The summer of 1998, Philip Roth began his novel The Human Stain, “was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind”; 1998 was also the year when Pfizer signed up Bob Dole, who had run for president against Bill Clinton two years earlier, to promote its new drug, Viagra. The barriers to talking explicitly and publicly about sex had been falling for several years. In the early 1990s, the rap group 2 Live Crew had been acquitted of obscenity charges for performing their album As Nasty as They Wanna Be. The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and its director won a similar victory when they were tried for exhibiting photographs from Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio. By 1999, over two thirds of evening TV shows contained sexual content, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year.
If sex had a defining feature in the 1990s, it was ubiquity. In his new book The Naughty Nineties: Triumph of the American Libido, David Friend locates that decade as the moment when Americans finally brought sexuality into the open, realizing the promise of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and coming “to accept themselves as profoundly sexual creatures.” It was an era of sexual fads and experimentation: the booty call, the Brazilian wax, and the sex tape belong to the 1990s; so does cybersex, along with all the exhibitionism and voyeurism unleashed in furtive chat rooms and, later, on webcams. It was also an era of self-improvement, as Spanx, the Wonderbra, and Botox came to market, along with Androderm and Rogaine for men.
A Vanity Fair writer and the former director of photography at Life, Friend largely constructs his account of all this from movies, TV shows, and glossy-magazine clippings. The years pass in a whirl of sexy, glamorous provocation, as a pregnant Demi Moore poses naked for Annie Leibovitz and Madonna releases an artsy softcore photo book. Famous people making bold statements dominate his narrative, which skitters along the surfaces of national life. Rarely does he swoop close enough to the ground to inspect the power dynamics that most people have to navigate in their social and professional worlds.
Those dynamics have lately become harder to ignore. The Naughty Nineties was published in September, three weeks before The New York Times printed its first story on Harvey Weinstein’s systematic assault and harassment of women he worked with. The months that followed have brought news of highly placed editors, directors, restaurateurs, politicians, and radio personalities who used their position to wield sexual power at work, whether by force or tacit coercion. In #MeToo posts, thousands of women started to air their experiences of life in the so-called gray areas: the ambush tactics when bosses converted business lunches into dates or demanded a massage on the casting couch, the dangling of career incentives, and the threats of career ruin. It is difficult, they have insisted, for anyone to find a sense of freedom while beating back unwanted advances that remind them who is in charge.
Plenty of the men recently accused loomed large in American culture in the 1990s. Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax pumped out blockbuster movies. Charlie Rose got his first solo TV show. Al Franken began to joke about running for office. Donald Trump was everywhere, from guest appearances on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Wrestlemania to the Miss Universe pageants. Friend has published what reads like the authorized biography of a decade just as the unauthorized counternarrative is surging on a wave of reporting and reckoning. His book is valuable precisely because it records what so many people believed, until just now, about the state of sex in the 1990s, the images that guided them, and the realities they overlooked.
The explosion of sexuality in 1990s America was, according to Friend, all but fated. “The Naughty Nineties,” he writes,
were a fin de siècle inflection point when an array of forces aligned…and prompted a customarily prudish nation to face its deep fascination with, and trepidations toward, human sexuality in all of its complexity and ubiquity.
The sexual revolution had decoupled sex from marriage and the family a generation earlier, so that a sexual awakening no longer had to lead to lifelong commitment but could open many routes to self-discovery and experimentation. The gay rights movement had made a space in public life for more open discussion of sexual identity, and second-wave feminist writers such as Ellen Willis and Margo St. James had argued in defense of pornography and for the decriminalization of sex work.
The economic boom that began in the late 1980s didn’t hurt, since a relatively affluent younger generation could pursue self-expression in these years by purchasing things. The sale of sex toys soared in the 1990s, led by the Rabbit, a vibrator fitted with a clitoral stimulator that had been featured in an episode of Sex and the City. Pornography was a multibillion-dollar industry that Hollywood mythologized in movies like Boogie Nights and The People vs. Larry Flynt. The two most prominent distributors of adult video were multinational corporations: Marriott Hotels, through the pay-per-view service in its rooms, and General Motors, which then owned DirecTV. Over the same period, the Internet fueled the proliferation not only of sexual fantasies but also of new services. Janea Padilha, the beautician who invented the Brazilian bikini wax, bought banner ads on AOL to market it, and it became popular among celebrity clients at the salon she and her sisters ran in midtown Manhattan.
The winners in this new, more open order would largely be women, or so the story goes. Inspired by sex-positive feminists of the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of women believed that since a male-dominated society had so often enforced modesty and chastity, to wield their sex appeal openly could amount to a form of rebellion. “I didn’t just hit the glass ceiling,” Friend quotes the singer Kathleen Hanna as saying. “I pressed my naked tits up against it.” He credits Hanna’s generation with making clear that “men—and the larger culture—did not define a woman’s sexuality. Only women did.” Madonna qualifies, in Friend’s book, as an icon of female empowerment because she could do things like fellate a water bottle in a documentary (Alek Keshishian’s Truth or Dare) and still be named “America’s Smartest Businesswoman” by Forbes. The women on Sex and the City are icons too, since when they meet up to discuss threesomes and spanking over brunch, they are demonstrating, Friend writes, that feminism has liberated them “to pursue their sex lives on their own terms.”
Taboo-breaking and sexual self-expression are of course gains of a sort. But the sexualization of broad swathes of life also produced various harms. For every uplifting episode of Sex and the City that Friend details, there’s a trend in vaginal rejuvenation surgery or in pubic hair styling—fashions that involved painful, often expensive procedures and created new insecurities for women. In 1998, Cosmo asked its readers, “Does He Think You’re a Labia Loser?,” adding to the genre of women’s magazine writing that takes aim at readers’ self- esteem. Friend describes how patients around this time “rushed to gynecologists’ waiting rooms” in pursuit of an impossibly high aesthetic standard. One specialist in the field is even referred to sometimes as if he were a great and difficult artist, “the Picasso of vaginas.”
Meanwhile, as Friend acknowledges, conservatives were chipping away at a woman’s right to control her own body. In its 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court gave states the authority to impose a twenty-four-hour waiting period on a woman seeking an abortion, and to require that a minor obtain the consent of one of her parents. The first bombing and arson attacks on abortion clinics had begun decades earlier, but as Dallas A. Blanchard’s book The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Rise of the Religious Right (1994) has described, such attacks picked up significantly in the 1990s. The first murder of an abortion provider occurred in 1993, when a pro-life activist shot Dr. David Gunn outside his clinic in Pensacola, Florida. By 1995, Emily Bazelon has reported, the proportion of OB–GYN residencies offering abortion training “fell to a low of 12 percent.”
That is not to say that women’s lives did not improve in all kinds of ways during the 1990s. Television shows and movies featuring strong female characters—Friend cites Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The First Wives’ Club, Thelma and Louise—promoted an ideal of equality. A record number of women were elected to the House and the Senate. A few women started to break through the glass ceiling in business, and much more. But there’s little to indicate that sexiness got them there.
Friend’s argument that women led the charge toward a more sexualized culture implies that men for the most part simply followed. If heterosexual men found themselves in crisis toward the end of the last century, it was because women had upended their world. He quotes Lionel Tiger—the anthropologist who coined the term “male bonding”—musing in his 1999 treatise The Decline of Males that our communities had become more “focused on females and their young,” with men left “scuffling” for position. More women in the job market appeared to displace men, adding to their sense of being “unworthy and burdensome.”
Some of these men formed support groups, organizing themselves to respond to the disruptions of a feminized society. In 1991, 4,200 men met in Boulder, Colorado, in the first large assembly of Promise Keepers, where they committed to pursuing “vital relationships with a few other men,” who understood that a man “needs brothers to help him keep his promises.” Others regained a sense of purpose through a mix of adventure and rugged consumerism. They read books like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down that showed them what Friend calls “men dwarfed by destiny.” They drove Humvees and smoked cigars.
But the major change Friend identifies in masculinity is that heterosexual men became softer and more approachable—more like women. He sketches the rise of the “sensitive guy,” who was afraid neither of crying nor of “pampering and styling and toning” himself, arguing that men became “more grounded individuals” and “more empathetic souls” in the 1990s simply because women wanted them to. American men, he pronounces,
have become more conscious of sexual discrimination and harassment as a result of a social awakening and a slate of progressive laws. Their attitudes have been recalibrated by empowered women (who’ve been transforming society and their place in it) and by exemplary male peers.
Of all the decade’s exemplary men, Friend identifies Bill Clinton as “the whole brash package.” It was Clinton’s ability to overcome scandal and make an emotional connection with the voting public, Friend proposes, that taught Americans to accept “a new masculine archetype”—the sensitive guy with a healthy smattering of flaws. In a 1992 debate, Clinton could forcefully assure the audience that he felt their pain. When Gennifer Flowers revealed their relationship of twelve years, it could have ended Clinton’s career, but it didn’t. He responded with a display of openness, sitting for a joint interview with Hillary Clinton on 60 Minutes, using “her steadfast commitment” to him to convince the public to accept him for who he was, as Friend puts it, this “likable, complex, beguiling man.”
Bill Clinton is not, one might think, the best ambassador for a new order in which sexually bold women lead and their men sensitively follow. It is hard to look back on the highly publicized sex scandals of 1990s, including those of Clinton’s presidency, without seeing something quite different—a country in which women were routinely sacrificed for the sake of preserving a man’s power. Clinton’s advisers worked consistently to undermine the credibility of women like Flowers who claimed to have been involved with him. Clinton’s initial response to Flowers’s story was that “she’s obviously taken money.” White House aide Betsey Wright even coined a term for women’s accusations against the president: “bimbo eruptions.”
If some portion of the American public embraced Clinton’s imperfections more fully after Gennifer Flowers’s revelations, they were tougher on the women who said he dated, harassed, or assaulted them. Paula Jones, who sued the president for sexual harassment and assault in 1994, was derided in the press as “some sleazy woman with big hair.” CNN’s Bill Press deemed Juanita Broaddrick’s allegation that Clinton had raped her in 1978 “fishy.” As the Starr report raked over intimate details of Monica Lewinsky’s life, journalists questioned whether she was pretty or interesting enough to have won the president’s attention. “My dental hygienist pointed out that she had third-stage gum disease,” Erica Jong remarked in 1998. Despite the decade’s rhetoric of empowerment, Lewinsky never got much of a chance to define her sexuality or her image. To date, her name appears in over 120 rap songs, in at least seventy of them as a verb (“to Lewinsky”) meaning “to give oral sex.”
Public opinion simply did not favor women who accused powerful men of abuse. When in 1991 Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her in the 1980s, over 30 million people watched the televised hearings. Six in ten of them, polls found soon after, did not believe Hill. Nor did her account move the Senate, which voted to confirm Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court. It’s clear that many people at the time did not consider Thomas’s behavior toward Hill all that bad. One of the incidents that Hill recounted in the hearings was “an occasion in which Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office. He got up from the table at which we were working…and asked, ‘Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?’” As Francine Prose was quoted as saying by The New York Observer in 1998, “Who cares about that?”
As our own moment has shown, the attitudes of some of the most powerful men in the country had not been “recalibrated by empowered women” at all. Plenty continued to mistreat women they worked with and plenty more chose not to care about it. If men became less macho and more emotive, it was because for many decades they had been revolting against the traditional role of the ultra-responsible husband and father. Somewhere along this path to becoming “sensitive guys,” many claimed a form of power through sex.
In her book The Hearts of Men (1983), Barbara Ehrenreich traces this change in masculinity through the twentieth century, detailing the dissatisfactions many men felt at having to marry early and support their wives, who secured what Playboy sourly called “an Assured Lifetime Income” through marriage. To be a husband and a father in the 1950s meant being a provider—getting a job and, in order to keep it, submitting to the conformity of the office. A successful man was the one who could mold his personality both to the corporate culture at work and to domestic ideals at home. For such men the promise of sexual liberation was that separating sex from the responsibilities of traditional marriage would release him from crushing expectations, freeing him to be whoever he wanted to be.
The idea that a free man is a sexually daring one has persisted, through the 1990s and into our own time. “That’s just Charlie being Charlie,” a senior producer reportedly told an employee on The Charlie Rose Show who complained of harassment. “Being Charlie” was perhaps an essential part of his professional persona: a 1993 profile of Rose in Newsday, titled “The Love Cult of Charlie Rose,” was one of many to note his “famously seductive gaze.” This seductiveness may be why many people thought at the time that a lot of the behavior now being called out and condemned was not so bad, and why some of the men accused made little effort to hide it. Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames published a memoir in 2000 in which, in a chapter by Ames, Ames jokes about “our sexism and sexual harassment of the Russian female staff” at The eXile, the newspaper they founded in 1997. On more than one occasion, Al Franken did not see any harm in posing for a photo of himself groping a woman.
It’s not surprising that sexual daring has by now brought many to grief; when liberation simply means unleashing sex into the already existing power structures, only a few will get free—those already at the top. As American culture became more comfortable with sex in the ways Friend describes, women could strike an empowering pose like Madonna, but they continued to be poorer than men and to occupy less powerful positions. In 1995, women made up about 45 percent of the workforce but held only 5 percent of leadership positions in American corporations. They earned on average 71 percent of a man’s salary. When the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act passed in 1996, some of the poorest women found themselves in a still more precarious position, as a large portion of single mothers on welfare lost assistance. The less a person has, the harder it is for her to risk upsetting the boss.
At pivotal moments in the 1990s, powerful institutions—from Miramax’s HR department to the US Senate—cemented that status quo. Women who pointed out that harassment by their superiors tended to limit their own freedom, whether on college campuses or in the workplace, were frequently accused of retreating into victimhood and missing out on the ambiguities and texture of true experience. “Real life is messy, rife with misunderstandings and contradictions,” a Newsweek cover story lectured in 1993. “There’s no eight-page guide on how to handle it.”
The stories of sexual harassment and assault posted and printed in the last few months present a forceful corrective to those attitudes. The scandals of the 1990s appear now to have been resolved more crudely than many thought at the time. The ideal of sexual liberation narrowed, it seems, to mean more sex but not necessarily more freedom, in the sense of having control over one’s own life. The vision of female empowerment that so many singers and magazines promoted, meanwhile, oversold the day-to-day reality of being a woman, ignoring any number of pressures and injustices.
That the first of this wave of stories came from famous actresses shows how dangerous it is to confuse the performance of power with real decision-making positions. Women who read the news or hosted a radio show or starred in a movie had the ability to shape a narrative, but they lacked the power to report a feared and admired man in their industry when he assaulted and harassed them. Such men could rely on firmly established power dynamics to shield them if anyone complained—the incentives for younger, less established people to avoid offending them, and the biases they would in any case run up against if they dared to. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that as few as 6 percent of women who are harassed file a formal complaint, perhaps with good reason, since 75 percent of women who do report harassment at work encounter retaliation.
Since the 1990s, some women have in fact disappeared from the workplace. The employment of women over the age of sixteen peaked in 2000. A theme in recent stories is opportunity cost: how women turned down assignments, or left a company, or sometimes gave up on a profession in order to be able to walk away from harassment. There is now a keenly felt sense of what might have been if such women hadn’t been forced out of their jobs or into smaller roles. No one can say what “real life” would have looked like for them, freed from its compromises with power. It’s something you have to imagine.