[Content warning: possibly skip this one if you struggle with internalized compulsory sexuality; while it is not intended to express the idea that you should have sex you don’t want, it may come off that way.]
Good. Good, Savage explains, means “good in bed”– and I think “good in bed” comes down a lot to knowledge.
I think a lot of this one comes down to knowledge. The most obvious, of course, is knowing how to have sex safely. If you’re having sex with people with penises, do you know how to put on a condom? If you practice more niche sexual practices, can you swing a flogger without wrapping it, tie someone up without giving them tingly fingers, do fireplay without causing serious burns? If you don’t know how to have safer sex, then your sex life is going to be way less satisfying.
Do you understand anatomy sufficiently well that you don’t wind up looking for the clitoris near the vaginal opening? Do you have bizarre beliefs about hymens or about promiscuity causing sex to be like throwing a hot dog down a hallway? Do you think that responsive desire “isn’t real desire” or is even unethical (they weren’t enthusiastically consenting to start!)? Do you think that, if a vagina is wet, the person must be turned on?
Self-knowledge is also important here. I think self-knowledge has two elements. First, you should try to have a good model of what you like and what you don’t like; second, you should try to have a good model of what you know about yourself and what you don’t. It’s okay to have your answer to the question of “do I like X?” be “I have no clue”– it’s normal to not know whether you like something before you try it– but it’s important not to assume that that means you definitely like it or that you definitely don’t. The first step to being able to communicate with your partner is knowing what you want to communicate– a step which is often elided in sexual communication workshops.
Giving. This is about reciprocity.
A lot of people tend to interpret reciprocity in a fairly unsophisticated way. If you want to receive oral sex, you should give your partner oral sex; if you want an FFM threesome, you should be up for an MMF threesome; if you want orgasms, you should give your partner orgasms. However, that really doesn’t make much sense. If Eve doesn’t like giving oral but loves receiving it, and her partner doesn’t like receiving oral but loves giving it, then Eve is probably going to wind up receiving lots more oral than her partner– which is actually a pretty fair and mutually satisfying outcome.
Instead, I think reciprocity should be about the understanding that we’re both on the same team here and we both want our sex life to be enjoyable. It’s caring about your partner’s satisfaction– whatever that means to them– as much as you care about your own.
There is a right way and a wrong way to do this. If Carol is anorgasmic but still finds sex without orgasm pleasurable, reciprocity is not going “I need to make you come! Tell me how to make you come! We’re not stopping until you come!” It’s listening to her when she says “you know, I enjoy having sex with you, and I love the feeling of closeness. I want to have sex until you’re done, but I don’t really care if I get off.” On the other hand, if you don’t make any effort to give Carol the feeling of closeness she craves– if, for instance, all your sex is wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am-roll-over-and-go-to-sleep– you’re not being a very good sex partner.
It is totally possible that, even if everyone involved is working in good faith to have a mutually satisfying sexual relationship, their desires are simply incompatible. If Faythe is completely unsatisfied unless she has a sissy crossdresser maid in chastity to call her own, and Mallory’s only capable of being turned on if a balloon is being popped, even the most giving attitude probably won’t resolve their difficulties. But in a lot of cases, caring about your partner’s enjoyment as much as your own resolves these difficulties.
Game. Savage unpacks “game” to mean “up for anything– within reason”. But what’s within reason?
Some feminists have made a slogan out of “if it’s not fuck yes, it’s fuck no”. But this is obviously not the case– between the extremes of “fuck yes” and “fuck no”, there are a wide variety of other possibilities. The one “game” applies to, I think, is “meh”.
Alice has a fetish for people wearing water wings. If you’re like the vast majority of the population, your reaction to the idea of wearing water wings sexually is “meh”. You don’t object to it in any way, it’s not like it’s remotely difficult or inconvenient to put on a pair of water wings, but it also doesn’t do anything for you.
Being game means that your first response, when she talks about her water wing fetish, is “okay, sure, let’s try it!”
There are a couple of different ways this can go. You might discover that you too have a water wings fetish, or that seeing Alice’s face full of lust makes you so turned on that you’re enthusiastic about wearing the water wings even though it doesn’t do anything for you. In that case, it’s on your “fuck yes” list. Alternately, you might discover that wearing water wings is really uncomfortable, or that you feel so ridiculous when you wear them that you cannot be turned on. In that case, it’s on your “fuck no” list. But it’s very likely that your response to wearing water wings is going to continue to be “meh”. What do you do?
You certainly don’t do the thing you’re meh on every time you have sex– that’s a recipe for getting so sick of it that it winds up on your “fuck no” list, and you have non-water-wings related sexual desires that ought to be fulfilled. But you do do it sometimes. Now, what “sometimes” means is a negotiation between you and your partner. If your partner likes elaborate hours-long roleplay that you don’t get much out of, that might be a once every couple months or even a once a year thing, while if your partner wants you to wear lipstick, that might happen as often as half the time you have sex.
Some people– including, unfortunately, Dan Savage– have attempted to come up with objective definitions of what is and isn’t “within reason”. For instance, they might argue that oral sex is definitely within reason, but masochism is not. I think this is pretty absurd. Imagine Bob. Bob’s “fuck no” list is pretty extensive: he doesn’t like having his genitals interacted with or seen by his partner, seeing or interacting with other people’s genitals, complete nudity, or open-mouth kissing. That doesn’t mean that Bob isn’t game! It is completely unreasonable to demand that people do things that are on their “fuck no” list just because other people might like them.
What matters is how Bob deals with the things that are on his “meh” list. He might not get a lot out of hanging around shirtless, or touching his partner’s chest, or flogging them, but he is willing to do them– sometimes, not all the time– because his partner enjoys them. And that is what “game” comes down to.
(Of course, many people would be unhappy being in a relationship in which open-mouth kissing is entirely off the table, in which case they shouldn’t date Bob, and of course there is no requirement for anyone to be in a sexual relationship and Bob is perfectly free to decide not to be in a sexual relationship if he so chooses. We are assuming for the sake of argument that both Bob and his partner want to be in a sexual relationship.)