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 treat women implicitly 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.
Hefner launched Playboy magazine in 1954 amid a flurry of articles worrying that masculinity was in “crisis,” under threat from overbearing women. Playboy, with its celebration of leisure, played into some of those critics’ fears of weak postwar men, but everyone could agree women were to blame. “Take a good look at the sorry, regimented husbands trudging down every woman-dominated street in this woman-dominated land,” Playboy columnist Burt Zollo wrote in an early issue in one of several stories the magazine would run bemoaning the “womanization” of men.
Throughout his life, Hefner seemed to vacillate between terror of women and a desire to control them. In 1970, Steinem described his magazine’s worldview as “boyish, undeveloped, anti-sensual, vicarious and sad.” (When the two met to accept an award almost 30 years later, The New York Times described Hefner as shaken by Steinem’s cold fury, and “crumpled, almost deflated.”)
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As he aged, still clutching his pipe and forever in his pajamas, Hefner became a real-life version of the overage character in “Dazed and Confused” who exults about high school girls: “I keep getting older, they stay the same age.” In an account from one of his partners, Holly Madison, Hefner was controlling and manipulative, but also held in utter contempt by the women of the mansion, who apparently drew no pleasure from spending time with him.
When feminism grew more fashionable in the 1970s, Hefner draped himself in civil liberties and funded organizations like the ACLU, including, early on, its Women’s Rights Project, while still taking care to distinguish the “good” feminists (who favored access to abortion and contraception) from the “bad.” He even took credit for teaching the women how to free themselves: “Playboy was there from the beginning, before feminists even had their voice, fighting for birth control and abortion rights.” But Hefner and the men who wanted to be like him could have learned a lot from the critiques of the feminists he dismissed, if they had cared to listen.
For many feminists, the problem with the midcentury sexual revolution wasn’t the no-strings-attached sex. It was that they were “free” to have sex on men’s terms — and, in the absence of social, economic and political power, this wasn’t exactly liberation. Another problem was that men, and not just women, have feelings, too, including when it comes to sex, something that Hefner’s world never broached.
“Was the rejection of any link between sexual desire and emotional involvement really an expression of freedom — or merely another form of repression?” feminist critic Ellen Willis wrote in 1982. The “predatory disregard of women as people ... an attitude that could only reinforce the conventionally feminine sexual reluctance, passivity and unresponsiveness that men found so frustrating.”
If Hefner and Playboy had bothered portraying women as human — with desires, complications, messiness and weirdness — could their male readers have had better sex lives?
For some men, figuring out that their partners had needs too, that women were people, could make life richer, even more pleasurable. For Hef, things stayed the same. Maybe it worked for him. From the outside, at least, it looked pretty lonely.
Irin Carmon is co-author of “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”