Hugh Hefner: A dirty old man or a great sexual liberator?

Hugh Hefner drew the ire of Christian conservatives and radical feminists alike, but many women have also said positive things about the late Playboy publisher, writes TP O’Mahony.

Hugh Hefner: A dirty old man or a great sexual liberator?

In September 1995, the Censorship of Publications Appeal Board lifted the ban on Playboy magazine in the Republic of Ireland, a ban that was first imposed in 1959— six years after the magazine was launched in the USA.

Two years after the scrapping of ban, a number of Playboy executives accompanied Victoria Silvstedt, the 1997 Playmate of the Year, to Dublin as part of the preparations for an edition featuring “The Girls of the Emerald Isle”.

I interviewed the former model who had won the Miss Sweden title in 1993 in a Dublin hotel. She was charming, funny and very articulate (and liked Guinness), and very quickly dismissed the notion that by posing for and promoting the magazine she was “associating with sleaze”.

In a comment that was echoed at the weekend by Jenny McCarthy (the 1995 Playmate of the Year), following the death of Hugh Hefner, the magazine’s founder, at the age of 91, Ms Silvstedt said: “My association with Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine has had a transforming effect on my life. I’m so glad he contacted me after winning the Miss Sweden competition.”

She was very frank about her assessment of Playboy, seeing it as a publication that helped to usher in the sexual revolution, and one that was clearly ahead of its time.

Hefner she saw as someone who promoted rather than exploited women. “You could say we used the magazine as much as it used us.”

Many other women, especially feminists, take a very different view. They are scornful of Hefner’s self-depiction as a “liberator”, accusing him of “objectifying” women. One of the most scathing criticisms of the hedonistic lifestyle championed by Hefner and Playboy came from Gloria Steinem, who would go on to establish the groundbreaking feminist Ms magazine in 1972.

In January 1963, she accepted as a 28-year-old an assignment from Show magazine to work as a Playboy Bunny in order to write an exposé. Her two-part series — ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ — appeared in the May and June issues of Show magazine, surfacing in the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

At the core of ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ was Ms Steinem’s belief that the sexual revolution would fail if men were the only ones to define it.

Much later she said that one of the long-term results of the article was “years of occasional phone calls from past and present Bunnies with revelations about their working conditions and the sexual demands made on them”.

On the other hand, Camille Paglia, who is professor of humanities at University of Philadelphia, has been a staunch defender of Hefner’s magazine. “I have gone out of my way to publish in and endorse Playboy, which has been vilified by both mainstream and anti-porn feminists,” she wrote in Vamps & Tramps, a provocative collection of essays.

Among those to pay tribute to Hefner on his death was former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, who has appeared on 14 of the magazine’s covers — more than any other supermodel, film actress or rock star.

“I am me because of you,” she said. “You taught me everything important about freedom and respect.”

But the Guardian columnist, Suzanne Moore is contemptuous of the view that Hefner was “an icon for sexual liberation”.

Describing him as a “libertine” and a “disgusting old sleaze”, she says the “fantasy that Hefner sold was not a fantasy of freedom for women, but for men”. While she admits that Playboy used some fantastic writers — among them Gore Vidal, Ian Fleming, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Ray Bradbury, Joseph Heller and Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid’s Tale) — she says it is ridiculous that Hefner, following his death, is being hailed in some quarters as “a women’s rights hero”.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that by publishing a magazine with female breasts on its cover, Hefner started a revolution. “The magazine reflected hip, urban dissatisfaction with the stodgy conformism of the Eisenhower era,” wrote Steven Watts in the biography Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream.

Hefner launched Playboy with a naked centrefold of Marilyn Monroe (she was also its first cover girl), taken years earlier and bought for $500. The future superstar was a struggling actress at the time and desperate for money.

The first issue, produced from his kitchen and financed with $8,000 from friends and investors, sold more than 50,000 copies.

It is easy to see why the publication of a magazine featuring female nudity and articles dealing explicit with sex, especially premarital sex, contraception, abortion and pornography in the America of the 1950s would generate such controversy. Public discourse didn’t extend to such topics in a society that in some respects mirrored our own.

The influence of conservative Christianity was very pervasive. The Christian Right has always been influential in the US, not least in the corridors of power in Washington DC.

Sex was not openly talked about, and Hollywood still operated under a strict censorship regime. Even in 1971, a movie such as Carnal Knowledge was being prosecuted for obscenity, despite being described as “pure Hollywood e stablishment” and having no explicit sex. Indeed, the actress Ann-Margret had been nominated for an Oscar for her role.

The Korean War had ended in July 1953, the White House was occupied by Eisenhower since the start of the year, the country was still in thrall to McCarthyism and the fall-out from the notorious communist witch-hunts instigated by the Republican politician Joseph McCarthy, while religious leaders like Rev Billy Graham and Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York were enormously powerful.

In launching Playboy in December 1953, Hefner was reacting against what he regarded as a stultifying culture, and one that was particularly repressive in the sphere of sexuality.

Although he had been born into a strict Methodist family in Chicago in 1926, he came to hold and develop very liberal views on sex.

In high school he had written an essay criticising the USA for avoiding frank discussions about sex, and in his college newspaper he had written approvingly of the 1948 Kinsey Report — based on research by Alfred Kinsey, which shocked many Americans by its frank treatment of topics such as the frequency of marital sex, homosexuality and sadomasochism. “Playboy was a response to my own puritan upbringing,” he said afterwards.

By 1960, Playboy was reaching a million readers a month. And the list of those who featured in ‘The Playboy Interview’ slot reads like a Who’s Who of American culture, sport, entertainment and politics.

The great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was the first to fill the interview slot, and among others to be interviewed were Fidel Castro, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter.

Others on the long list include Princess Grace, Dr Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, John Lennon, Paul Newman, and Bernadette Devlin.

Asked by the New York Times in 1992 what he was most proud of, Hefner said: “That I changed attitudes towards sex. That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex. That gives me great satisfaction.”

In October 2015, the magazine announced that it was to stop publishing pictures of naked women, saying easy access to such images online meant they were “passé”.

However, in February 2017 that decision was reversed, with Playboy saying it was bringing back nudes. At the time Hefner said: “Today we’re reclaiming who we are.”

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