Culture

The Miserable Playboy Legacy

Hefner at the Playboy Mansion in 2010 (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
‘Cheap sex’ immiserates.

‘Sex for me is . . . perhaps the single greatest humanizing force on this earth,” Hugh Hefner said during a 1974 interview with CBS, sitting alongside Protestant theologian Harvey Cox. “It would be a rather sad planet if there weren’t two sexes. And I think that we’ve managed to use and abuse and misunderstand our sexuality.” He certainly has a point about the sexes, but Playboy hasn’t helped matters — Cox, as you might imagine, agreed.

“Sex is cheap,” sociologist Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas at Austin explains in his new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.

It is more widely available, at lower cost to all than ever before in human history. What has emerged is not at all unlike the decline of the locally owned boutique shops and the rise of big-box, discount chains. Cheap sex has been mass-produced with the help of two distinctive means that have little to do with each other — the wide uptake of the Pill and mass-produced high-quality pornography — and then made more efficient by communication technologies. They drive the cost of sex down, make real commitment more “expensive” and challenging to navigate, have created a massive slow-down in the development of long-term relationships, especially marriage, put women’s fertility at risk& — driving up demand for infertility treatments — and have taken a toll on men’s marriageability. The “pure relationship” regime, which has flourished alongside the dramatic rise in cheap sex, is not nearly so consonant with other long-standing priorities like childrearing and relational stability. But it is becoming the norm in the West — the template for evaluating relationship development. And it has changed how men and women perceive themselves, their sexuality, each other, and the point of relationships. Cheap sex does not make marriage unappealing; it just makes marriage less urgent and more difficult to accomplish.

What cheap sex has wrought is “immiseration,” a word Helen Alvare has often used to describe the changed expectations and realities that are the air we breathe now. Playboy was certainly on the cutting edge of the revolution, albeit in ways that seem relatively quaint compared with what’s taken as convention today. Regnerus opens his book with a portrait of a 32-year-old named Sarah who is essentially looking for love in all the wrong places. Sarah wouldn’t pretend to call her sex-exchange relationships love, and she still wants marriage someday. But nothing she is doing is likely to get her there, as Regnerus’s research makes clear.

His is no wistful ode to an era that never was, but a clear-eyed look at what’s going on. Regnerus writes with compassion about Sarah and other women in the U.S. “mating market.” His chronicle of the situation, based on extensive numbers and interviews, shows what misery the Playboy Philosophy, as it were, has wrought. It’s one fueled by technology — and primarily the Pill — and an ideological idolization of a false freedom that changed not only mores but also expectations. The result is utter incoherence in individual lives and often the inability to successfully come together in the most fundamental of relationships for a humane civil society and culture.

“Despite shrinking double standards and growing egalitarianism, something seems amiss with sex these days,” Regnerus writes.

Most Americans — left or right, religious or not — can sense it. We have sexualized childhood. We titillate each other online. We’re catching more pernicious bugs in bed than ever. Online porn is now standard operating procedure for a near-majority of men. We construct comprehensive identities and communities around sexual attraction in a way unfamiliar to most of the Western world, including Western Europe. Cultural struggles over marriage continue — now out of the political limelight — in households, congregations, and workplaces. Meanwhile, the common date has eroded, now quaint in light of the ubiquitous, unromantic hookup. Programs aimed at “sexual health” proliferate, cost bundles, but seem to meet only modest success in the realm of consent. We medicate low sexual desire and market Fifty Shades. We can’t seem to get enough of sex — so we focus on technique — but what we get is leaving us hungering for still more or longing for some emotion or transcendent satisfaction that cheap sex seems to promise but seldom delivers. Social and interpersonal trust erodes; solitude and atomization increase. Mothers and fathers split. In light of these common realities, how many of us would confidently declare that yes, these are the best of times in American sexuality, that we are making progress, that we have modeled a template of more satisfying, fulfilling sexual unions?

Hugh Hefner has been quoted talking about the devastation of infidelity — his wife cheated on him — in his first marriage. He’s also said, during that CBS interview, “I think that there are certain aspects of adolescence that might be best retained for a lifetime.” Pretending that this is healthy would leave us on the immature side of our perpetually adolescent times and would mean we’ve learned nothing from his life and legacy. Hefner’s passing invites us to get moving on the next steps so love won’t be forever out of reach for so many — lost to misery disguised as freedom.

    READ MORE:

    The Emerging Moral Majority

    The Playboy Philosophy

    Hugh Hefner’s Legacy of Dispair

Kathryn Jean Lopez — Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.