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…
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