Hugh Hefner: No Saint, But a Revolutionary

Hefner and Playboy helped liberate women and men in AND out of the bedroom

Posted Sep 30, 2017

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, died this week at age 91.

His enormous impact can only be evaluated by remembering the repressed world in which Playboy was founded: in 1953, America was a sexually sick society. 

Adults weren't allowed to hear the words “sex” or “pregnant” on television, nor see married couples in a bed together. Oral sex, contraception, and factual sex education were illegal. A powerful censor reviewed every American film (and TV show) to prevent “offensive” content from reaching adult eyes. 

Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by practically everyone, (including the field of psychiatry), and gays were routinely rounded up and locked up. Female orgasm was virtually never spoken of, and was only considered normal if it occurred in the context of intercourse—which meant it didn't happen very often.

The pornography of the time was rather crude—grainy 8mm films and amateurish newsprint magazines featuring bored-looking actresses. Precisely because sexuality was so repressed, this thin gruel of the sexually explicit was popular. And compared to it, Playboy was a banquet.

Hefner took sexuality out of the shadows and presented it unapologetically as part of the Good Life. Yes, he emphasized that Good Life for men (especially for men of taste), but he never presented anything other than consensual, playful, life-affirming sexuality. His assumption that women could and would enjoy sex outraged people as much as anything else he did. So did his straightforward celebration of the female body—without the redemption of romantic love or marriage (or endless cosmetics) promoted in women's magazines.

Today, ideas like the value of female sexuality and orgasm; the meaningfulness of sexuality outside of marriage; and the rights of individuals to determine their own erotic principles seem obvious to most Americans. For that, thank Playboy’s unblinking, consistent decades of promoting social change.

Unlike most consumer magazines of the time, Hefner felt that ideas and art were part of the Good Life, too. He therefore published articles by and interviews with cultural giants like Alex Haley, Bob Dylan, Ayn Rand, Salvador Dali, Kurt Vonnegut, and Margaret Atwood.

Yes, Playboy contextualized nudity and sexuality in a commercial, commodified world. In a capitalist country, it could hardly have been done any other way; history is full of sincere but failed attempts at utopian sexual communities and social change projects that insisted on living outside capitalism. And so the magazine also celebrated high-class cars, stereos, clothes, and cocktails. 

But at the same time, from the very beginning it also saw sexuality in a political context—before gays, birth control advocates, or BDSM participants even conceptualized themselves as communities committed to political action. 
The radical Politics of Sexuality that Playboy was the first to promote successfully seems obvious now. Gender activists, gay activists, sex educators, sex offender rights groups, sex workers, and those demanding the right to consensual non-monogamy (and, for that matter, anti-sex trafficking activists and anti-sex work activists) all base their work on Playboy’s insight that sexual freedom is a legitimate political issue.

Hefner understood that a sexual revolution was part of a broader struggle for civil rights. Before it was safe to do so, he gave a platform to crusaders like Dick Gregory, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King. He understood the toxic effect that religious training and hypocrisy had on American sexuality, and so he gave a platform to ahead-of-their-time critics such as Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor. 

And while most people bought the magazine for the pictures, they were exposed to voices they would otherwise never hear. Before the internet, how else could millions of working class white males ever hear from James Baldwin and Cecile Richards?

In fact, for many years Playboy was one of the few places Americans could read about sexual issues in any depth. They ran the first substantive article critiquing the then-new drug Viagra. Playboy also ran one of the very first articles critiquing the then-new concept of sex addiction

And Playboy's interview in which Jimmy Carter acknowledged he had "lusted in his heart" for other women (a serious sin to Carter and his evangelical community)
established a meme that continues to this day. The issue of a President’s religious beliefs is still a huge political issue.

Outside the magazine, Hefner walked his talk with incredible foresight, giving away over $20,000,000 to support Americans’ First Amendment and sexual rights, including:
• founding the International Academy of Sex Research, which still thrives today; 
• giving the seed money to start NORML; 
• In the 1970s, helping to establish the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, pioneering legal assistance to women in areas such as divorce, employment, and credit—headed by Ruth Bader Ginsberg;
• Establishing Children of the Night, providing teen prostitutes an alternative to the streets;
• Funding Masters and Johnson to start training health care professionals to treat sexual problems;
• Funding early research on the children of lesbian mothers, and funding the first prominent lesbian mother child custody trial—and winning.

Calling Hefner a pig without acknowledging these practical, world-changing accomplishments is simply ignorance dressed up as politics—in today’s language, virtue signaling.

And it ignores a far more important influence on female sexuality—romance novels. More copies of these books are sold in a typical month than Playboy has sold in the last five years.

In these books men are strong but need redemption, while women are desirable and desperately needed by men who treat them badly. Orgasms are volcanic, women turn abuse into love, and men realize that sex can only truly satisfy within monogamy. There’s your sex-as-commodity, women-as-object at its finest. Where are the feminist, religious, and anti-violence complaints? 

In an age when doing so brought the attention of the FBI, Playboy consciously and effectively challenged religious sexual morality, and it never stopped. No one else did that in 1953. Besides a few hundred bloggers with no visible impact, who is doing that now? 

Caustically attacked from many directions throughout Hefner's life, Playboy was accused of encouraging infidelity, of disrespecting women, of trivializing sex. It was described as immoral, harmful to both the men who bought it and their adolescent sons who masturbated to it. 

These same criticisms have resurfaced in response to Hefner’s death. People complain that Playboy promoted a stereotype of beauty that excluded many women. It did so no more than Hollywood and television. Or Jane Austen, Shakespeare, the Bible, or Grecian pottery. Identifying and promoting cultural standards of female beauty has been an obsession of human beings since recorded history began.

But Hefner also did the opposite. By bringing sexuality out of the closet, by expanding notions of sexual freedom, by seeing sex as a civil rights issue, he encouraged everyone to own their own sexuality—women as much as men. He made it possible for everyone to celebrate their own sexuality regardless of their body type, orientation, or preferences in bed.

That was revolutionary in 1953. As today’s gender activists, birth control advocates, polyamorous couples, and same-gender spouses will affirm, it still is.