It’s easy to remember Hugh Hefner as a progressive gentleman trickster. The consummate seller of smut, he’s also been lauded as an advocate for women’s reproductive rights and for publishing feminist icons such as Margaret Atwood. Less mentioned, however, is how he tricked us into normalizing porn and mainstreaming rape culture.
America loves bedding men who carry uncomfortable dichotomies. Despite making films with strong women protagonists, Hefner’s friend, director Roman Polanski, said at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 that “leveling the genders is simply idiotic,” and his oeuvre exemplifies this idea by containing not only his films, but also an indictment of six counts of criminal behavior, including rape.
In 2014, model Chloe Goins filed a lawsuit claiming that another of Hefner’s friends, Bill Cosby, drugged and raped her at the Playboy Mansion. Goins also named Hefner in the claim, stating that he knew of Cosby’s alleged crime.
Although Hefner denied his involvement, he also appeared to condone the use of drugs to rape women. Early in Hefner’s relationship with Playmate Holly Madison, he offered her a Quaalude. When she waffled, he told her, “Usually I don’t approve of drugs, but you know, in the ’70s they used to call these pills ‘thigh openers.’”
Despite consensual sex being absent within the pages of Playboy, Hefner is remembered for supporting rape crisis centers and funding America’s first rape kits. Yet it’s worth remembering that a handful of good deeds don’t erase a lifetime of deleterious actions. The Ku Klux Klan, for example, didn’t become any less hateful an organization simply because some of its members protested the Westboro Baptist Church.
It’s a talented man who can convince society that his art cancels his misogyny. Polanski, Cosby, Woody Allen, Hefner. How do these men rise to the top? Perhaps it’s because as a nation, we idealistically want to believe in their goodness. We’re taught as children that because “boys will be boys,” we must overlook their occasional bad behavior, and we learn to adore men who retain even an ounce of this impish charm. Hefner will always be Hefner, and whether you love him or hate him, his poster boy status as the wealthiest, most entitled man-baby of them all continues to embolden other men to try aspects of his lifestyle — such as the objectification of women — on for size.
Interestingly, Hefner positioned himself as a fierce advocate for women. Although Playboy Magazine was created to feed men’s fantasies, he believed that it also supported the women’s movement by being a large part of the sexual revolution: “The reality is,” he told NPR’s Fresh Air program in 1999, “that the major beneficiaries of the sexual revolution are women.”
More recently, in an interview with fashion editor Morwenna Ferrier, Hefner said that he was “a humanist with some feminist sensibilities.” These things are not, however, mutually exclusive. Humanism is a philosophy that originated in the 13th century, while feminism is a movement concerned with equal rights for all people, including women wearing bunny tails. Despite telling us that he was an ally to women, Hefner’s words have always spoken otherwise.
Scoffing at the idea that Playboy had turned women into sex objects, Hefner believed that objecthood was an inherent trait of the so-called “fairer sex,” telling the Daily News in 2010 that: “Women are sex objects. If women weren’t sex objects, there wouldn’t be another generation. It’s the attraction between the sexes that makes the world go ‘round. That’s why women wear lipstick and short skirts.”
Packaged solely for men’s pleasure, the objectification of women has always been Playboy’s biggest commodity. Patrick Trueman, president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said that Playboy “popularized the commodification of the female body in soft-core pornographic magazines in the 1960s, and it laid the groundwork for the public health crisis of Internet pornography that America is experiencing today.”
Some people take a moral stance on porn because they’re simply prudishly offended, while others attack it because they believe it has led to violence against women. While it’s difficult to quantify the relationship between porn and violence, it’s also hard to deny that most porn degrades and objectifies women and turns men into brutes, supplying a library of fantastical, idealized images of primarily women, often in compromised sexual situations. Hefner, who believed that his version of mainstreamed soft porn normalized sex, really just normalized rape culture and misogyny.
Of course, like many white men blinded by their privilege, Hefner nursed hurt feelings after feeling under-appreciated by some women: “There was of course a women’s movement which presented a backlash,” he told Ferrier, whining, “that upset me.”
This was another of Hefner’s “boys will be boys” sort of dichotomies: on the one hand, he argued that Playboy contributed to the success of the women’s movement, while on the other hand, he decried the same movement for biting him in the ass. This isn’t unlike how Donald Trump tried to assure us of his respect for women while also saying he grabbed them by the pussy.
Aside from creating a world of fantasy for men to fall into, Hefner’s greatest tricks was convincing us that he was one of the good guys. By doing this, he exposed one of the biggest problems of the sexual revolution: a person can appear to be progressive — and he might even change culture for the better or contribute in some ways to social well-being — while also being a cod who creates roadblocks for those people who are really fighting for gender equality.