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What would sex look like without Playboy?

Late on Wednesday night, it was announced that Playboy founder and professional pajama-wearer Hugh Hefner had died at the age of 91. On an individual level, his death acts as a liberation for the many women he and his company notoriously abused, both physically and psychologically. No longer will former associates, wives, and employees have to live under the rule of his Viagra-infused dick.

On a societal level, the death of Hugh Hefner closes a chapter in how we, as a culture, relate to sex. Since the first printing of Playboy in 1953, Hefner and his associates have maintained a monopoly on how men and women perceive their bodies in a sexual context. Unsurprisingly, his death has inspired the masses to recall the Playboy legacy not as a monopoly, but a revolution.

Yes, the magazine was controversial at first, if only because people in the mid-20th century were still wrestling with too many Puritanical hangups to admit that sex was pleasant. And yes, Playboy once published short stories by Kerouac and Nabokov; interviews with Malcolm X and Bette Davis; and essays on controversial topics like abortion rights. Out of context, perhaps these artifacts would be valuable. Yet, after reading up on the philosophies of Dr. King, all one had to do was turn the page in order to be greeted by a smiling teenager’s breasts. Playboy may have been progressive in certain regards, but its attempts at intellectualism remain entirely contradictory.

Over the years, Playboy’s high-brow facade disintegrated entirely and the magazine stopped publishing anything that didn’t look like a waxed, oiled, juvenile vagina. Yet, upon Hefner’s death, everyone seems intent on excitedly fawning over the good old days when Hefner churned out a couple of fancy words in between pages and pages of exploited female bodies, conveniently proving how much work has yet to be done in the understanding of female sexual autonomy.


Unfortunately, whether or not one agrees with Hefner’s approach, his impact is tragically undeniable. Playboy may be more of a campy relic than an active force in today’s sexual industry, but there is no denying the trickle-down effect of its glossy pages. Without Playboy, it’s difficult to imagine what sex and sex work would look like today.

Playboy is the reason that white, blonde, thin women are perceived as the pinnacle of beauty and sexual desirability — dating back to the magazine’s first issue, feature cover star and centerfold Marilyn Monroe.

This debut issue is not just representative of the male gaze’s control over the appearance of female sexuality, but the more sinister handling of women behind the scenes. Hefner used Marilyn Monroe’s images, in order to sell a pornographic magazine, without ever receiving her written permission. In fact, the two never even met. Yet, now Hefner is slated to be buried next to Monroe’s Los Angeles resting place.

At a critical time for sexual exploration and the advancement of a conversation in a society long-reliant on sexual repression, Playboy established the foundations of a pornography industry that runs on gaslighting, exploitation, and the falsified appearance of boundaries. It’s no coincidence that these issues are now long-standing threads in the adult industry. One would hope we are capable of reckoning with these problems in a healthy light, but as recently as 2015, adult performer and sex education advocate Stoya drew harsh criticism after alleging that fellow performer James Deen raped and psychologically manipulated her, and that these practices are commonplace in the industry. The way pornography is produced and consumed today still demands that women are as silent and smiling as Marilyn Monroe’s Playboy cover.


Hefner’s death comes at a time when sexual identity is being reclaimed on a massive scale. Dialogues about queerness, consent, and sexual health run deep on college campuses, Twitter threads, and community workshops. At the same time, individuals like Brock Turner receive featherlight jail sentences for blatant rape, revenge porn cases populate courtrooms, and sex workers continue to struggle for legitimacy. Still, the conversations around these issues are active.

While not a solution, the death of Hefner is a symbol of the fact that those who view women’s sexuality as a commodity are literally dying out. The gradual recession and imminent failure of the Playboy empire is opening doors for producers of equitable pornography to change the face of the industry into something worth celebrating as opposed to shamefully fueling. Sex is not women forcibly smiling back at you from the pages of a $13.00 magazine; we’ve come to understand that it is an act far more beautiful and complicated than that.

So what would sex look like without Playboy? It’s finally time to find out.