On September 27, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died at the age of 91. As the creator of what arguably became the world’s most influential and well-known avenue for pornography, Hefner’s legacy is fraught with controversy (to put it mildly).
Many laud Hefner as a forward thinking individual who helped usher in the sexual revolution and encouraged Americans to cast off prudish and puritanical morality and embrace a more “open” and “progressive” view of sex.
However, in light of his death, some have examined Hefner’s legacy and found it deeply wanting. Not surprisingly, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat has written one of the most scathing critiques:
Hugh Hefner, gone to his reward at the age of 91, was a pornographer and chauvinist who got rich on masturbation, consumerism and the exploitation of women, aged into a leering grotesque in a captain’s hat, and died a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies.
Hef was the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution, with quaaludes for the ladies and Viagra for himself — a father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis, a pretentious huckster who published Updike stories no one read while doing flesh procurement for celebrities, a revolutionary whose revolution chiefly benefited men much like himself.
The arc of his life vindicated his moral critics, conservative and feminist: What began with talk of jazz and Picasso and other signifiers of good taste ended in a sleazy decrepitude that would have been pitiable if it wasn’t still so exploitative.
But lest you think that only dour Catholic journalists have negative things to say about Hefner, consider Liz Posner’s piece from the more progressively minded Alternet.
But why do we still idolize a lifestyle in which men are allowed to serially collect and dispose of women’s bodies? Hefner’s hedonism may have been relegated to the 22,000 square feet of the Playboy Mansion, but his impact undoubtedly lives on in the entertainment industry, where R Kelly and Cosby were allowed to carry on their crimes for years.
A critical look at Hefner’s legacy is even more crucial today with a serial sexual abuser in the White House who has cycled through statuesque trophy wives and tacitly endorsed violence against women. Women have made so much progress, yet they are still normalizing and idealizing the men who collect them, decorate them with shiny jewelry and sexy clothes, dispose of them when they gain weight or show wrinkles, and then replace them with a younger, bustier version.
Hugh Hefner was a gross, powerful, white man who was bad for women. He called them objects, and believed that sexual liberation would heal us all. It hasn’t. Life in America is still much harder for women than it is for men, socially, economically and psychologically. It’s a world that Playboy, and the mogul behind it, helped forge.
And Lauren Ingram — a self-described “sex-positive feminist” — writes that there’s no reason to mourn Hefner’s death.
Even now, obituaries are being published that barely mention the “scandals” of Playboy’s past, instead focusing on the “iconic” nature of the magazine, Hefner’s entrepreneurialism, and the celebrities he hosted at his mansion. Glowing praises are being written about Hefner as a civil and social rights icon, because of his support for gay rights and abortion.
As with many men accused of abuse, Hefner’s worrying past has not impacted him. He died rich, a darling of the media and pop culture, with thousands mourning his legacy — largely ignoring the accusations of druggings, of sexual assault, and emotional abuse.
Much has been made in the last 24 hours of Hefner’s support of birth control and legal abortion. And while, yes, the businessman did help fund the Roe v Wade case in the US, let’s not kid ourselves. Hefner did not support birth control and legal abortion because he believed in a woman’s ability to choose what happened to her body. He supported them because it meant there were less excuses for women who said no to men wanting condomless sex — they couldn’t use risk of pregnancy as a reason to reject men.
While many Hefner critics (understandably) discuss the impact that Playboy had on women, Irin Carmon writes that Hefner’s legacy also had a damaging effect on men.
Hugh Hefner, who died this week at 91, claimed to be a liberator of American sexuality. You’ve probably heard about Hefner’s limited approaches to women: They could be frisky girls next door who, until competitive pressure from Penthouse in the 70s, were never shown in centerfolds to have pubic hair. Bunnies were told, as an undercover Gloria Steinem was, “We don’t like our girls to have any background. We just want you to fit the bunny image.” Or they could be uptight prudes, feminists whom Hefner once described as “our natural enemy.” Ladies, take your pick!
But for all the assumptions that Hef’s life was every man’s fantasy, he also shortchanged men. He told them the best way to be a man was to implicitly treat women as the enemy, as products to consume. It is a grim, banal, consumerist way of life that, in practice, would deny men the pleasures of being partners to women, sexually or otherwise.
And over on CNN, Peggy Drexler writes that for all of Hefner’s activism (such as fighting segregation by hiring black comics to perform in his clubs), there’s a dark side to Hefner’s legacy that shouldn’t be glossed over.
[I]t’s also worth pointing out, in the spirit of the sort of open cultural dialogue he worked his whole life to encourage, that Hefner’s egalitarian society was one largely envisioned and created for men.
The terms of his rebellion undeniably depended on putting women in a second-class role. It was the women, after all, whose sexuality was on display on the covers and in the centerfolds of his magazine, not to mention hanging on his shoulder, practically until the day he died.
Hef’s notion of the freedom to express sexuality translated largely into freedom to express men’s desire for women, and the fantasy that those women would be always ready and eager to comply.
Drexler’s piece mentions Holly Madison, a former Playboy bunny and Hefner girlfriend whose memoir of her experiences — Down the Rabbit Hole — was published in 2015. And in contrast to the glamorous image projected by Hefner and Playboy, her experiences were often sad and degrading.
As Madison learned her first night out with Hefner and the girlfriends, sex was a requirement of living there. Wednesdays and Fridays were “Club Nights,” and Hefner and his ladies would go out in Hollywood, getting VIP treatment at various clubs. (Hefner’s fame as a septuagenarian sexpot novelty was then at its peak.) Hefner offered Madison a Quaalude, telling her, she writes in Down the Rabbit Hole, that “in the ‘70s they used to call these pills ‘thigh openers.’ ” She turned him down, but did get drunk, and by the time they all went back to the mansion, she was told that it was time to go to Hefner’s bedroom.
Tina Jordan, at the time his No. 1 girlfriend — a spot Madison herself would later occupy — brought her into the room, which was, she writes, “like an episode of Hoarders.” With hardcore porn playing on two TV screens, Hefner masturbated as the women play-acted lesbian scenes. No one was into it. A girlfriend whose name Madison changed to Vicky in the book pushed her toward Hefner while urging him to “be with the new girl.” Madison writes, “It was so brief that I can’t even recall what it felt like beyond having a heavy body on top of mine.“
And some of those women had taken Hefner’s Quaaludes. “They weren’t commonly available then — I don’t even know exactly how he was getting them,” Madison said. “I know most girls my age were not doing them, and didn’t know what they made you feel like. And I’m sure a lot of those girls didn’t know what they were at all.”
Still others, like Hefner’s former valet Stefan Tetenbaum, have further dispelled the notion that the Playboy lifestyle was glamorous and sexy, or that Hefner was as classy and egalitarian as he appeared to be:
On certain nights, Mr. Hefner had prostitutes brought up to the mansion and he would entertain them with a big dinner and invite his friends to come and participate in different intimate acts with them. It was called “Pig Night.” Sometimes the women had penises and Hefner didn’t want to be involved with that, although some of the other guests, especially John Belushi, they didn’t mind.
Hugh, most of the time, never had sex with women. He was more interested in watching. He would hire famous male porn stars, including John Holmes, with huge penises and watch them have sex with different girls he brought in. Hugh sat there in his favorite chair, smoking a joint and eating red licorice and watching. I had to go into the room afterwards and if the girls couldn’t walk, I would have to escort them to the bedrooms so they could recuperate. Hef sometimes gave bonuses to the women because the sex acts were so painful.
Hef wasn’t a kind man. If he tasted the Pepsi and it wasn’t cold enough, he would throw it away and call me to replace it. I don’t know if he ever even knew my name. He would just call me “valet.” He was very brutal to his girlfriends and sex partners. He made sure they had breast implants. In those days, the implants were new and they would shift and burst and I witnessed many women who had this done begging and crying to Hef to help them and he would put them back in the hospital and then discard these women. He didn’t care. They were disposable.
Finally, though it was published in 2003, it’s worth reading this Christianity Today essay by Read Mercer Schuchardt that looks at the damaging and wide-ranging effects of Hefner’s cultural victory.
Of course, Hugh Hefner is on the side of women’s liberation — as long as it supports his “incredible machine that brings to me the most beautiful young women … already wanting to be … part of my life.” What could be better for an irresponsible and sexually aggressive male than an entire culture that considers women sex objects, treats pregnancy as a disease, and offers abortion as its cure?
Just ask Hefner himself. Here he is, in the first issue of Playboy, telling real women where to go: “We want to make it clear from the very start, we aren’t a ‘family magazine.’ If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.“
This is the boys club, in other words, and you girls are not allowed.
So when Hefner says, “The major beneficiary of the sexual revolution is women, not men,” you’re right to be scratching your head in confusion. Porn culture demands of women precisely what real women don’t need or want: skinny bodies, huge fake breasts, no babies, and men who are unwilling to commit to anything more than a quick shag.
As for myself, the first thought that came to mind after hearing of Hefner’s death was this classic Mark Twain quote: “I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” But to paraphrase Schuchardt in his aforelinked Christianity Today piece, Hefner may be gone, but the damaging effects of his legacy have made a mess of things that we’ll be cleaning up for a very, very long time.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.