to things that can be exceptionally helpful, even when that outsider doesn’t get it quite right.

This isn’t to say that everyone needs to listen to Dan Savage in particular. And I realize I have a bit of a particular love for (fixation on?) the form of the advice column itself – some favourites include (but not limited to) Dear Sugar, Dear Prudence, and Captain Awkward. They all give a slightly different concoction of emotional vs pragmatic feedback, and they are all excellent in their own ways.

And Savage Lovecast can be repetitive, in part because issues in dating are… repetitive. What’s interesting about advice columns is not that anyone in particular includes new exciting never heard before problems, but that each situation, as familiar as they might all sound, include their own particular nuances, details, that inform how the advice-giver responds. There is no formula for how to respond to a specific situation. Negotiating early relationship anxiety, affairs, sexual incompatibility, or whatever it is, will often depend at least in part on the history of the person, their age and experience, financial stability, health, power dynamics, and any number of logistical details that might be relevant (or not) to the kind of advice they end up getting.

And this, in turn, can help us reflect on our own lives. I love hearing about the kinds of problems other people have, not in a sadistic way, but I find a kind of comfort and validation in their familiarity, in the way different columnists approach each situation, often with some mix of compassion and curiosity and possibly reservations and questions and skepticism. I like to compare my own reactions to theirs, which can be alternately validating and surprising when they differ, in part perhaps because they’ve thought of what be MISSING from the account they got, and why those details might matter.

A young woman called in to Dan’s show a few weeks ago, confessing the fact that she’s waited so long to have sex that it feels like it’s built up to be this huge deal, which she finds it debilitating when dating new men, since the script/expectation seems to entail that she sleep with them by the 5th date or so, and that she wouldn’t be emotionally ready for that, so what does she do that doesn’t make her sound like some kind of SCARY VIRGIN but also allow her to develop enough of an emotional connection with someone so that she could actually finally have sex.

What struck me the most was: I used to be this woman. I related to her so hard, and so the first thing that occurred to me is that I never fully revisited that version of myself, and that this call was giving me the opportunity to do that. And Dan’s advice was so heartfelt and insightful. I won’t record it all here (you can find it if you search his podcasts from February), but he did things like complicating the patriarchal concept of virginity, and heteronormative ideas of sex, explaining that sex exists on a spectrum and doesn’t have to look like just one thing, physically. He also explained (super compassionately and without being patronizing AT ALL) that it IS actually sometimes possible to develop meaningful short-term emotional connections with people, that she needed to take the pressure off of what her own expectations were, what she’d envisioned it looking like, and to just try to trust herself and feel her way through it while being open and transparent (since, if you scare someone off, then … good? You’ve chased away a person who wasn’t right for you anyway.)

It was exactly the advice that I wished someone had given to me when I was in my mid-20s, but had to piece together for myself, which took me years of anxiety-inducing dating experiences and hours of worrying. And it reminded me that of course a lot of other women would have those anxieties, that it wasn’t something weird about me, but a position that actually is super understandable. (Thanks, patriarchy!)

Dating is hard and weird even though it seems like it should be straightforward: you go on a date. Then maybe you go on another date. Then you go on another, etc. But there is SO MUCH emotional anxiety infusing all of that, and we need to have our imaginations and emotions EDUCATED about what kinds of details to look out for, what kinds of things might be running through women’s minds, why MIGHT a woman seem to be ‘flakey’ but in fact she’s trying to stop dating you she just can’t (for one of a hundred reasons) be direct. Or just that ghosting happens to everyone, and how to provide yourself with closure, get validation from the fact you’re not alone, and figure out how to move on regardless. Or that someone who appears to be in a perfect marriage is actually having a crisis about how incredibly sex-starved her relationship is and she no idea what to do about it.

Developing judgement doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens out in the world. And if we’re not talking to each other about these things, providing space to validate our own feelings that are at times nebulous or half-formed and just generally confusing to us, figuring out what kinds of details we should look for, what kinds of reasons people might have for acting in certain ways – if we’re not talking about this stuff then it’s like we’re all flailing around in the dark. We need these conversations to develop the kinds of judgements we need to navigate these spaces as thoughtfully, intelligently, and compassionately as we possibly can.

This is ESPECIALLY true if you are a man. Because what I’m writing here is not surprising to women. We’ve been the ones burdened with the bulk of social emotional labour, and the bulk of the risk of things going wrong. It’s our social role and also our survival strategy to be aware of our environments, both emotionally and in terms of safety. THIS IS WHY WOMEN GOSSIP. Sure, gossip has a pernicious, destructive side. OF COURSE it does. But also? It serves a very very very important social function, which is to help each other reflect, process, imagine different outcomes or solutions, or just validate each other’s feelings. It’s a communicative infrastructure that is extraordinarily necessary for healthy social functioning.

So the next time you hear some guy say that they don’t need things like the Savage Lovecast? Take my advice: swipe left.