Hugh Hefner didn’t normalize sex, he normalized misogyny

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

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.