On the Passing of Hugh Hefner

Late last month, Hugh Hefner died at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles at the age of 91. Sixty-four years ago, Hefner founded the first and most famous of the pornographic men’s magazines, Playboy.  Its success led to other ventures, including a chain of Playboy Clubs, and finally a brand so universally recognized that Hefner’s company continued to make millions from licensing its name and logo long after the magazine had become obsolete and irrelevant. 

Ironically, Hefner had Puritan roots.  He was a descendant of William Bradford, the Puritan governor of the Plymouth Colony.  Hefner’s parents were faithful Methodists, did not drink, and did not talk about sex at home. Hugh’s mother even wanted him to become a missionary.  Although he rebelled against his parents’ Christian values, he did become a missionary of sorts: a preacher of promiscuity, a lector of licentiousness, an apostle of hedonism.

Hefner worked assiduously to change the image of pornography—theretofore viewed as sleazy and déclassé—and promote it as part of a lifestyle affluent men would aspire to, a lifestyle that included cuisine, music (Hefner preferred Jazz), men’s fashions, high-end automobiles, travel, stereos, high-tech gadgets, and other toys for grown-up boys. 

As David French writes, “Hefner mainstreamed porn, he put it in millions of homes, and he even glamorized it — recasting one of America’s most pathetic industries as the playground of the sophisticated rich.”

Mark Steyn explains: 

The genius of Hugh Hefner was he had this whole Playboy lifestyle with the Playboy Mansion.  It wasn’t just that you liked looking at pictures of naked women, you also liked standing around in a smoking jacket listening to Miles Davis.  So you had all of the lifestyle, you had the long articles by William F. Buckley, but in the middle of it was a girl who looked like the girl next door, but all her clothes had somehow mysteriously fallen off. It was, in commercial terms, a very clever positioning of how far people would go, and how far they wouldn’t go.

Of course, this was all a huckster’s con: 

If you know anything about pornography, you know it is rather sad and pathetic; it is guys in dirty raincoats who have no life obsessing over it.  And the genius of Hefner was to make it look as if it was just an accessory to a cool lifestyle.”

Pornography is not an accessory to a cool lifestyle.  Porn misdirects and perverts an aspect of male sexual nature—a man’s strong visual attraction to female beauty—that should be confined within a marital relationship, facilitating the bonding of the couple.  Porn encourages masturbation—Onanism, or what Ellen White called “self-abuse.”  Porn and masturbation can stunt and short-circuit male sexuality by causing men to fantasize about and obsess over images of nubile females, instead of investing time and effort in wooing and winning a real woman who could become a supportive wife and mother. 

If carried into a marriage, porn demeans the wife, who is made to compete with professionally posed, photographed, and re-touched images of freakishly attractive women.  She becomes insecure as her husband’s use of porn makes her feel unattractive and inadequate to fully answer his needs.  In short, pornography is bad for men and women, and bad for their relationships.     

If Hugh Hefner had been just a slick and clever pornographer, it would not be worthwhile to note his passing.  But Hefner was also a sexual revolutionary, and perhaps has as great a claim as anyone to the paternity of the Sexual Revolution.  His column in Playboy was called, “The Playboy Philosophy”; in regular monthly installments, Hefner argued against Christian sexual morality, and in favor of a new culture of permissiveness.

In 1953, America still retained a culturally Christian sexual constitution.  It was a commonly accepted aspiration that sex should be confined to marriage, and that marriage was a child-rearing institution defined by family, community, and religious duty.  Hefner set out to blow up that sexual constitution.  

He succeeded.  When asked in 1992 what he was proudest of, Hefner responded, “That I changed attitudes toward sex. That nice people can live together now. That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex. That gives me great satisfaction.”  In other words, his proudest accomplishment was having legitimated—gained social acceptance for—sexual intercourse outside the bonds of matrimony.

But the Sexual Revolution was about far more than sex out-of-wedlock.  It was about overthrowing patriarchy and changing the roles and relations of men and women.  In my first article about female ordination, I noted that Hugh Hefner was an early and constant supporter of “women's liberation” and equal economic opportunities for women. He encouraged women to be independent and pursue college degrees and professional careers at a time (in the 1950s) when they were expected to be wives and homemakers. 

Why? Because for the Playboy lifestyle and philosophy to triumph, Christian patriarchy had to be overthrown.  In a patriarchal system, there are no women for playboys—in today’s parlance, “players”—to exploit; a father is the protector of his daughter until a young man willing to support and commit to her marries her, and then her husband is her protector. 

In a patriarchal system, women are not the primary earners; their fathers or husbands are. The Playboy lifestyle depends, however, on the existence of a huge pool of self-supporting women whom men can sexually exploit without commitment or financial responsibility, and for such a pool to exist, nearly all jobs and careers must be open to women.  Alyssa Rosenberg, an Australian journalist, notes how convenient Hefner’s support for women’s liberation actually was:

If it's important to you to be able to have sex with large numbers of women without necessarily entering a long-term monogamous relationship, then of course it's in your interest that women be economically independent enough not to rely on a spouse.

Note how Hefner defended himself, in 2011, from the charge of objectifying and exploiting the “bunnies” who worked at his early-1960s Playboy Clubs:

The truth of the matter is the bunnies were the pre-feminist feminists.  They were the beginning, really, of independent women. The bunnies were earning more money than, in many cases, their fathers and their husbands. That was a revolution.

In other words, if working in a quasi-sexual industry allows a woman to earn enough money to invert the patriarchal economic order, in which the man is the principal provider, then everything is okay. 

Today’s post-patriarchal ethos insists that all jobs and careers must be open to women.  This goal is pursued with an inhuman zeal that jettisons the accumulated wisdom of the ages: last Sunday, I saw a television ad in which the United States Marine Corp was trying to recruit women for combat roles.    

The forgotten rationale for this “equal opportunity” imperative is the facilitation of the Playboy lifestyle.  In a society in which men and women are expected to, and normally do, join in holy matrimony—‘til death do them part—it does not matter if some jobs are reserved for men and some for women, so long as each family unit has the opportunity to pursue that job or career.  If society is viewed as consisting not primarily of single individuals but of families, then there is no persuasive rationale for the eradication of sex roles.

It is long past time to revisit a cultural imperative that causes normally sober churchmen to ignore the plainest passages of Scripture about the different roles of men and women.  But instead, we stumble down a path toward oblivion, a path laid out for us long ago by a pajama-clad, pipe-smoking horndog who ended life as America’s most famous dirty old man, dating girls young enough to be his granddaughters.