Complicated Thoughts On Hugh Hefner

How long would it take you to find a picture of naked boobs now, if I asked you?

The answer, for most of you, could be measured in “seconds.” Some of you could flip to another browser window right now and have a naked woman looking back at you. Some of you would check your phone for pictures from, or to, a sweetie. Still others might have to Google it, maybe turn off safe search first, but still: I’m willing to bet most of you could get from here to a picture of bared breasts in under a minute tops.

It wasn’t that way in the 1980s.

Particularly if you were a horny thirteen-year-old.

We didn’t have the internet; hell, we didn’t have VCRs yet to maybe sneak some peeks at something Dad rented. And being thirteen and a social outcast, there was no chance in hell an actual lady would consent to getting naked with me, so whacking it was pretty much all I had. I was sufficiently lonely that pictures of naked women were fantasy material in the sense that Lord of the Rings was a fantasy – I was never going to be Bilbo, never going to cast a spell like Gandalf, and I was going to die unloved and alone and a virgin.

In that sense, staring at naked photos of women was longing for a future I’d never have.

Yet finding those photos was a hunt that every boy swapped tips on – we talked about common locations where dad might hide his secret stash of nudie magazines, because they were always locked up somewhere in a vault. Or we’d figure out which cashiers didn’t care who they sold to, as long as you had the cash on hand to buy it.

And if you got your hands on a magazine, that might be all the naked women you got. You get bored today with your woman, you go to another site. For us, maybe Miss April 1984 was all we could get our hands on. We imprinted on her. It was kind of like dating because, well, our options were limited.

And the magazines themselves?

They were oracles. Windows to a world where people not only talked to women, but got to photograph them naked. We scanned them eagerly because there was some trick to getting these naked women we desired, and it must be in here somewhere, so we’d scour the words and hope.

Some of the magazines did lie to us, of course – the really nasty ones spun fake stories about seductions that bore no resemblance to anything that human beings did, attractions based entirely upon bulges and 70s leftover fashions and musky scents. But honestly?

You could have told us anything. We were a captive audience. We’d read the words just because they were there, and if you’d told us that fluoridation poisoned the water and commies were out to steal our teeth, well, we’d probably have believed you.

Playboy, the most common source of naked women, did not do that.

Playboy had interviews.

And I remember reading those interviews with perplexion because they went on forever – I didn’t know who Ted Turner was or Jesse Jackson or Fidel Castro, but Playboy thought they were important. So I read over them again and again, realizing there was such a thing as politics and people thought it was important and the interviewers sometimes disagreed with their subjects and forced them to justify their positions and really, shit, there was a complexity there that thirteen-year-old me didn’t get but came to understand that “being a grownup” was more than just “getting girls naked” but in fact was “comprehending how the world works and taking a moral stance on the issues of the day.”

There is, in a very real sense, a line drawn straight from Playboy to my essays here. Playboy caught me when I was literally masturbating and said, “Hey, there’s more to the world than your dick, ya know.” And they encouraged me to investigate that even as they also showed me naked women.

That is one fucking weird market to hit.

Because yes, absolutely, Playboy exploited and encouraged sexualization of women in a way that for many became degrading. (Though it’s interesting that even in this supposedly enlightened day and age there’s still the perception that any woman who got naked for Playboy must have been some dumb bimbo who got used, because “a woman who gets naked voluntarily” is perceived as dumb and exploitable.)

But the thing is, I was thirteen and seeking naked women, as most horny hetero teenaged boys do. There were definitely more enlightened vessels of political awakening, but I was not going to find them. If you’d handed me a copy of bell hooks, I would have said, “Oh, yeah, thanks,” with the politely dismissive attitude of a kid who got socks for Christmas and then gone digging through the dumpster in hopes of a crumpled up Penthouse picture.

Yet Playboy did eventually get me to reading bell hooks (and she was fucking mind-blowing). It was a winding path, but it got me there.

So for Hugh Hefner, it’s weird. He was never quite the feminist he claimed he was, and his personal life was more than a little controlling and creepy. (EDIT: This article sums up a lot of the downright rapey vibe at the Playboy Mansion.)  He would never be my poster choice as someone who fostered women’s rights. There’s a lot of women who dislike the culture he perpetrated, and they are correct to dislike that culture.

Yet if he’d been more perfect, he never would have done the things that penetrated (pun intended) my adolescent brain. All I was looking for was whack material, and he probably could have done just fine delivering that – as other skin mags did, providing just the girls and a smattering of spackle-articles to fill pages.

And as a society, we don’t necessarily have an emotional socket to plug “an imperfect guy who changed a lot of minds that more enlightened people could never reach” into. Women may not like the dudes who took the Playboy lifestyle seriously, and that’s a valid critique, but I’m pretty sure they would have liked those dudes a lot less if Hefner hadn’t interfered. Because in the absence of Playboy’s political stances – and Playboy was, for its time, highly liberal – many of those dudes probably would have just unquestioningly jerked off a lot and become something even worse.

(Especially if you take the view that some biographers have, namely that Hef started Playboy because at the time “bachelor” meant “gay” and he wanted to devise a more liberal lifestyle that was socially acceptable.)

So how much credit does society give for incremental improvement? Particularly when that “improved” version is, in and of itself, problematic? Complicated by the fact that, as noted, you kind of needed a Hugh Hefner to provide pornography to the right audiences before the philosophy could work its magic?

Hefner did some good work, and in the process he also perpetrated some negative aspects of women. And that will always be snarled up in the idea that “sex work” and “women” is inherently degrading, as witness the way society assumes anyone who’s doing sex work must be stupid or enslaved or both. So it gets complicated. Real complicated.

But Hefner, at least for me, gave me something I don’t know if I would have gotten another way. He latched onto some base instincts and built something decent out of that – so decent that I later came to disagree vehemently with some of Hefner’s statements. But I credit the awareness of that debate, in part, to Hef.

On Twitter, I said this: “Whenever someone dies: remember that the good they did for you doesn’t magically erase the harm they did to someone else.” That’s true the other way around. For me, Hefner did some good even if he also contributed to the oppression of women.

I can take the positives that he did without occluding the negatives. The man used naked women as a platform to publish all sorts of political screeds and stories that ultimately did some good in the world. The attitude he took towards those women was, for some of them, dismissive and objectifying.

I think you can go mad trying to balance that out to come up with a single average number.

Far better to just say that he did good, and bad, and leave it at that.

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