Rarely do topics or attitudes that have come to characterize decades actually span their particular decade. The '60s — a mind-set meaning everything from "do your own thing" to "love the one you're with" to "everyone is a star" — did not really kick in until 1964 or so. Nor did they end in 1970. The '70s were permanently dubbed "The Me Decade" because of the proliferation of self-help groups, although these groups didn't really sprout en masse until the middle of the decade. And although "The Greed Decade" of the '80s certainly saw its fair share of freebooting — so has every decade in American history: Why nail one 10-year span with the country's curse?
Yet this decade stands apart. One topic, and one topic only, has obsessed the entire period. The male unit. The obsession has been gathering steam since Elvis twisted his pelvis on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956 and shows no hint of getting tired. But it wasn't until the '90s that the phallic fixation exploded. Unfortunately, the endless media gangbang has rendered us comatose and barely able to notice. Gay men have not only proclaimed that they're here, they're queer, get used to it, but that the erect cock is a beautiful thing -- especially with its foreskin surgically reattached, and when it belongs to a body with flat abs -- worthy of federal funding. For the first time in non-X-rated cinematic history, a semi-turgid cock seized the spotlight, when Mark Wahlberg whipped out a 14-inch schlong in "Boogie Nights," causing so much speculation that publicists had to admit that it was a fake.
Now, as the century grinds its pelvis forward for a couple of final rounds, the Christian right in its New Testament raincoat skulks around the fun house, trying to shut it down while listening at the door for squeaky mattress springs and praying for jism-stained laundry. Yes, thanks to its enemies, pornography has gone mainstream, rendering smutmeister Larry Flynt a harmless defender of the First Amendment as he mounts an X-rated jihad financed by peddling women. Both sides have been abetted by another dirty old man in disguise: the media. Here's a scoop for you: Hiding behind that straight face of objectivity is a big, greasy leer and a mouthful of rotting yellow teeth waiting to chomp on any piece of meat it calls a story.
And for the past 10 years, as the media would have it, there's been just one. Indeed, this era has been so seamless and so unfettered by other possible thematic distractions that it's possible to survey it simply by following a trail of penile scandals. From 1990 through to the present, not counting the O.J. Simpson trial or the murder of JonBenet Ramsey (both tangentially related to this theme), the national conversation has been one endless variation on the same narrative, dominated by the following seven episodes:
Erik and Lyle Menendez: Their arrest on March 11, 1990, for the murders of their parents set the tone for the decade. During their trial, a new phrase -- "the abuse excuse" -- entered the lexicon, with younger brother Erik testifying that his rich father first "massaged" Erik's penis when Erik was 6, continuing every one to three months until shortly before Erik and Lyle killed him. A week before his 16th birthday, Erik said, his father entered his bedroom and ordered Erik to get on his knees and perform oral sex.
How does the country know this? Well, we let our fingers do the surfing, and when we caught the wave of Court TV, we had a nice long ride. The Menendez drama gave Court TV a launch worthy of NASA, not to mention the career of courtside commentator Laurie Levenson, the first of hundreds to collect a paycheck for the "yardage gained" style of analysis of the decade's most sensational trials. Weirdly, the penis of Menendez père was discussed for six years, through two trials, with an early timeout in 1991 for discussion of the Clarence Thomas hearings (see next page). In 1996 the brothers were convicted of first degree murder, and presumably are now forced to play hide-the-salami behind bars.
Clarence Thomas: With the weird foreplay of the Menendez trial, the conversation quickly escalated when in 1991 a Supreme Court nominee was accused by a former assistant of sexual harassment. At congressional hearings in October of that year, the country came to a halt while Anita Hill testified about the strange sexual behavior of her former boss. "He got up from the table where we were working," she said, referring to several incidents in 1982, "went over to his desk to get a Coke, looked at the can and asked, 'Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?'" On another occasion he referred to the size of his own penis as being "larger than normal." As the nation leaned closer for a collective listen, Hill testified that, in his attempts to seduce her, Thomas invoked the notorious porn star Long Dong Silver -- immediately resulting in a massive upsurge in the renting of the videos featuring the super-size performer.
Meanwhile, the country was ripped by a new skirmish in the ongoing gender war: Was Hill telling the truth? While thousands of women affixed "I Believe You Anita" bumper stickers to their cars, men hunkered down at the office water cooler and whispered nasty jokes. Thomas survived the battle and ascended to the Supreme Court, but years of guffaws ensued. The episode was finally put to bed in 1998 when Fox Television scrapped plans to air "Strange Justice," a movie based on a book about the Thomas hearings, perhaps because the Murdoch-owned network feared upcoming Supreme Court hearings about cable operations.
William Kennedy Smith: With his arrest in 1991 for rape, the decade's baton was passed to a perennial player, the Kennedy family. Once again, the country pondered that pesky question: Whither the royal unit and was it on the guest list? Too far and no, claimed the woman who pressed charges. While the Menendez tale played on, Patricia Bowden testified in a Palm Beach, Fla., courtroom that Smith raped her at the Kennedy family's compound after a night of partying with Uncle Ted. Along with Smith, it seemed as if the entire family were on trial, as prolonged public discussion of Kennedy sexual conquests and the disaster at Chappaquiddick dominated the ether.
The mild-mannered female district attorney in Palm Beach was no match for Smith's high-priced gun; Smith was acquitted, paving the karmic way years later for renewed interest in the case of Martha Moxley, a teenager murdered in Greenwich, Conn., in 1975, allegedly by Ethel Kennedy's nephews.
Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt: With Lorena's arrest in 1993 for castrating her husband, the drama reached a climax as women across the country hit the media streets in support of their new heroine. After being raped (she said) by her ironically named husband, John Wayne, Lorena fulfilled the nomenclatural destiny of their mutual surname and cut off his penis. Whereupon she took it for a ride and tossed it into a neighbor's yard. The dismembered unit was found by a maintenance man, driven to the hospital and reattached.
With this story, the press got two for the price of one; the old newsroom adage "If it bleeds, it leads" became "If it's big and hard, it stars." While John recuperated and the world waited for news of how fared his member, Lorena's trial for malicious wounding unfolded. In the end she was found not guilty by way of temporary insanity and sentenced to 90 days in a mental institution. The rising tide of this episode floated many boats, include that of the castrato himself. John Wayne Bobbitt became a porn star and stripper, Jay Leno had jokes for the next two years and the country was giddy with cock-related queries such as, Can he get it up? For how long? And how long is it?
For those wondering, the answer apparently is more or less. In his video "John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut," he boffs a number of horny starlets, despite evident battle damage. And it seemed to be in working order in 1997, when he was fired from his gig as doorman at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch in Carson City, Nev., because he reportedly could not stop manhandling the girls. 1997 was an equally bad year for Lorena -- she was arrested for beating up her mother.
Michael Jackson: The accusations of child molestation against this chart-topper broke in 1993, providing no quarter for those already weary of the avalanche of sex scandals, and kicking off a media feeding frenzy that almost brought down a record label. On Aug. 17, the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services received a report in which a 13-year-old boy told of a sexual relationship with the self-styled bump-and-grind king. While sleeping in the same bed with Jackson over a period of four months, the boy alleged, the two had kissed and fondled each other and Jackson allegedly masturbated. On Aug. 22 and 23, Jackson's Los Angeles and Santa Barbara homes were searched for pornography. Then someone sold a copy of the boy's report to the tabloids. Jackson's lawyers accused the boy's father of extortion. The boy sued Jackson for sexual battery, which Jackson denied. On Dec. 1, 1993, Jackson hired Johnnie Cochran. Ten days later, the Santa Barbara district attorney photographed Jackson's genitals, introducing the term "distinguishing characteristics" into the public discourse. "There were definite markings on Jackson's genital area," the D.A. said, "including a discoloration on his testicles," which the boy had described.
The country -- nay, the planet -- was again consumed with questions such as, How big is it? Two days before Christmas, broadcasting from his Neverland Ranch, Jackson proclaimed his innocence. On Jan. 25, 1994, Cochran announced a settlement. In June 1995, Jackson, appearing with wife Lisa Marie Presley (offspring of Elvis the Pelvis), proclaimed his innocence once more, this time on "PrimeTime Live." In 1996, the boy's father sued Jackson for breach of contract. In 1998, a final settlement was reached, but by then, of course, after five years' worth of discussion about the Prince of Pop's penis, a new and bigger drama had replaced "The Story of the Jackson Five Inches."
President Clinton: -- Call this one "The State of the Unit." Just as the economy is in a state of prolonged tumescence, so, it seems, is the presidential groin. Perhaps the country would still be telling Michael Jackson jokes if Paula Jones hadn't surfaced in 1994, declaring in court that while she was an Arkansas state employee in 1991, then-Gov. Clinton "lowered his trousers and underwear, exposed his penis (which was erect) and told me to 'kiss it.'" While Clinton denied the accusations for the next four years, Jones claimed that she could prove that the president dropped trou: She knew what his penis looked like. In court papers, she described it as "bent to the right" (perhaps an early indication of Clinton's plan to roll back welfare, had anyone bothered to listen to Jones). Within moments of the affidavit's unsealing, every major publication from the New Yorker to the Los Angeles Times reprinted the verbal portrait of the presidential penis. For many, the 24-7 coverage of this topic proved that Western civilization had finally collapsed, while perhaps in the view of some gay men, it was now peaking. Did Clinton himself invite this tribulation when he metaphorically unzipped his pants and discussed his underwear on MTV? Possibly, yet it seems that by 1997, when this information surfaced and the president was truly left naked before the world, his background had finally caught up with him: You can take the boy out of Arkansas but you can't take the Arkansas out of the boy (I believe you, Paula).
But it was the relationship with Monica Lewinsky, who, according to a former boyfriend, had announced early in the decade that she was heading to the White House to secure her "presidential kneepads," that sent the decade into phallic overdrive. Seeds for scandal have never fallen on such fertile soil. Anchor yentas, now more securely employed than ever, spent the coming year agonizing in public over whether to keep talking about blow jobs. Op-ed pages were filled with screeds penned by disturbed parents -- how dare the networks talk such trash! What can we tell our children? they demanded, as if the news without blow jobs were perfectly acceptable. And meanwhile, the country -- not just a few chicks -- continues to suck the president's dick. "Oooh, Bill," the polls say, "thanks for the big 10-inch economy. You taste sooo good." Which leads us to the guy that Clinton had to cream in order to get millions of citizens to simultaneously feel -- and relieve -- his pain ...
Bob Dole: In 1998, just when the memory of Bob Dole's post-election Visa card commercial was beginning to fade, he embarked on a round of talk-show appearances to promote Viagra. "Hey, everybody!" he seemed to say, "don't forget about my penis!" On the payroll for Pfizer, the manufacturer of the male performance enhancer, Dole explained that "I'd already lost the election, and I wasn't looking for the erectile dysfunction vote. Viagra is a great drug." Was the election loss to Clinton in 1996 an emasculating experience? Did it make Bob Dole wonder who Bob Dole really was? When you always talk about yourself in the third person, and then that third person disappears from the exit polls, does a problem not ensue? In all fairness, it's far more likely that Dole's performance troubles resulted from his battle with prostate cancer, although the failure to reach the goal of a lifetime couldn't have helped. But no matter -- hats off to the future first man. Flaccid or hard, he's the only stand-up guy in this sorry pack.
Of course, it's no accident that the national obsession with such matters comes along at this time. The celebration of male culture has gone underground. Which is not to say that Super Bowl Sunday is soon to become a secret rite, but that the public discussion of such activity is now carried on in the most defensive of ways. Commercials during football games present married men who mount elaborate subterfuges so they can drink beer with their buddies. Clint Eastwood has been replaced by Ben Affleck and a generation of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ironic." "Saving Private Ryan" came along too late to save Bob Dole, an actual World War II hero.
Today's military battles not war, but for its existence; in spite of appearances to the contrary, such as the bombing of Iraq and Clinton's call for increased weapons spending, downsizing at military bases continues apace. And in their defense of Paula Jones, Republicans celebrate feminism. Even if they're doing it to bring down a president, as many believe (I don't happen to find their motives so monochromatic), it's still an astonishing act from which there can be no return. I don't know why so many people say the women's movement is dead -- these, and the above-mentioned scandals, show that it is almost in complete triumph. I say "almost" because Monica still had to produce the dress before Bill admitted having the affair (and, let's face it, to paraphrase the bumper sticker, shit like rape still happens), although most people already believed her, not the president.
The '90s proclaim that male culture will not be denied, no matter how frenzied and bizarre the assertion. Odd, isn't it? After 10 years of sexual humiliation, castration, penises that are bent and flawed, lost elections and lost erections, the penis now looms over public consciousness like a shadow of the Washington Monument, dominating the gabfest of a feminized terrain in a posture that is grotesque and stripped to the bone. (In fact, the monument is being renovated, something the masculine symbol could use as well.) Will the 21st century mark curtains for the world-renowned organ? Well, according to my interpretation of scripture, the Decade of the Dick, the Epoch of the Cock, is destined to erupt in ... The Second Coming. Whether this is good or bad for you or me, whether it unfolds on Court TV ("The antichrist on Trial") or at the Kennedy compound, I cannot say, but after the last 10 years, one thing is for sure: We've had the mother of all lube jobs.