Dan Savage and Willa Paskin Talk Sex and Gender on Orange Is the New Black (Audio)

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July 2 2014 1:23 PM
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Sex and Relationship Advice on Orange Is the New Black

Dan Savage and Willa Paskin talk Season 2.

Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox in a scene from the second season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.

Courtesy of JoJo Whilden/Netflix

As a member of Slate Plus, you’ll get access to exclusive podcasts—including our newly launched series about Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black. Over the next couple of weeks, Slate television critic Willa Paskin will be talking with experts to explore the show’s second season through the lens of economics, race, LGBTQ issues, and more!

In conversation No. 2, Willa chats with love and sex advice columnist Dan Savage about long-distance relationships in prison, the mechanics of lesbian sex, and what advice he would have given to characters on Orange Is the New Black. Savage is the host of the Savage Lovecast and has authored several books. He is the co-founder of the It Gets Better project.

This podcast contains major spoilers, so listen after you watch the Season 2 finale.

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Listen to conversation No. 1 here.

Read the transcript of the podcast below.

Willa Paskin: Hello, and welcome to a Slate Plus special podcast digging into Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. I’m Willa Paskin, Slate TV critic, and I’m joined today by a very special guest: author, thinker writer, advice-giver and Savage Love maestro Dan Savage. Hi Dan!

Dan Savage: Hey.

Paskin: I’m so happy to have you here to talk about all things Orange is the New Black.

Savage: I’m happy to be here too! Although, we just re-recorded the opening because when you did it the first time, you called me America’s ultimate advice-giver.

Paskin: Pre-eminent, but I’m going to get busted now. I called you a pre-eminent advice-giver, which was an accidental slight at our own Dear Prudie, for which I will do much penance. I promise.

Savage: I’m happy to be declared a tie with Prudie.

Paskin: OK, good. A tie. It was a tie.

So I think we’re going to talk about all the portrayal of sex and gender and the juiciest stuff about Orange is the New Black. But I did want to start with a really big-picture question for you, which is how big a deal you think the show is—just as a matter of representation—as like putting different kinds of characters and different kinds of relationships onscreen to an extent that maybe we haven’t seen it before.

Savage: Well, I think it’s a very big deal. I have a sense of humor, you know, you can go on Tumblr and find the social justice warriors insisting that this is a kind of ghetto porn and poverty porn in some respects. But I actually think we remember that this is kind of a comedy drama and of course representation on television programs are going to be heightened and exaggerated and there’s going to be shorthand employed for the purposes of storytelling.

I think it’s really remarkable and fascinating and engaging. And we’re seeing all types of folks on TV that we don’t get to see and an almost entirely female ensemble tearing it up every week and acting the shit out of this shit ever week. And you don’t see that, you don’t see shows with scores of female characters who all have their own lives, agency, who aren’t all revolving around men necessarily and it’s fascinating and funny and great television.

Paskin: Yeah, I think that there is probably no show that’s ever had this many different kinds of women in this many leading parts in the history of television. I say that, and then I’m sure somebody will send me some Wikipedia link to something that was on 60 years ago. But in my lifetime, in recent—

Savage: Somebody’s going to send you a link to Charlie’s Angels and will really be upset.

Paskin: Yeah, if that’s all they can find, then I feel like I’m on good ground.

You actually, in a piece The Atlantic had written about, a web series called The Outs, you had had this quote “We can experience catharsis through a straight couple’s story,” like we’re used to doing that, “but straight people didn’t used to be able to do that with gay roles. The gulf was too great. Straight people couldn’t relate to the gay experience…” and now you think that that’s changing.

We’re going to come to this. Dan is not all the way through the season, but this season on Orange is the New Black—although he has agreed to be spoiled completely—we see Larry kind of get jettisoned and we see that Piper and Alex kind of become the central love story, along with all these other lesbian relationships.

Savage: Wait, wait, Alex comes back?

Paskin: See, there you go. You said you didn’t care, but of course you care. You care. That was like the quintessential spoiler reaction: I don’t care, until I care. Yeah, she does. She does come back.

Savage: Wow, good. I loved her, I think she’s tremendous as a character, and I love that actress.

Paskin: I do as well.

Savage: Do you know what I’ve actually compared this show to in that way? The show it reminds me of most in the wow, you don’t get to see these types on television, you don’t get to see these kind of class and ethnic diversity on television ever? It’s like RuPaul’s Drag Race. RuPaul’s Drag Race is about the only place you ever see poor, gay men of color, gay men who are immigrants or non-English speakers who have been to prison Ru is where you get the family gay dudes. And this is where you get these women of all classes, races and sexual orientations, and it’s just fascinating. I know these people, I’m just not used to seeing these people on TV.

Paskin: And also, those shows are actually both really funny. Like they have a really great sense of humor about all of these questions.

Savage: Yes.

Paskin: So we were going to do a fun thing for everyone listening, maybe not fun for you—I hope fun for you—where I tossed out some of the storylines that have happened on this show and asked you to give advice about what you think you would do if they came to you with these problems.

Savage: OK.

Paskin: And then because we just learned you don’t actually want to be spoiled, I won’t tell you what happens.

Savage: I do, well you can spoil me if you want to.

Paskin: A little bit. OK.

Hi, I’m Larry, I’m a young man who lives in Brooklyn and in a serious relationship with a woman who is in prison for 14 months. She, in prison, cheated on me with her ex-girlfriend. I have recently become attracted to her best friend, who just had a baby and is married. I feel like Polly, this best friend, really understands me and we have a lot in common, and the thing I have with my girlfriend in prison, it just seems like it’s not working and there’s too many crazy hurdles. Is it all right for me to proceed with Polly, and how should I proceed if that’s really what I want. And how do I talk to Piper about it? And is that an OK thing to do?

Savage: Well, I often give people advice when one’s going to med school or college, and prison doesn’t compare, but this long separation that it’s… long distance relationships are a pain in the ass. It’s better to just have a hiatus, to call it off, to say we’ll pick up where we left off when you get back if we’re still both single and into each other rather than stress and worry and police each other’s behavior while you’re apart. Put the whole relationship with your girlfriend in prison to one side.

The other side, though, is Jesus, dude, this woman just had a baby? With somebody else? To whom she is married? And you two are developing a thing? How do you know that’s not just post-partum depression rebound shit going down and you are the flame that’s going to light the fuse that’s going to explode that family and upend all three lives? Put your dick in your pants, don’t be a fucking asshole.

Paskin: I think that’s great advice to Larry, by the way, on this show. Not in real life. You’ll see how that storyline plays out, I’m not going to—do you want to know what happens?

Savage: No, I don’t!

Paskin: There we go.

Savage: I mean, I’m up to the episode where they show Jason and that girl on the couch kiss affectionately as friends and you just knew, oh my God this is going to be a shitshow. You know what’s coming.

Paskin: Totally. In that moment, I thought they were going to romantically kiss and I was relieved that they didn’t, but that’s not the last beat in that storyline.

OK, so now to another question: I don’t know if I can do this one as the person, because her mental health is so unstable. Let’s just say this is the scenario: there is a young woman, lives with her parents, has a job, takes care of herself, but it’s a chaotic household situation. She lives with her sister, who has a baby, her mom is really sick. As escape, she buys things she can’t afford on the Internet and then commits mail fraud and she has a very idealized relationship with magazines. She likes boys in magazines; she sort of wants a very fairy tale romance. She’s very, in the most brainwashed way you can be about romantic comedies and all those things, she is.

She runs into a man and decides that he’s her soul mate. Is convinced that he is her soul mate. They go on a date, he’s not that into her, and she basically will not stop seeing him and she’s convinced that he is the guy for her. She tells everybody else that he is the guy for her and will never stop talking about him. Basically completely delusional.

Savage: Crazy and delusional, the only advice you can give to anyone is the folks around her is to cut her a wide berth.

Paskin: Really?

Savage: Yeah, what advice do you give a diluted psychopath? Stop that, knock that delusional psychopath shit off! That’s not going to help. That’s not meds, that’s not treatment and that’s not going to change anything. Sometimes you have to recognize what can’t be fixed and turn and walk away.

Paskin: There’s not obligation to try to help that person get treatment?

Savage: There’s an obligation on the part of family, there’s an obligation on the part of whatever institution this person is aligned with, confined in, whatever. But the people who are in this person’s life, into whose lives she burst, they don’t have that kind of obligation to get under the hood and fix her against her will or against all odds. She needs to get her own shit together, and until she does, if you’re not bound or obligated to her, I think by family ties, you have no role to play, you kind of tiptoe around it and get the fuck away from it.

Paskin: Right. This reminds me that when I emailed you about coming to talk to me, you said, oh, I’ve talked to a prison about putting condoms in prison and they said there’s no sex in prison. Can you tell me about that?

Savage: Years ago, I was in ACT UP and in Wisconsin and we had this long, yearlong, more than yearlong campaign to get condoms and nutritional supplements into the prisons in Wisconsin, and also to get them to stop outing prisoners as having HIV. We wanted condoms in the prisons because in Wisconsin, the incarceration rates are of course African Americans and [rates] from urban areas are really sky-high, and it was fueling the HIV epidemic, because people were being dropped in prison for a year or two or more, infected with HIV in prison, and then dropped back into their communities. And it was worsening the epidemic. And literally sat across the table after we finally got meetings with the Department of Correction zombies sitting across the table from these people, the head of it saying we don’t need condoms in prison because there’s no sex in prison, because sex is not allowed in prison, therefore no condoms are needed.

Paskin: That’s really crazy. That’s like very Kafka-esque.

Savage: It was Kafka-esque it would break the rules to have, sex is against the rules therefore there is no sex. If we put condoms in, that means we’re giving permission for people to have sex. It was also very Catholic, this attitude that if we teach sex ed in schools, that’s giving people permission to have sex. Well, no, people aren’t waiting for your fucking permission, people are fucking having sex. You have to give them the tools to protect themselves if they’re choosing to have the sex, and they are. In prison in some cases people weren’t choosing to have sex, and needed someway to protect themselves, there were people having sex under duress and they were very vulnerable. We were screaming and yelling about this at the top of our lungs and what we got was them to stop outing people as having HIV, but we couldn’t get condoms into the prisons.

Paskin: Speaking of sex in prison, you did see the episodes where Nichols and Big Boo are sort of having a sex contest?

Savage: Yes.

Paskin: The bang-off, or whatever. Did you buy Nicky’s own self-diagnosis?

Savage: The “I’m addicted to giving orgasms to people”?

Paskin: Yes.

Savage: No. Nicky’s such a funny, self-aware sarcastic character that I thought that she’s bored. What else does she have to do all day except be the lesbian equivalent of a fleshlight and help get people off to pass the fucking time. I don’t know that you can swap out sex for heroin or whatever it was she was addicted to, it doesn’t really work that way. A lot of people who are sex phobic would like to suggest that it works that way, that you can get addicted to sex somehow chemically, but that’s just absolutely not true.

Paskin: Right. Some of the scenes in that sequence, like the two in the pink, one in the stink, Nicky’s

Savage: On the toilet.

Paskin: On the toilet. June Thomas, who is a Slate culture critic, had put together a video of sort of sex on Orange is the New Black, which is a classier video than I just made that sound. It’s great, you should all watch it, she did sort of make reference to The L Word and all of these other shows where lesbians engage in these sort of beautifully-framed ambiguous sex acts where everyone’s orgasmically happy, but you never actually see what’s happening.

Savage: Lesbian lolling, like lolling about.

Paskin: Right.

Savage: Lesbian sex is just sort of rolling around in some 300 thread-count sheets and somehow an orgasm happens.

Paskin: Right, people’s hands are like somewhere else.

Savage: Right, the sex is, I think, very realistic, even if sometimes it’s played for comedic effect often. Like the scene where Nicky is going down on Soso, it’s very realistic, it’s played for laughs, and it is funny. But the sex—from what I’ve read, I have no experience of lesbian sex myself—seem pretty realistic.

Paskin: I also just wanted to ask you a little about Daya’s situation, she’s the one who’s pregnant in prison with the prison guard’s baby and later in the season, through some of the twists and turns in the plot, there is a moment where she is told by the prison official that she is basically not legally allowed to give consent. That, even if she had what, to her, was consensual sex, because she is a prisoner and Pornstache is a prison guard, she is legally not allowed to give consent. What do you think about the power dynamics at play in that relationship, and this idea that’s basically right kind of that it isn’t meaningful, that you cannot give meaningful consent if you’re in that sort of relationship.

Savage: God, these are the kinds of hypotheticals that get me into trouble. You want to say someone is in a position where they can’t meaningfully give consent because they have less power, and you’re actually putting them in a position where they have even less power, were you strip away what little power they might have in that circumstance. To say to somebody, because you’re in this situation where there’s a massive power differential, you are incapable of giving consent, is, to me, that’s incident-specific and person-specific, but we’re uncomfortable, and we should be culturally with situations where somebody can be coerced or pressured or giving consent in a circumstance where later they may go I was reacting to the power differential or I feel like I kind of gave a false consciousness kind of consent in a situation where because the power differential was so great, I wasn’t able actually to give freely my consent. We’re so spooked by those situations where professor student, what’s the age of consent laws? Right, where somebody is just on the edge of age of consent laws

Paskin: Like statutory rape questions when everyone’s 17 and 18 or something.

Savage: Or someone’s 16 and says that I lost my virginity when I was 15, and both the people I lost my virginity to, a man and a woman, could have gone to jail, but I was happy to be there, and don’t look back on it and think I was non-consentually, [I] consented the shit out of it. But nothing bad happened to me, I wanted to be there. But we want to draw this line and say to protect people who might be harmed in those circumstances, and it makes us incapable of taking them case by case and really listening to the person who had the less power about how they actually really feel. And it’s dicey, because sometimes people that consent, they realize later that the consent was a false-consciousness form of consent. It’s hard to talk about, there’s nothing that you can say that’s not going to get a bomb threat at you. Prisoners can’t consent with guards, the people that control their lives in that draconian way, who have little fingers and levers of all punishment and reward, consent can’t really be given in that circumstance, however we ache for these people who are in these situations who have no power or have no control, now we’re going to turn around and tell this character or this person, if she was real, that we’re so concerned about your lack of power that we want to strip you of even this?

Paskin: Right, is that you sort of you understand Daya’s situation in all of these ways. Did you also see Sophia teaching…

Savage: Yes, yes, yes. I loved it. I loved it. It’s so smart about sexual minorities, that we often, because we’re a gender minority and we’re observing, as Laverne Cox’s character’s case, we’re making such a close observation and close study of the other, you know straight people in my case, that we sometimes have a perspective on it and an insight that straight people lack. I mean that’s the whole idea behind Savage Love, my advice column primarily for straight people. I’m telling straight people how to have straight sex, well what do I know about straight sex? I know a lot about it, included a lot about heterosexual identity, because I had to pretend to be straight for a while to survive. No straight person had to pretend to be straight to survive through their adolescence and in the same way, Laverne Cox’s character made a very close study on what it is to be female.

Paskin: Anatomically female, among other things.

Savage: Well, not just the anatomy, all of it. Depending on how you view to be transgender, she always was a woman, but she had to assemble her womanhood in a way, you know what I mean? She had to put it together to construct it to deconstruct the maleness to which had been assigned, was not who she was—it’s impossible to talk about this shit anymore without someone exploding—and so made a very close study of it and consequently knew more about cisgendered women’s bodies than the cisgendered women did.

Paskin: That was a great moment that was done kind of lightly.

Did you get up to Poussey’s talking about scissoring?

Savage: No!

Paskin: There’s a couple of moments in the show where I think the writers just seem really wonderfully self-aware about a lot of the things that they’re doing. For example: Poussey’s storyline, she has a flashback to her first girlfriend, she’s living on an army base, she’s dating this German, also high school student, and there is a sex scene with them where they sort of spend about 30 seconds trying to scissor and then it doesn’t really work and Poussey says in German, see I told you, scissoring is not real.

Savage: I love the character Poussey, I think there’s

Paskin: She’s amazing.

Savage: There’s such pathos—

Paskin: She seems like such a cool stoner girl. She’s just so mellow and chill and innately in her heart kind of like a hippie, she just wants to hang out with her friend.

Savage: And so charismatic and boyish, otherwise, and this is going to sound creepy, but I watch that character and am like boy, if she only had a dick, I’d be so into her.

Paskin: Yeah, fair enough. I think there’s probably other people that think that too. Straight women watching that show. Do you have any other characters you really love?

Savage: I love Big Boo, of course, but I’ve been a Lea DeLaria fan for 25 years.

Paskin: I’m going to give you a plug here, just briefly, which is that Dan and Lea DeLaria did a Savage Love podcast, a magnum issue in which Lea helps you take questions.

Savage: That’s right, she answered questions.

Paskin: That’s amazing and great and really funny and awesome. A really good Orange is the New Black extra for everybody.

Savage: If people want to go look that up–

Paskin: Episode 380. I just listened to it, it was great.

Savage: Oh, wow. Yeah, I love Big Boo, the Russian wife of Healy, and Healy, he’s such a malevolent, pathetic toad, that in some ways you kind of ache for him.

Paskin: Really?

Savage: There’s tragedy there, there’s this ineptness and desperation that then this person has a tiny bit of power and will sometimes use it to avenge himself, I just find him fascinating.

Paskin: Yeah, he’s a man that is just so much more alone in a way than all of the women who are around him, who are obviously in a much worse situation. If he talked to you, you would be like you just need to cut if off.

Savage: You need therapy and Prozac and a fireman, not a Russian mail-order bride.

Paskin: Is there anything you sort of wish the show would address, and I don’t even mean that in a nitpicking it’s not doing this way, as I’ve sort of been talking about the show to people, they’ve had these amazing suggestions. I was talking to someone who said when I had done this in real life, when I did this podcast last, I talked to Adam Davidson, who works with the Times and NPR, about the economics of the show, and he said that actually at the commissary, the women are always buying mackerel, and that just seemed like such an Orange is the New Black joke waiting to happen. Or I had another friend who said that there are all these issues where there are really juveniles basically, really young people who are coming into the system that seems like a good story. Are there any things that you just think would be interesting for the show to cover going forward?

Savage: Oh my God, there are a lot of cases where trans women are first thrown into men’s prisons, which is very dangerous for them. I don’t know if there is more of Laverne Cox’s character’s backstory coming up, but that is something my social justice warrior hat, I would like to see used as potentially a story line. Because so many trans women, especially women of color, are very brutally treated by the prison systems. It would be a great additional aspect to Sophia’s backstory, one other twist in her story that if she wasn’t in a women’s prison initially.

Paskin: It is true about the show that they have so many really rich characters that you’re interested in that they don’t always get to give everyone as much time as you want. This season is sort of a casualty that way where you see her but you want more.

Savage: And I want more Pennsatucky.

Paskin: You have more storyline to look forward to.

Savage: It towered over the last half of the first season.

Paskin: It’s really interesting.

Savage: The other thing I wish they would expand on is the abusive boyfriend of Gloria. I thought it was too pat the way he died the way that he did. It was out of something like a 19th century short story. It felt very, I don’t know, too easy and simple. And usually the world is a little bit smarter about the world doesn’t work that way, that people don’t get their comeuppance necessarily, their just desserts.

Paskin: Well, I don’t want to spoil everything for you, spoiler again, but I think this season as you go on you’ll see there is a little bit of neatness to it that I think the first season just didn’t have. I think in general about a lot of things.

Savage: Oh, that’s too bad.

Paskin: It is too bad. I did also think that the Gloria thing is interesting because the way that straight relationships are portrayed on that show, I mean almost every single one is a huge train wreck. Larry and Piper? Train wreck. Larry and Polly are kind of a train wreck. Vee has this kind of backstory with her, which you probably haven’t seen yet, with her stepson that’s kind of horrible. Gloria’s relationship with her boyfriend is horrible.

Savage: Piper’s parent’s relationship is horrible.

Paskin: Exactly. Healy and his mail-order wife, you haven’t even seen Figueroa has a closeted husband, I mean they are all really bad, every single one of them.

Savage: I think I’ve been telling people that for 20 years, these opposite sex relationships, they never work out.

Paskin: The true lesson of Orange is the New Black. I think we’re going to end on that, because that was perfect. And thank you so much, I really appreciate the time you took to do this.

Savage: My pleasure, have me back when I’m done watching it.

Paskin: Yeah, totally. Well then maybe you’ll just know that they haven’t taken your advice and it will be wrong and frustrating because they should have.

Savage: Nobody ever takes my advice.

Paskin: But it helps anyway.

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