December 17, 2017

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Decade of debauchery

Author argues sex scandals defined American culture in the '90s

The Associated Press files</p><p>David Friend goes into detail on the sexcapades that shaped the end of the 20th century, including Anita Hill accusing then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

The Associated Press files

David Friend goes into detail on the sexcapades that shaped the end of the 20th century, including Anita Hill accusing then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

If this book’s title doesn’t clue you in that it’s about sex, the subtitle makes it clear that’s the subject at hand.

But it’s sex refracted, thoughtfully and wittily, through the events of a particular decade of recent history.

David Friend is Vanity Fair magazine’s editor of creative development and author of Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 (2006).

In the western world, the last 10 years of the 20th century were the end of an era of unprecedented economic growth, business mega-success and tycoon- and celebrity-fostered overindulgence in booze, drugs and conspicuous consumption, according to Friend.

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If this book’s title doesn’t clue you in that it’s about sex, the subtitle makes it clear that’s the subject at hand.

But it’s sex refracted, thoughtfully and wittily, through the events of a particular decade of recent history.

David Friend is Vanity Fair magazine’s editor of creative development and author of Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 (2006).

In the western world, the last 10 years of the 20th century were the end of an era of unprecedented economic growth, business mega-success and tycoon- and celebrity-fostered overindulgence in booze, drugs and conspicuous consumption, according to Friend.

But nothing defined the 1990s more than sex, he posits — sexual freedom, sexual politics (and sex in politics) and sexual decadence.

It was the last decade in which the world did not have, and then did have, the internet. And the World Wide Web, still in its infancy, was already offering its users at first salacious, and then pornographic, content.

It was also the last decade in which we weren’t digitally overconnected — not captive to our smartphones and tablets. Nor were we yet maniacally consuming, and consumed by, social media.

All the big sex stories of the decade are here.

Chris Pizzello / The Associated Press files</p><p>In the 1990s, Heidi Fleiss was known as the 'Hollywood Madam.'</p>

Chris Pizzello / The Associated Press files

In the 1990s, Heidi Fleiss was known as the 'Hollywood Madam.'

Former president Bill Clinton’s affair with ("I did not have sex with that woman") Monica Lewinsky, plus his pre-presidency dalliances with Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, the Ken Starr prosecution and the ensuing failed impeachment proceedings before the U.S. Congress are all crisply recounted.

We also get Anita Hill versus current (but then-nominee) U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (he of alleged "Long Dong Silver" conversations with his female employee, Ms. Hill), "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss, and knife-wielding-and-penis-removing wronged spouse Lorena Bobbitt.

The U.S. military’s ridiculous compromise policy of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" when it came to sexual orientation, and its effect on gay and lesbian soldiers and officers, is treated at some length. Friend points out that, on the ground, it created a system that gave "a wink and a nod to anti-gay harassment."

Even Madonna gets her due, and some astute analysis, as a pioneering pushing-the-sexual boundaries cultural figure.

The Associated Press files</p><p>In this image taken from video, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky embraces then-U.S. president Bill Clinton as he greets well-wishers at a White House lawn party in 1996.</p>

The Associated Press files

In this image taken from video, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky embraces then-U.S. president Bill Clinton as he greets well-wishers at a White House lawn party in 1996.

But some of the book’s best chapters are about the serendipitous discovery of Viagra (British chemists were trying to develop an alternative drug to nitroglycerin for angina patients, when they noticed some interesting side effects) and some of the cultural fallout from its use.

In an afterword to the main body of his text, Friend even ties Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States to excesses born of the naughty nineties.

"America got what an overwhelming share of the commonwealth has been asking for since the 1990s," he writes.

"In the electoral reckoning, civility has been trumped by hostility, respect by chauvinism, tolerance by bigotry, truth by fabrication and deceit, privacy by exposure, modesty by exhibitionism, achievement by fame, shame by shamelessness, and bridges by walls."

Friend is such a good writer and marshaller of facts that he raises a compelling argument. But ultimately the indictment doesn’t stick.

Laying blame for the ascension of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency at the feet of a particular decade, even a decade as transformative as the 1990s, is a reach.

Still, Friend has laid out an intelligent, comprehensive and frequently humorous take on the decade that was the last hurrah of the 20th century.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

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