News of Hugh Hefner’s passing this week has brought me back to a time in my childhood I had long forgotten. A time when sex, and bodies, and love started to dominate my thoughts and I was no longer that carefree child but a confused teenager trying to understand my sexuality.
Hugh Hefner and his controversial and prolific media empire played a big part in that. I don’t think there is a person who hasn’t been shaped in some way by his work, but it’s important to examine how we have been shaped and how we might do more and do better going forward.
Growing up my father kept crates of Playboys around. He had Penthouse, and Hustler, and more, and worse, lying around too, but it was the Playboy’s I flipped through most days after school, trying to take in all the pictures and commit them to memory before he was due to return home from work.
He never tried to hide them, and he never told me not to look at them. That was his parenting style, there were no rules until I got caught, and then I was in trouble, and there was a new rule.
Once I flipped through one while eating a bag of Cheetos as my after-school snake. At 4:30 I returned the magazine to its place in the pile and moved on with the rest of my evening. Sometime later, I can remember anymore how many hours or days passed, he called me to the living room and pointed to my little orange fingerprints he’d found marking the lower outside corner of each page and asked me bluntly if I’d been reading them.
I denied it, of course. This happened during my “lying years” when I never admitted to anything, no matter the evidence presented. He asked me again, and I denied it again, and he only stared at me for a long time and sent me to my room. My father still made no effort to hide his magazines, and neither of us ever mentioned the incident again.
I’ve only told that story to a few close friends because I’ve been a little ashamed of it. Not because I was looking at those magazines. I’m ashamed because my father might have gotten the wrong idea about why I was looking at them.
“Sex is the driving force on the planet. We should embrace it, not see it as the enemy.”
See, I wasn’t flipping through those pictures because they excited me. I was a teenager, and I was attracted to other teenagers, and while the men and women gracing Playboy’s pages were certainly attractive, they were also old. What playboy was for me was a kind of education, and compared to the sources I’d had back then, it was the best I could get.I learned what sex could be. I saw it could be enjoyable, exciting, and, well, sexy.
I never got a proper “talk” from my parents. They seemed to just understand that one day I knew what sex was, but they never asked where I had learned what I knew, and they never offered to clarify anything. The Sex Education class that school taught was nothing but the mechanics of sex. They talked about it the way you explain to a toddler how using the “big kid potty” works. You do it when you are old enough to handle it. You do it behind closed doors. You wash your hands after doing it, and you do not talk about it in mixed company. It’s something we all do, but it’s dirty.
Playboy taught me that sex isn’t dirty, and people aren’t dirty for wanting it, thinking about it, or doing it. It’s natural. It’s something people like to do, and if you do it the way that works for you, with someone, or maybe even someones, that you like and that like what you like, you might like doing it too.
Playboy taught me that sex isn’t something you have to hide either. You can talk about it, share stories, share knowledge! And it taught me that no matter what you are into, there are plenty of other people who are into that too. Not much is out of the norm anymore, and no one needs to feel weird or different.
The women in Playboy seemed classy, cool, and in control of what was happening to them. Whether they were or not, I never got any other idea. The men never looked mean or angry, and they women looked eager to engage. Other porn I’d seen, especially videos played at friends houses when their parents were at work, the women were either bored or overdoing it to fool the viewer. They were objects. They were there to give, and no one cared how they felt about it. Those videos gave me a dirty feeling, like I needed to wash my hands after.
But when I flipped through those Playboys memorizing those details it was because this was the kind of sex I wanted to have one day. I wanted to remember how it was done. I wanted to know what I needed to do to feel classy, cool, and in control when it was my time to grow up and do it too.
As much as I Playboy may have helped me understand sex and sexuality, Hugh Hefner’s use of women and sex to get rich is a messy moral predicament. There’s no doubt of his immense contribution to pop culture and the sexual revolution. Playboy wasn’t just sexy pictures and “I never thought it would happen to me” letters. The articles really were groundbreaking and informative, and some of the best interviews include Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Miles Davis, John Lennon, and many, many more.
His work for LGBTQ and abortion rights helped move this country forward and his belief that women own their sexuality, embrace and express it, shaped me, and I am willing to bet, many other women. He changed the world forever, and I am grateful for his work and his voice, but there are issues too, big issues. I can be grateful for the man, and still, find his methods and his media problematic. It’s sex, after all, and sex is never simple.
I’ve never heard that Hugh treated the women in his employment badly, but his mansion, and all the women, and the sacred place he held in everyone’s hearts and minds felt cult-like and creepy. For the women around him, there was clearly a standard to met and expectations to fulfill. There was an illusion to keep up one that so we were all so eager to be a part of we never really questioned it. Its only been after the news of his death that even I have looked back and wondered if the man and his work were really such a positive force for everyone?
What we failed to see was that in his glamorous world of fantasy, men were men, and women no matter how well they were treated, were still only valued by the pleasure they could bring. In Hugh’s world, masculinity still reigned supreme. Women enjoyed only an illusion of control. They were encouraged to embrace their sexuality, to own and express it, to the benefit of the male eye and libido.
Hugh Hefner, to me, was the kind of man who realizes slut shaming results in less sex for men and so encourages the women around him to be free to get what he wants. It’s manipulation instead of force. I can’t be sure that was his intention, but I can be sure that is the message many men got.
So, progress was made but some of that progress was just dressing up old ideas and ways of seeing gender and sexuality in new exciting clothes. It’s important to be clear and honest about that. One man can’t have changed the world all by himself, he was no God despite the pedestal he was placed on. Recognizing his failures is not a denial of his greatness. It’s the best way we can honor him, by doing better.
Hugh was a man, a big, important, influential, historical man, but he was a man. A man of privilege and ignorance. A man made of half good intentions and half bad methods, just like the rest of us. I can see all of that, but there is also something else too. Something more personal, outside of good and bad. It’s in the ways Hugh and his magazine touched our own private lives and shaped our private pleasures. He shined a light into the dark corners and showed us, or at least me, that there’s was nothing dirty in those corners after all.
Just good clean fun to be had by all.
“In my own words, I played some significant part in changing the social-sexual values of our time. I had a lot of fun in the process.”
— Hugh Hefner
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Featured image is by Mark Vessey