When I signed a deal for a book about sex, my wife, Nancy, took it in stride. She is, after all, a publisher who has an eponymous children’s imprint at Penguin Random: Nancy Paulsen Books. She understands.
True, it isn’t a book about sex per se as much as it is a book about sexual history. Entitled The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido, it is a deep dive into the sexual undercurrents that animated the decade when the boomers stormed Washington, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue and the culture wars raged. What I didn’t know when I signed the deal, and what Nancy hadn’t bargained for, was that my sex book—as snickering friends would come to refer to it—would consume four years of research and reading and three years of writing.
A month after I signed the contract, Nancy and I found ourselves standing in line at Manhattan’s Paris Theatre next to Nan and Gay Talese. Nan, famously, is one of the great literary editors of her generation. Gay, famously, is a founder of the New Journalism and, infamously, had written his own “sex book”: Thy Neighbor’s Wife, an examination of sexual mores, which had been a 1970s sensation. (As part of Gay’s research, he became the manager of two massage parlors.)
The four of us fell into conversation. Gay congratulated me on the book deal—and the concept. And Nan offered Nancy some sage advice: “Be ready for a journey.”
Soon, the journey began. To understand men’s changing roles in the ’90s, I interviewed Bill McCartney, who had started the Promise Keepers movement; civil rights leader Jesse Jackson; actors Alan Cumming and Michael Douglas; and my own brother, Richard, and his then-partner, Steven, who in 1994 had had a commitment ceremony—on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. I met the scientists who created Viagra. I got to know Monica Lewinsky and Anita Hill. I had lunch with Paula Jones and dinner with Lorena Bobbitt. I talked with insiders from the Clinton, Dole, and Bush teams.
Then came the arduous part. I drove to Death Valley to interview Heidi Fleiss, the former Hollywood madam, at her desert hacienda. (She greeted me with a pet macaw on her shoulder.) I drove on to Vegas, where I attended a pole-dancing “fitness” class with Fawnia Mondey, the first woman to market an instructional pole-dance video. I flew to Florida and, in the repose of his gentlemen’s club, observed Michael J. Peter, the man credited with creating the upscale strip joint. I went on a Sex and the City bus tour with anthropologist Helen Fisher. I spent quality time with the sisters who had dreamed up the Brazilian bikini wax. And on it went.
There was one opportunity, however, that seemed so over the line—and so potentially beneficial on the home front—that I invited Nancy along. While I was interviewing Nicole Daedone, America’s leading proponent of “orgasmic meditation” for the book (she had learned the practice, which is solely devoted to a woman’s sexual fulfillment, in the ’90s), she urged Nancy and me to come to Sausalito to witness a “demo” in which an OMer, as part of her training to become an instructor, would be clitorally stimulated for 40 minutes in front of an audience.
In a dark-paneled library on a remote woodland estate, Nancy and I sat with 40 others amid flickering candles and New Age music. Thunder crashed outside the heavy drapes. We watched, patiently, as a naked woman was “stroked” by a man in a flannel shirt (the “lumberjack,” Nancy called him). The woman seemed to swell and crash through a countless series of orgasms. And Nancy, though she rolled her eyes, went with the flow.
Over the course of 32 years of marriage, we have shared and weathered and experienced a lot. And for all that time, including my years plowing through The Naughty Nineties, Nancy has never complained about the time I’ve spent researching or writing. I attribute this to her love, trust, and equanimity, but also to her vocation: she understands a writer’s need to gather all the facts, to obsess, to live in the narrative.
And, in this case, as a bonus, we picked up a few pointers.
David Friend, a Vanity Fair editor and Emmy-winning producer, is the author of The Naughty Nineties, out in September from Twelve.