Skip to main content
book review

Former president Bill Clinton speaks to reporters in the White House Rose Garden on July 31, 1998.Khue Bui/The Associated Press

A flock of macaws swoops around Heidi Fleiss at her ranch in the Nevada desert. The Hollywood Madam settled on this desolate stretch after her kingdom, a notorious prostitution ring based out of Beverly Hills. Calif., toppled in 1993. Fleiss was sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion, got addicted to crystal meth and did penance on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, a reality-TV show. Although the call girls and A-list clients in her "little black book" have been replaced by a coterie of exotic birds, Fleiss believes she made a lasting contribution to her decade, showing regular folks that everyone has "a little bit of scandal" in them.

Fleiss's story is a quintessential 1990s story, according to David Friend, a Vanity Fair editor whose new book The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido charts the country's erotic life over 10 really trashy years. Featuring candid sit-downs with many of the key players of the decade, The Naughty Nineties is an engrossing time capsule. Reminiscent of the colourful collage on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the book is a who's who of the era, with plenty of zany characters you may have forgotten about: Pee-wee Herman, Tonya Harding, Anna Nicole Smith – they're all here, out of the vault.

The nineties were defined by the very public celebrity sex scandal. Remember rom-com darling Hugh Grant getting caught with a sex worker on Sunset Boulevard? Or Prince Charles murmuring about being Camilla's tampon? Or Pam and Tommy's Lee's stolen honeymoon footage, the "Citizen Kane of celebrity sex tapes" as Friend christens it? Classic nineties stuff. Desperate for ratings, traditional news outlets went tabloid, getting "muck drunk" on mugshots and surveillance footage. "Celebrity schadenfreude was becoming a national pastime," Friend observes.

The sport of humiliation also suddenly extended to Average Joes who seemed strangely keen on the exposure – the "me-too celebrity." The nineties saw nobodies like Amy Fisher and John Wayne Bobbitt become somebodies, get TV-movies of the week, do a Penthouse spread here and a sex tape there, get pilloried on Howard Stern's "audio peep show" and rue their life choices on any number of reality-TV shows.

Beyond sex scandals, dating, mating and even the human body changed over the course of this sex-saturated decade. We saw a frenzy for gargantuan breast implants and Brazilian waxing, as well as the tumescent rise of Viagra, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998. Online dating sites began multiplying and, most crucially, we saw the dawn of quickly downloadable Internet porn, sometime around 1997. "Unhindered wanderlust" had arrived, Friend writes. "The decade re-conditioned Americans to accept themselves as profoundly sexual creatures."

The fearless leader of this modern day Sodom and Gomorrah was former U.S. president Bill Clinton, of course, the "mellow hedonist"-in-chief. The author gets Clinton down pat, from that steamy habit of biting his lower lip to connote empathy, to his ruddy complexion, "a touch of the blush of a boy who'd just been punished." Friend argues rather convincingly that Bubba's partly to thank for America's big loosening up.

The Naughty Nineties offers meticulously detailed play-by-plays of Clinton's major scandals, which blurred the lines between public and private life. The most entertaining scene in this storyline is Clinton's campaign team having a nuclear meltdown in 1992 when Hillary and Bill team up to deflect Gennifer Flowers' cheating allegations on 60 Minutes. The program is scheduled to air directly after the Super Bowl so Bill gets to "braise in shame" before the largest television audience possible. Ultimately, Bill's contrition (and Hillary's presence) would serve as a template for every public figure hoping to recover from sexual infamy.

By the time Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress appeared on the scene in 1998, viewers were "convulsed and in many ways repulsed." Despite Kenneth Starr's dearest hopes, Americans actually became less moralizing and more realistic about infidelity after Clinton, whose approval rating shot up by 10 points to 73 per cent postimpeachment.

Friend takes a breather between Clinton scandals to mine the decade's sexual nostalgia, including the rise of booty, belly rings and "whale tails" – thongs peeking out from low-rise jeans. He reminds us about the Rabbit, a vibrator that became "to the 90s bedroom what the Cuisinart had been to the 70s kitchen" after its cameo on Sex and the City, the groundbreaking TV show.

While the author devotes some ink to the era's sex-positive feminism and gives props to Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues, Callie Khouri's film Thelma & Louise, riot grrrl bands and "empowerment icons" such as Anita Hill and Ellen DeGeneres, several sexist tells belch up throughout the book.

Interviewing the renowned anthropologist Helen Fisher, Friend casually remarks on her sex appeal. This is decidedly not cool. Another chapter on sex work gets bro-ish: Describing what goes on between dancers and pro athletes in the VIP room at the Gold Club, a once-legendary strip joint in Atlanta, the author drools a touch too much.

And in one of the lengthiest footnotes of too many in the 557-page tome, Friend grills Nicole Daedone, the San Francisco founder of OneTaste whose "orgasmic meditation" sessions focus on a woman's clitoris. Friend questions the "narrowly directed technique," vigorously. The author engages in no such interrogation by footnote when he chats with the J Sisters. The family of seven women brought the Brazilian bikini wax to North America in 1990, narrowly directing their painful "de-pubing" pitch at women.

Friend is at his best in the fieldwork. He dines at the Olive Garden (remember that place?) with Clinton's sexual-harassment accuser Paula Jones. Over dinner with penis-slasher Lorena Bobbitt, the author learns that in between Bobbitt's relevant advocacy work with women's shelters, she has also worked at a salon, giving women bikini waxes (now that is trust). He takes anthropologist Fisher along on a tour bus for 53 rabid female Sex and the City fans. And he heads to Houston to interview Dr. Franklin Rose, a plastic surgeon known as "Breast Man" for his prolific boob-job career through the decade. The two speak at a gala over appetizers of "two pert porcini ravioli, each adorned with a small mushroom." It's all beautiful, awkward detail.

Thankfully, Friend doesn't push his thesis so far as to suggest that nineties adults were hornier than any who came before. Every decade is filthier than we realize. The difference is that, by the nineties, we have more evidence thanks to digital cameras and the Web: our voyeuristic bandwidth expands. Before, Friend says, we knew when to look away. The nineties were an all-you-can-eat buffet we couldn't seem to walk away from.

The book shudders to a close with Donald Trump's traumatizing presidential win, 16 years on. Friend hazards that Bill Clinton's "ethical elasticity" – not to mention all the other trash ingested back in the nineties – helped make voters blasé about Trump, his non-stop lies and vulgar ramblings, which make Clinton look like a choir boy.

But Trump is also a thoroughly modern specimen, a narcissist braying at all hours on social media, a shameless reality-TV show villain that we can't help but give all of our airtime to. We're an audience ready to gorge again.

Zosia Bielski writes about sex and culture for The Globe and Mail.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct