Hugh Hefner, who died last 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.
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.
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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. Playboy columnist Burt Zollo wrote in an early issue in one of several stories the magazine would run bemoaning the “womanization” of men. A half-century later, Hefner explained that “the womanization of America” was related to “prohibition, anti-sexuality, censorship.” And he also mentioned how prudish his mother had been.
Throughout his life, Hefner seemed to vacillate between terror of women and a desire to control them.
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.”
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” (mannish or prudish women).
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.
If Hefner and Playboy had bothered portraying women as human — with desires and complications and messiness — 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 an Outlook contributing writer for the Washington Post.