Hugh Hefner didn’t normalize sex, he normalized misogyny

Hef should not be remembered as a freedom fighter, but a con artist of epic proportions.

The true king of porn culture died on Wednesday, and while thousands cried “Finally!” and “Good riddance!” many more launched into sombre tributes, calling Hugh Hefner a “revolutionary” and a visionary.

And in some ways, he was.

Ol’ Hef envisioned a world where porn was completely mainstream — not something shameful men used alone at home or in private sex shop booths, covered in the ghosts of yestercum, but something that was just a regular part of society. Indeed, he envisioned porn culture; and he made it happen.

Hefner thought more highly of himself than perhaps anyone else. As I suffered through his 2017 series, American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story — a tribute to Hef, by Hef — it became clear that the man had very intentionally crafted the narrative America would come to tell about him: He was a crusader. A rebel. Just a humble man who wanted to fight the good fight against sexual repression, and liberate the American population from moral crusaders who said sex was a bad thing. Hefner insisted over and over that his goal, with Playboy magazine, was to convince America that sex was “normal” and to “bring sex to the mainstream.” But not only did he fail to do that, he never even tried.

Watching American Playboy, listening to Hef’s stories about himself, I realized that Hefner was in large part responsible for the lie that sexual objectification equals sex. He had no interest in normalizing actual sexuality, but wanted, rather, to normalize the male gaze and men’s perception of women as pretty things to be looked at. Playboy was never about “sex,” it was about male fantasies.

Playboy’s inaugural issue in 1953 featured nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe that Hefner had bought the rights to, but failed to actually ask Monroe herself for permission to use. No matter. To Hef the revolutionary, “sex” was a thing that happened to women, for male entertainment. Indeed, the “sex” that resulted from the nude photos featured in Playboy was one-sided. After using Monroe to sell tens of thousands of copies of the magazine, Hef decided he wanted to feature “girl next door” types, so began to pluck women from their office jobs to feature in his magazine as “Playmate of the Month.” Again, he congratulated himself on this revolutionary approach to objectification — these women, he said, were accessible (and undoubtedly cheaper than professional models). They weren’t intimidating like the models and celebrities men were used to fantasizing about — these were women any man could have.

This idea, pioneered by Hefner, that objectifying “regular” women constitutes progress — as though diversifying the kinds of women men can jack off to is the most generous thing we can offer the female population — has been wholly embraced by liberals today.

He has been lauded as a pioneer for making Jennifer Jackson, a black woman, Playmate of the Month in 1965 and putting Darine Stern on the cover of Playboy in 1971, making her the first black woman to grace the cover solo. He has been heralded as a “trans rights advocate” for putting transgender model Caroline “Tula” Cossey in the magazine in 1991. If anyone cared to pay attention, it would be clear that sexual objectification does not result in rights, respect, or equality. But neoliberal America prefers a simpler narrative.

Hefner has long celebrated himself as a feminist pioneer, and he’s not the only one. Criticisms of the man are consistently met with reminders that he supported reproductive rights — but what liberal man doesn’t? The ability to have sex without worrying about getting pregnant undoubtedly liberates women, but it also liberates men. Indeed, it is notable that, while liberal men will get behind the one female-specific right that absolves them of sexual responsibility (women are still the ones responsible for taking that pill or getting that abortion, after all), they refuse to speak out against the dehumanization of women in pornography or the violence inherent to prostitution.

The spin Hef put on his role in cementing women’s status as sex objects was taken up enthusiastically by his successors. Though the magazine announced they would no longer be publishing nudes in 2015, they quickly realized Playboy’s profits were (still) dependent on women’s bodies, and in February, Hefner’s son and the company’s chief creative officer, Cooper Hefner, announced that removing nudity was a mistake. He said:

“Nudity was never the problem because nudity isn’t a problem. Today we’re taking our identity back and reclaiming who we are.”

The language used to market Playboy and Hef’s legacy as feminist — fighting the powers that be — can only be described as sickening. This is a multi-million dollar empire we’re talking about. Beyond the fact that turning women into decorative objects for men to project their one-dimensional fantasies onto undeniably ensures women remain subordinate, Playboy engaged in numerous other unethical practices. Gloria Steinem documented the dehumanizing and exploitative way Playboy Bunnies were treated in an exposé back in the 60s, and Monroe was not the only woman whose images were published without consent.

Despite all his talk about being “a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism,” Hef hated the “women’s libbers.” In a searing obituary, Julie Bindel quotes “a secret memo leaked to feminists by secretaries at Playboy.” In it, Hefner wrote:

“These chicks [feminists] are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them. It is time we do battle with them… What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart. They are unalterably opposed to the romantic boy-girl society that Playboy promotes.”

Hefner treated women like playthings, and women who lived in his mansion have spoken out about the way they were controlled by him and how unpleasant the obligatory sex they had with him was. Hefner’s “sexual revolution” was nothing more than run-of-the-mill misogyny. Indeed, a harem is far from revolutionary, and treating women like imprisoned children is the opposite of liberatory. After ex-Playboy Bunny Holly Madison declined his offer of a quaalude on their first night out clubbing together, Hef told her, “Usually I don’t approve of drugs, but you know, in the ’70s they used to call these pills ‘thigh openers.'” If anything, he is a pioneer of rape culture.

A Playboy cartoon by Bill Hoest.

The original playboy won’t be forgotten, that is for certain. His legacy, though, is not one of a crusader for women’s rights but rather that of a skillful liar. Hefner dedicated his life to proliferating the lie that pornography is sex and that women must choose objectification in order to be liberated. In other words, he convinced America that women’s freedom lay in men’s profit (and in their beds).

It is the most grotesque con of the century, and Hef can be sure we won’t forget it.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • therealcie

    “Watching American Playboy, listening to Hef’s stories about himself, I realized that Hefner was in large part responsible for the lie that sexual objectification equals sex. He had no interest in normalizing actual sexuality, but wanted, rather, to normalize the male gaze and men’s perception of women as pretty things to be looked at. Playboy was never about “sex,” it was about male fantasies.”
    So very true, and this has been incredibly destructive for girls and women.

    • Topazthecat

      What isn’t being written about even in the feminist justified criticisms of Hugh Hefner and Playboy,is that not only did he and his sexist,woman-hating magazine dehumanize women as nothing but sex objects to feel,f*ck,and forget for the whole sexist,woman-hating,male dominated population,but he also published 1,000’s of full page color cartoon drawings every month promoting and normalizing incest and other child sex abuse of little girls by their fathers and uncles,and other men,gang rapes of women and children,women being sexually harassed by their male bosses in the work place often on his desk,and articles promoting these horrible things and woman-hating, anti-feminist articles,and even sexual violence towards little girls and women by men in photographs,for over 30 years.

      That’s why they started featuring young women with shaved genitals from the 1980’s to promote the adult child sex abuse.

      • Kathleen Lowrey

        Yes. “Chester the Molester” ho ho so funny. Hugh Hefner is a perfect example of hiding in plain sight: gross disgusting creep brilliantly masquerading as a gross disgusting creep. It’s the Jimmy Savile m.o.

  • Bev Jo

    This is so excellent. Thank you. It’s horrifying that any women mourn his dying or promote Hefner in any way. I was a girl when he became famous. I didn’t know about feminism at that time, but everything about him and how he treated women was horrifying and disgusting. And certainly knowing about him and men like him helped me accept feminism once I heard about it.

    I do wonder about what I’ve been reading about his influence on young men to be more sexist. Yes, he mainstreamed porn and vile misogyny, but no one has to participate and accept it, and I don’t see men objecting or fighting it. Males benefit from porn and objectification. Anything remotely implying men are victims of porn also is too close to the rally I went to that was theoretically supporting the Richmond, California 15 year old girl who had been gang-raped for hours outside her school dance, while the rapist men and boys texted their friends to join them. One of the men speaking at the rally said those rapists are “victims” too. No they are not. Neither are racists, even though some of the media is promoting racism. It’s the responsibility of Euro-descent people to fight racism on every level.

    We have to be careful to not disappear the real victims while promoting victimhood for men who oppress women.

  • Perry_Rhinitis

    Thanks for writing this. Also I noticed some “progressive”, “intersectional” feminist outfits either don’t have a critical post about him or have an ambiuous compilation of tweets from other people.

  • calabasa

    RIP, Hef. Roast in Pits.

  • Liz

    I’ll never forget reading Linda Lovelace’s book that Hugh Hefner wanted to watch her be forced into bestiality. I’ve always thought he was a walking, breathing moral deformity.

    • Topazthecat

      Yes,Linda’s violent,woman-hating husband who beat her with a shot gun to star in the horrible pornographic film deep throat,also forced her to have sex with dogs including in front of Hefner who loved to watch it!

  • Feminist Collection

    Thank you Meghan for articulating what I have been thinking all day!

  • Lucia Lola

    He was a gross person and should be remembered as the misogynistic monster he was. That he’ll be laid to rest beside a woman who he objectified, used and stole from (not just monetarily) shows just where his “heart” lays, in terms of female empowerment.

    Unless his coffin has a cotton tail and matching bunny ears, I’ll always see him for what he is. A pimp.

  • Maeve

    It is ever so clear that this culture loves its con artists. I don’t get how people can view such a scam as liberating. It’s the most repressive, boring and unrevolutionary approach to capitalism, using a sexually juvenile culture to build an unaccessible empire. People with brains could see right through the man.

  • Zoë Lafantaisie

    Well done – thank you Meghan – this is an appropriate obituary to a rapist.

  • Topazthecat

    Great true,important article Meghan and the very biased media once again lies about the true harms of sexist,dehumanizing,woman-hating,violent Hugh Hefner and Playboy,and pornography in general.

    Powerful important late 1990’s interview with feminist psychiatrist Linnea Smith on the many harms of Playboy and pornography in general

    http://www.talkintrash.com/SmithInt.html

    Linnea Smith Interview: Part I – talkintrash.com

    http://www.talkintrash.com

    Linnea Smith is your average woman of the 90s. She has a satisfying family life, rewarding career in mental health and interests that include …

    In this great late 1990’s article feminist psychiatrist Dr.Linnea Smith talks about the large amount of research studies on the harms of pornography in general Playboy Magazine promoting and normalizing sexual abuse of women and children for decades.

  • Topazthecat

    From Feminist Psychiatrist Linnea Smith’s Excellent Site With TONS Of Great Research Studies On The Endless Harms Of Pornography including Playboy Magazine

    http://www.talkintrash.com/playboy/PB96.00.html

    ANOTHER LOOK AT CENTERFOLDS

  • Marla

    I remember an interview where Hefner talked about age. He was in his late 70’s at the time saying it was “okay” for a man like him to date women as young as 18 as long as the sex was consensual. Hefner did way more than exploit women for masturbatory fantasies; he prayed upon their youth, naivety, and in a lot cases, desperation. Hefner forged a wasteland of expanded published porn so sick and disturbing that he dared not criticize it for lack of profit of his own magazine. He had no morals no matter how much he claimed Playboy was simply vanilla in contrast. Hefner made porn mainstream by injecting it into the mainstream by allowing authors such as Tom Wolfe, or interviews with Miles Davis to intertwine with straight out porn. Hefner turned porn into another pop culture phenomenon which was a brilliant marketing strategy for him. Hefner alone made the public who read his rag turn a blind eye to the true harm porn does.

  • Sashimi73

    This is the best opinion piece on the worm-snivel Hugh Hefner is that I’ve read. It’s remarkable, especially compared with the horrible headlines seen elsewhere.

  • Hekate Jayne

    If only all of the rapists would drop dead……..

    • will

      That’s been my fantasy/wish for many years. Like if a genie popped out of a bottle and granted me three wishes, one of them would be that every man who has raped or pimped will drop dead right now.

  • SADouglas

    Amen! What more need be said?

  • Helena Brors

    You don’t have to be 18 or over to pose for Playboy.
    Atleast you didn’t have to in the 70’s. Brooke Shields was 10 when she posed.
    Eva Ionesco was 11 when she posed.

  • rosearan

    Playboy and Penthouse did not do innocent ‘nudity’. They did erotically clad women with their naked genitals wide open and exposed (with suspiciously engorged clitoris and vulva), and the paid targets portraying the submissive throes of passion.

    They created (along with Hollywood) a peroxide straw-haired, massively over made-up bimbo with false boobs (detected from a mile away, because they show an explicitly circular implant line, not the natural smoothness of real breasts) and a permanently vacuous expression, in photo shoots hugging their god and meal ticket – the mighty Hef.

    The Hefner enterprise is only one part of the problem. The other part is the thousands of women who were brainwashed by a rape culture to see this as a stepping stone to a kind of success based on male-gaze lust.

    Most of those women in the early stages of the Playboy enterprise are now in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. I wonder what became of them?

    • Maria Gatti

      They are certainly suffering from those dangerous early implants.

  • Emer Martin

    The Washington Post stated “Hefner turned the world onto sex.” Really?
    Yawn! Playboy was the sexual revolution for men only. The male gaze
    ruled supreme. It wasn’t really about sex, more about consumption.
    Women as commodities for the new desired consumer life style. And to
    everyone posting about how he celebrated women: smiling thin, blond
    females with silly powder puff tails and those stupid bunny ears serving
    men and being there solely for their pleasure was not revolutionary
    just demeaning and sad. Those women, as we later found out, were
    exploited and miserable at his mansion. Playboy didn’t empower us. The
    women’s movement with its demands for reproductive rights, equal pay,
    access to power, and protection from male violence – it was those
    pioneering women who empowered us and we”re still fighting.

  • Izak Fullmetal Gainor

    Yup.

  • susiedm

    What is even more deplorable about Hefner using Marilyn Monroe’s nude pictures in the first issue of Playboy without her consent is brushing under the carpet the reason why those pictures had been taken in the first place. The first time MM was asked to pose nude she declined flat out but after her car had been impounded (in L.A you cant live without a car) and she was behind on the rent, she accepted because she really needed the money. She was a woman with no family or support and was easy prey. Those pictures were taken not because she wanted to but because she had no choice. Hefner was an opportunist and exploitative from the very beginning. I’m glad the bastard is dead and I hope there is a special place in hell waiting for him.

    • Scifimaster92

      And to add insult to injury, the misogynist dinosaur is now being buried right next to her in the cemetery.

  • Heidi Hall

    And in our culture men “consume” women. After a couple of relationships where I was objectified and told I was too difficult I understand your consumption/laborious activism as it applies to men and women. In our culture a woman is supposed to accept being subsumed into the relationship in order for it to be easy for the man to have his “needs” met.

    I spent a large portion of my life believing in my socialization, believing that my highest purpose was to be in a relationship with a man which meant my highest purpose was to please him at any cost to myself. I got tired of the bar being raised. I got tired of the power struggles. I got sick and tired of being told I was replaceable. If a man can’t find his own self esteem without being granted the right to use a woman until she no longer exists to herself it is not my fucking problem anymore.

    My incredibly loving Golden Retrievers only ask for kibble, a few treats and to share my experiences. I will do anything for them because they do not demand that I deny my own value.

    • Tobysgirl

      Yes, men consume women. I realized that a long time ago — men just use up women then get a new one when the old one is worn out (often dead).
      Yay, dogs!!!!! We just adopted Ryka, a German shepherd who was living on the streets of Memphis, then impounded, then she went to a wonderful foster home before she came to Maine. I feel so safe with her here when I am alone at night. Give your retrievers a big, sloppy kiss from me!

    • Maria Gatti

      While I love dogs, I remain a catperson, as per my web handle. My lovely Renzo lived to 20, and now I am ruled by Livia, a sweet little black killer who brings me mice early in the morning…

      • Tobysgirl

        Who rules the roost here? Daniel, our 17-year-old rescue, the original grumpy old cat. When I applied to adopt Ryka the dog, we were supposed to describe our current animals, the cats Daniel and Olivia. Olivia is the world’s biggest optimist despite being dumped as a very small kitten. Daniel? Grumpy, fussy, huggy, which I guess we all deserve to be when we reach that age.

  • Maria Gatti

    Well, I’m a hardcore ecosocialist as well as an outdated second-wave feminist, so of course I agree with that.

    Consumerism has two definitions; one involving consumer advocacy (an important movement in the 1960s, about unsafe and useless goods) and the other involving buying into mindless consumption:
    https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/consumerism

    But I do confess a little bit of joy buying a pepper-red béret yesterday (made in Canada, by the way)

    • Tobysgirl

      Yes! I remember when consumerism meant consumer awareness and advocacy! My mother was involved in this movement in the 1930s.

  • Maria Gatti

    The worst kind of men also weaponize dogs. Yes, dogs are carnivores, and unlike their feline fellow carnivores, they are pack animals, but the behaviour too many arseholes encourage among “macho” breeds such as dobermans and pitbulls has no relation to normal canine behaviour, whether dog or wolf.

    Violent men often start out with animal abuse, deliberately hurting or killing the pets of their spouses or children.

  • lk

    I read a few articles about Hugh’s death on yahoo and other sites. I usually avoid the internet comment section on most articles, but I was curios…and yes, there were comments about how great Hef was and how women were free to choose to pose for him and blah, blah..but there were also a LOT of comments saying how sleazy he was, how he used and exploited women. Seeing those comments gave me hope..it was nice to see people acknowledge that this guy was not some feminist ally who wanted to make the world better for women..but just another sexist man who made money off of women’s status as sex objects.

  • marv

    Why aren’t the men parading around bare or near naked and photographed to release their sexual tension? Covering up is stifling men’s mental health. We don’t have to travel to SA to see how it turns out. It’s right here. It’s time for men to pose nude and post on the internet for money in the same numbers as women. When will you start to show men how to be free instead of double standardizing?

  • meh

    Wish he’d never been born.