If a man or woman who died in 1953, the year Playboy first appeared, were to return to live among us today, one of the most stunning elements of American life they’d find would be that women today speak without shame of sex with men they’re not married to, boast of their “conquests,” take off their clothes for lots of money, and even take off their clothes for little or no money and send the pictures out into cyberspace with hardly a second thought. Women have spoken of these changes in terms of “liberation” or even “empowerment.”
Our notional deceased-in-1953 woman says, “Why on earth would they do that?” Our notional deceased-in-1953 man says, “I can’t believe I missed out on this.” Hugh Hefner was not the only person involved in effecting these changes, but he may have had more to do with them than any other single American.
After Hefner died this week at 91, tributes poured in from, among others, women who had posed nude for his enjoyment and his checks. “Thank you for being a revolutionary and changing so many people’s lives, especially mine,” Jenny McCarthy tweeted in memoriam. Wrote Carmen Electra on Instagram, “Thank u for picking me and Bringing me into the magical world of Playboy ! I just can’t stop crying and I can’t imagine how many bunnies are crying for u too.” [sic, sic, sic] Kim Kardashian West, who has 20 million more Twitter followers than the president of the United States and who became famous after a tape of her having sex with a boyfriend somehow mysteriously got on the Internet, added on Twitter, “I’m so honored to have been a part of the Playboy team! You will be greatly missed! Love you Hef! Xoxo.”
There was a time when Playboy and feminism were considered opposing forces: In 1963, Gloria Steinem went undercover to write an exposé of life as a “Playboy bunny” — a suggestively clad cocktail waitress at one of Hefner’s men’s clubs. Steinem brought to the world, via Show magazine, the shocking news that bunnies wore uncomfortable clothes, were hit on by the clientele, had to execute a humiliating move called a “bunny dip,” and were paid much less than advertised. To put it mildly, outrage did not follow. Playboy continued to make millions in annual profits while Show magazine foundered.
Kirstie Alley, who played Steinem in a 1985 TV movie, tweeted, “RIP Mr Hefner.. always so kind to me .. live it up wherever you are! I salute you with a bunny dip..:).” This, to the target of the exposé Alley dramatized. The film — which, as a reviewer on IMDb sweatily notes, displayed Alley looking “the hottest she has ever looked in any of her movies . . . running around in a bunny outfit with tons of cleavage” — helped the actress on her way to stardom, and she was hired to star on Cheers two years later.
Asked to name his biggest source of pride, Hefner told the New York Times in 1992, “That I changed attitudes toward sex. . . . That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex. That gives me great satisfaction.” It goes without saying that he decontaminated the idea of being publicly seen naked. Hefner provided, for selected models, an unprecedented ability to monetize and publicize their sex appeal. A direct line can be drawn from Hefner to Miriam Weeks, better known under her nom de porn Belle Knox, who as an 18-year-old Duke undergraduate in 2013 took to performing in pornographic films for $1,300 per scene, money she used to buy, among other things, iPads and designer handbags. In one such film she is depicted being choked and spat on.
After word got around campus about her new career, Weeks announced that being a porn actress was “empowering” and that she was a “sex-positive feminist.” This was exactly the line Hefner had been using to entice women to disrobe for 50 years. In her inevitable Playboy interview, Weeks said, “I want society to recognize that sex work is a legitimate profession. . . . I think the industry needs a feminist advocate as well. There are a lot of anti-porn feminists who try to speak out against exploitation in the industry, but we need somebody who can advocate for women while standing up for our right to sexual autonomy.” She especially defended her more degrading performative acts and added, “We have free speech in this country so I stand by the right of female performers to engage in rough sex scenes. If it’s something you enjoy doing, more power to you.”
To the men of America, it’s all too good to be true.
Today, social-media networks are drenched with pictures of unclad or barely clad women vying for your attention. Websites by and for “strong,” “confident,” “empowered” women teem with stories in which sex is framed as no more consequential or meaningful than a game of table tennis. Hefner’s life’s work was to reshape the culture so that women would approach sex as if they were men, and he succeeded beyond measure. He distracted women from noticing that the emotional and biological costs of sex can be much higher for them, to the point where sexually hyperactive young co-eds can no longer fathom a point that would have struck 1953 women as self-evident: that having lots of loveless, no strings-attached sex would make them deeply unhappy.
To the men of America, it’s all too good to be true. Today the availability of sex, and sexual imagery, is of such a scale that it would have seemed far beyond belief for virtually the whole of human history. Culturally speaking, that’s now an ancient historical era. Call it B.H.: Before Hefner.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.