Comment | So long, Hugh Hefner, and good riddance

Hugh Hefner made his millions through commodifying women’s bodies, all the while pretending women he'd turned into commodities enjoyed their subjugation. We will never be able to fully gage the damage he did, writes Jen Izaakson.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, September 29, 2017 19:14 - 3 Comments

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Hugh Hefner with former Playboy cover girl Anna Nicole Smith (right), who later committed suicide.

“Every Friday morning we had to go to Hef’s room, wait while he picked up all the dog poo off the carpet — and then ask for our allowance: a thousand dollars counted out in crisp hundred-dollar bills from a safe in one of his bookcases. We all hated this process. Hef would always use the occasion to bring up anything he wasn’t happy about in the relationship. Most of the complaints were about the lack of harmony among the girlfriends — or your lack of sexual participation in the ‘parties’ he held in his bedroom. If we’d been out of town for any reason and missed one of the official ‘going out’ nights [when Hefner liked to parade his girls at nightclubs] he wouldn’t want to give us the allowance. He used it as a weapon.” —Izabella St. James, Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion

Hugh Hefner, the most famous pornographer of the last century, has finally died age 91. Some might suggest nine decades too late. Hefner is most famous for launching Playboy magazine, originally titled Stag Party, in 1953. The first issue sold over 50,000 copies after featuring Marilyn Monroe’s 1949 ‘nude calendar shoot’.

Hefner was also famous for his supposedly desirable lifestyle at the ‘Playboy Mansion’, which served as his main residence for decades. There, he lived with the women he paid to live with him, in sexual servitude; all of whom required to be under age 28 (lest the aging Heff would lose interest). Photographs of each ‘bunny’ (woman) who passed through the doors of the Mansion were documented by Hefner, who kept a large photo album of all his past and present ‘bunnies’.

If this set-up sounds like the start of plotline from a yet-to-be-written chilling horror story, you’d be right – except it has been written and is, in fact, the narrative of the Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client. Whether calling women ‘bunnies’ or ‘dogs’ (he did both), Hefner made it very clear that, in his mind, men were full human subjects, women somewhere closer to animals or pets.

Hefner made his millions through commodifying women’s bodies, selling women for sex, all the while promoting a facade that the women he sold and turned into commodities actually enjoyed their subjugation. Former ‘bunnies’ have since spoken out about the poor conditions in which they lived at the Playboy Mansion, dispelling the (remarkably resilient) myth that women enjoy sex with men they don’t actually desire to have sex with.

We will never be able to fully gage the damage Hefner did by aiding and abetting the transformation of pornography into a major corporate commodity that legitimised and normalised the buying and selling of women’s bodies. He is perhaps the central figure for making many today believe that porn is sex and built what can only be described as an empire of misogyny. Hefner, of course, never published photographs of himself naked, pacified, poised for humiliation; nor made himself the subject of the many ‘rape joke’ cartoons published in Playboy. He also didn’t get fucked by men for money. We can only wonder why, given it is, according to him, delirious fun.

The inter-textual promotion of rape in Playboy had direct practical manifestations, too: Hefner called the drugs he offered women ‘thigh openers’ and wanted women to look as young as possible. This is consistent with one identifiable affect of the porn industry in promoting what is referred to as pedophile culture: women as hairless, docile, thin, pliable children, ready for domination by an imagined male adult.

Numerous eulogies since Hefner’s death yesterday have cited his support for the 1970s’ so-called ‘sexual revolution’, though few pointed out his endorsement was not because it gave women more control over their reproduction but, rather, because it meant pushing the boundaries of the sexual mainstream: such as when Playboy published nude photos of a then 10-year-old Brooke Shields. Shields has since been unable to stop further publication of the pictures. The photographer successfully argued that, because Brooke’s adult guardian had signed away permission, he now owned rights to her images and, they, therefore, did not amount to child pornography. The golden opportunity and choice offered to women and girls by porn is to have few (if any) rights. In 1970, Hefner, who referred to feminism as his ‘natural enemy’, asked for a ‘devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart’.

The notion that Hugh Hefner’s organised and enforced fun at the Playboy Mansion is, apparently, envied and emulated by men around the world, makes it plain that he was a symptom of a global disease, one the diagnosis of which would require going beyond the domain of cultural representation and into the realms of economic analysis. As Gail Dines, author of Pornland states, ‘the problem with third wave feminism is that it sees porn as a collection of diverse images, and not as an industry seamlessly woven into mainstream capitalism’. Dines continues:

“it’s clear that when you follow the money of the porn industry and the influence it has via buying political and cultural power, we have an entire infrastructure of mainstream ‘respectable’ industries with vested interests in keeping porn going. When porn interfaces with Visa, MasterCard, Venture Capitalists, the electronics industry and ISPs, any opposition is opposing global capitalism (a specifically exploitative capitalism that makes men rich off the backs of women, quite literally)…Pro-porn third wavers are all about representation over economics … without an economic analysis, you are wandering around in the dark with a self-imposed blindfold.”

Hefner was the first major pimp who brought porn into the mainstream, but he was also serious about attempting to shape social constructions of sexuality. A 2014 book entitled, The Man Who Invented Gender: Engaging the Ideas of John Money, included an interview Money gave to Playboy magazine. Dr John Money was a researcher at John Hopkins University and a modern sexologist of the 1970s, famously known as the man who coined the term ‘gender identity’. In the interview, Money insisted the tenets of the new sexual freedoms lay in the pill and penicillin: in other words, he viewed increased recreational sex as an inevitable product of scientific and technological advance, but, one might wonder, to whose benefit?

Beyond general proclamations to reporters, Money’s position with regards to sexual liberation can be observed through the beneficiaries of his research. During the 1990s, decades after the infamous David Reimer case, Hugh Hefner wrote to his staff: 

In an excellent piece […] in The New York Times, dated January 23rd, 1990, Dr Money predicts that ‘current repressive attitudes toward sex will breed an ever-widening epidemic of aberrant sexual behaviour’. The Times story goes on to say, ‘As for malignant social influences, he and other researchers found no evidence that pornography causes or fosters the development or expression of paraphilias [sexual perversions]’…I would like to suggest that Playboy find a way to explore some of the issues raised by Dr. Money’s research”[1]

Hefner was a game-changer, he made porn “respectable” by surrounding pornographic* images with interviews and articles by well-known literary and celebrity figures, amounting to casualising rape culture into the pages of a popular magazine. Ingenious.

It will take a lot of work for women to undo what men like Hefner have done.

*The term ‘Pornographic’ here refers not simply to sexually explicit material, but to the objectification or dehumanisation of a person within a sexualised context.
[1] Goldie. T, page 157, The Man Who Invented Gender: Engaging the Ideas of John Money (2014), UBC Press, Canada
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Jennifer Izaakson

Jennifer Izaakson is a member of Momentum and PhD student at a London university. Jen writes for the Huffington Post and Tweets @isacsohn.

3 Comments

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Kenneth
Sep 29, 2017 20:31

It seems that all you have to do to be remembered as an honorable human being in Los Angeles, is to be Rich and Famous and have sex with lots of Women. When has a pimp ever been respectful to his concubines? We look at the sex slave harems of Saudi oil sultans and Kim John Un with disgust, but we gratify the ones in our back yard. I’m with the feminists on this one. Fuck this asshole

Evan David
Sep 30, 2017 6:21

Only women are up to the job of undoing what men like Hefner had done?

RKRAO
Oct 2, 2017 11:16

Pornography survives as long as there are men who enjoy nudity of the opposite sex and there are women who are willing to expose for money. It is a far deeper problem than a few individuals. Did Hefner invent pornography, and did he gift playboy magazine to millions who purchased it? World assaults sensitive minds and okays those who go with the flow. Solution to all the problems in the world is to take a neutral view and place ourselves on a stable platform. Playboy is popular but its appeal is lost with time. People grow out of it. What stays permanent are the values of love, tolerance, sacrifice. Playboy is relevant to those who are within its sphere of influence. It applies to those who see it for inspiration as well as those who see it with disgust. A human society based on self-sacrifice for the good of all those around, is the only solution, and a beginning has to be made with each one of us, taking the lead. Marxist ideology in its true spirit as envisaged by Marx and Engels has answers to world’s problems. Same holds good for spiritual thoughts expressed by scores of saints. A beginning has to be made and it must begin with us.

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