Illustration of cover of Vanity Fair magazine, tv and videos in the background

I recall my surprise, sometime in the late 1990s, when a schoolteacher colleague of my wife’s mentioned a sex-toy club she had joined, a kind of Tupperware group that met monthly to share ideas and products. Such matter-of-factness about long-taboo subjects, it turns out, was the hallmark of the United States in the 1990s—or so says Vanity Fair editor David Friend ’77 in his aptly named new book. 

Its thesis is that the decade’s preoccupation with sex—from scandals, to sexual enhancements of all kinds, to the pornification of daily life—“laid the groundwork for our current age,” as Americans, ensconced “in a giddy interregnum of narcissism, solipsism, and skyrocketing mutual funds,” took their erotic obsessions public. Naughtiness, Friend holds, became the dominant mode of fin-de-siècle American life. 

The Naughty Nineties is nothing if not ambitious, moving from anthropological analysis of Sex and the City bus tours, to the hermeneutics of the Demi Moore pregnancy photo, to the politics of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to the ordeal of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. The book is well-stocked with pithy insights—“Celebrity schadenfreude was becoming a national pastime”—and indelible quotations, like that from a breast-implant surgeon who comments that “Houston is a very overaugmented city.” 

An excellent chapter on the R&D of Viagra is both informative and witty.

An excellent chapter on the R&D of Viagra is both informative and witty, noting that the work took place in a Pfizer lab near
Canterbury, England, “practically the birthplace of the ribald tale.” 

Friend offers reportage too, doggedly tracking down and interviewing such forgotten figures of ’90s notoriety as Lorena Bobbitt and Heidi Fleiss. Participatory journalism acquires a whole new allure when the subject is, for instance, bikini waxing, but our author forays intrepidly into the arena. The pièce de résistance is his excursion to a therapy center in San Francisco, where he joins an audience observing a session of OM: orgasmic meditation.

Throughout this naughty book, the author’s incorrigible punning—calling urologists at an erectile-dysfunction seminar “peers in the penile colony,” to take one of many examples—challenges a reviewer to double down on his own saucy innuendo. Can I praise Friend’s penetrating insights into American popular culture, or his blow-by-blow description of the Lewinsky scandal? 

Friend is a Vanity Fair editor. His new book argues that matter-of-factness about long-taboo subjects was the hallmark of the United States in the 1990s.

Friend’s prior book, Watching the World Change, took on a serious, even grave topic, analyzing images of 9/11, and the new book’s rollicking bawdiness sits uneasily with a more academic impulse, making for a curious hybrid. The Naughty Nineties is a 622-page tome that often sounds like a magazine essay, replete with the journalistic present tense and breezily transgressive chapter openings (“Let’s talk about the ’90s vagina”). Cheeky flippancy strikes an odd note in a book of this size and scope. How can a copiously footnoted cultural history, which cites Marcuse while promising “a codex for understanding,” also include the chatty exclamation that “this is so not about Bill Clinton”? Perhaps Friend is trying to mirror the paradoxes of American culture itself, our ready mix of high and low, the solemn and the salacious. But it can make for uneven reading.

Book cover of The Naughty Nineties, by David Friend ’77

The amount of information synthesized in these pages is mind-blowing—OK, humbling—and eventually becomes overwhelming, as if Americans think, talk and act out about sex and sex only, 24/7. Anyone up for a game of chess, or a hike in the mountains? 

I found myself wondering about Friend’s ultimate take on the phenomena he so richly documents. At one point we visit a Manhattan sex emporium, where women admire handcuffs and penis-shaped sports bottles. When Tom Wolfe merrily skewered this sort of thing, he kept our vanities firmly fixed in the crosshairs of satire. 

For Friend, dismay contends with delight, criticism with celebration. The results are scenarios where a reader both laughs and winces—as when, in his rather admiring take on Howard Stern, Friend interviews the controversial publisher (and Stern pal) Judith Regan, who offers a tribute to Stern’s priapic powers and confesses to having once taken a pencil eraser and poked his penis through his pants (“and it was alive!”).

We are more than halfway through this vast catalogue of American brazenness when Friend interviews a Florida local-news reporter who in 1995 was assigned to do a story on penis-enhancing underwear, and had to visit local bars to ask men if they would wear it. “I was ashamed,” she recalls. Phew. Finally. 

 Rand Richards Cooper ’80 is contributing editor at Commonweal magazine.