Hugh Hefner–A Playboy to the Bitter End

Hugh Hefner turned 80 on Sunday. That’s right–the world’s most famous playboy entered his ninth decade, still wearing his pajamas and still preaching his gospel of free sex, paid pornography, and liberation from sexual morality.

The story of Hugh Hefner is the story of America in the midst of a great social and moral transformation–the Sexual Revolution. In the span of a few short decades, America (and much of the Western world) rewrote the entire system of sexual ethics. What had once been condemned was now celebrated, and what was once unmentionable became material for mainstream conversation, entertainment, and debate. Few revolutions have been so comprehensive in scope and reach–from the personal to the political. And Hugh Hefner has been one of the major revolutionaries of our times.

Hefner’s Methodist mother wanted him to be a missionary. In a very real sense, she got her wish in reverse. Hefner became a missionary all right, but a missionary that preached a rejection of the Christian sexual ethic. Hefner has been one of the most effective instruments of social change of the past century. At an early age, he set for himself a major goal–to be an agent of sexual revolution. Along the way, he also intended to make a great deal of money. He was to accomplish both goals in a big way.

It all began with Hefner’s idea for a magazine that would mainstream pornography. He obtained revealing photographs of Marilyn Monroe and intended to launch his new magazine to the American male, calling it Stag Party. Legal complications required a name change, and a friend suggested Playboy. Few brands have become so dominant in America’s cultural imagination–or done so much damage to the fabric of our society.

Pornography was not invented by Hugh Hefner, of course. His commercial achievement was finding a way to mainstream porn in the culture by selling it as a liberated lifestyle, complete with other features of the “good life,” including everything from fast cars to expensive clothes–all intended to sell a new image to the American male, who would rationalize pictures of naked women as “art” and culture.

For Hefner, selling himself was central to selling his magazine–and his empire of pornography. He created a persona by cultivating his image as a silk pajama-wearing playboy who lived the ultimate good life, housed in the Playboy mansion and accompanied by the constant company of beautiful young women. With Hefner, the personal was the commercial. He was, in effect, his first real invention. His image of the good life in the fast lane was picked up by the larger culture. For several years, his Playboy Mansion became the stage for a television show that drew major Hollywood celebrities as guests. His strategy was to remove the shame from pornography by linking the pornographic lifestyle to cultural respect, big money, and political power.

Nevertheless, the money was never far from mind. Playboy Enterprises became the first explicitly pornographic business to go public, with shares traded in the stock markets. As Matthew Scully commented in The Wall Street Journal, “It was Mr. Hefner who put the real money in porn, a business hard to go poor in under any circumstances (except for the unfortunates given starring roles) and today a $57 billion-a-year global industry. He brought it into the central stream of culture, so that now even upscale bookstores stock Penthouse or similar offerings without a second thought. He gave porn that ‘classy’ feel and its phony creed of ‘artistic’ expression and protected ‘speech’ by which far livelier fare than Playboy would soon ease into the popular culture.”

Playboy may have mainstreamed pornography, selling itself as “soft” porn, but Hefner and his company quickly ventured into the “hard core” sectors of the squalid business of pornography. As Scully remarked, “Playboy Enterprises itself, years ago, dropped the pretense of refinement and delicacy, following the money into hard-core cable. Soft-core, hard-core, these were all along just degrees of exploitation and self-debasement and for the procurers a purely legal and commercial calculation.”

Just this month, Hefner’s daughter, Christine Hefner, the CEO of Playboy Enterprises, announced that the company intends to roll out a new line of product for homosexual men. “We’ve extended the Playboy brand to women, and where there is a meaningful gay market, launching under a different brand is something we are very comfortable doing,” she said. Like father, like daughter.

The company is also a global business, with a reach that extends to all parts of the globe. That doesn’t mean that its products are always well received. This past week, Playboy Enterprises attempted to launch a soft-core pornographic version of Playboy in Indonesia. The venture hasn’t gone well, with death threats and public protests by local Islamic figures greeting the magazine’s arrival at the newsstands.

Playboy Enterprises now wants to describe itself as “pro-sex” rather than pornographic. This marketing ploy is slick and also at least partially effective, branding all opposition to the magazine and its constructed lifestyle as “anti-sex” and repressive. Hefner repeats one theme over and over–describing America as a land mired in moral and sexual repression due to what he describes as its Puritan roots. Speaking on Playboy magazine’s fiftieth anniversary, Hefner reflected: “I recognize that I remain–even after half a century–a controversial figure, but America has always had conflicts related to things related to sex. In other words, we remain essentially a very Puritan people. It was the Puritans who arrived on the Mayflower, and they came over to England because they were trying to escape from religious persecution, and the first thing they did was turn around and persecute the people who didn’t agree with them.”

In other words, America should hail Hugh Hefner as a great liberator, he feels. He styles himself as the smiling prophet who has led America out of the darkness of moral hysteria about sex into a new and hedonistic era of sexual freedom. He never admits that it is all based in a lie.

Millions of American males gained their early conception of women and sex from Playboy and its pictures. Hefner sold America on a false and distorted vision of sex and a degraded vision of women as sexual playthings for male fantasies. The magazine does not present sexual reality and the truth about sexuality freed from moral constraints–it just rolls out a monthly issue filled with fresh pictures.

The playmates of the month are airbrushed into unreality, and their true selves are hidden from view. Their bodies are ‘artistically enhanced,’ and their services are merely for hire. This is a business, after all.

There is no truth in this presentation, other than the tawdriness of the entire enterprise. Hefner and his magazine mainstreamed pornography by selling America on the idea that women can be reduced to nothing more than visual images for male sexual fantasies. Hefner’s women never age, never blush, and never say no. The men (and boys) who consume these images never have to grow up, even as their objects of lust never grow old.

But Hugh Hefner’s vision for the Sexual Revolution never ended with heterosexual lust. “Part of the Sexual Revolution was bringing irrationality to sexuality,” he once commented, “and that means sometimes it’s within the bounds of marriage, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s heterosexual, sometimes it’s homosexual. But it should be done in an enlightened way and should not be done in secrecy.”

As far as his own experience with marriage goes, Hefner has little use for bonds or matrimony and fidelity. “I tried the more traditional way,” he told National Public Radio, “I’ve been married twice. I paid an emotional price for it. I have less conflict and emotional turmoil in my life now with seven girlfriends than I did when I was married.”

The legacy of the Playboy lifestyle will be with us long after Hugh Hefner is gone. Millions upon millions of lives have been warped by Playboy‘s corruption of sex and sexuality. The total impact of his personal crusade defies calculation.

As for Hefner himself, this is one missionary who has never stopped preaching his message, even as he is now a pathetic picture of sexual excess. He is still wearing those silk pajamas and grinning into the cameras–a playboy to the bitter end.