So much has been said and written about sex on college campuses — the frenzied hook-up culture, the STD rates — it might seem as if there’s nothing left to say.
Then again, it’s sex on college campuses: There will always be something to say.
That’s lucky for “Savage U,” a clever new docu-series on MTV that follows syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage as he travels across the country fielding queries from students about sex and relationships. Creating a smooth hybrid of entertainment and information — lighthearted scenes along with serious discussions on safety and health — the show pulls off the neat trick of showcasing the most attention-grabbing questions without exploiting the risque topics.
The premiere, on Tuesday night, kicks off at the University of Maryland as Savage and his sidekick/producer Lauren Hutchinson arrive in College Park. The half-hour episode splits time between Savage’s large-group Q&As, where people submit notecards to ask about things too embarrassing to bring up in health class, and his personal advice sessions with students.
The one-on-one time is where Savage, who is both brutally honest and very personable, shines most. Known for his columns, podcast and books — and for creating that alternative, unprintable definition of Rick Santorum’s surname — Savage has been increasingly in the headlines since September 2010. That’s when he and his husband, Terry Miller, created the “It Gets Better” Web video project to help young people who are being bullied. The video quickly went viral.
Whether it’s because he’s famous or because they know he’s heard it all before, students seem instantly comfortable around Savage, with no problem telling him — and the camera —their intimate issues. Savage meets first with Madelyn, a chatty student who thinks something’s wrong because her boyfriends never seem to want to have as much sex as she does — and she wants to be a sexual risk-taker.
“McKeldin Library, it’s a known thing that people have sex among the stacks,” Madelyn says wistfully, which is sure to thrill U-Md. administrators. “I think that’s so hot. I think that’s so awesome.”
Savage assures her that even men can have low libidos, no matter what women’s magazines claim. After a discussion about sexual compatibility, Savage keeps it simple: “Stay in the game, stay optimistic, [don’t] get bitter.” (Also, he pleads, don’t read Cosmo.)
Other moments are more serious, but students still express their deepest insecurities on camera, providing scenes that are hard to look away from.
Marty, another student, tells Savage he’s had lots of bad luck with women and has finally realized that what he’s looking for is a boyfriend. Although he’s come to terms with his sexuality, he’s still stinging years later from a nasty public rejection in eighth grade.
Again, Savage’s approach is as straightforward as it gets. “People can be really cruel,” he tells Marty. “Rejection always kinda hurts, but you have to embrace rejection or you’ll never have a relationship.”
“I didn’t get much in college,” Savage adds. Marty laughs, and his relief is visible, as if he really just needed someone to talk to.
Savage also meets a group of friends who use a point system to see who can hook up with the most people. (Ah, young love.) The show makes sure to incorporate safe-sex talks for almost every visit. “You’re blind drunk, but you remember to put on a condom?” Savage asks the point-system friends. “Do you get points knocked off if someone gets impregnated?”
That’s the intriguing line that Savage walks throughout the show — as quickly as he dispenses explicit advice about sexual adventures, he is just as fast to become 100 percent serious about safety. And whether he’s telling students to get tested for sexually transmitted infections at the school’s health center or imploring a woman via speakerphone to use protection, Savage’s directness suits him and makes it easy to get lost in the show. You can’t help but learn some fun facts — particularly with the rapid-fire questions during his audience Q&A.
“My boyfriend is into something really weird. How can he get over it?” reads one question from a notecard.
Savage’s answer: “He can’t. He won’t. He never will.”
But he ends on a bright note: “There are no normal guys. And if you dump the honest foot fetishist, you will marry the dishonest necrophiliac.”
(30 minutes) debuts Tuesday at 11 p.m. on MTV.