A Cultural Moment, The Failure of Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy”

From the NY Times story:

In a wood-paneled dining room, with Picasso and de Kooning prints on the walls, Mr. Jones nervously presented a radical suggestion: the magazine, a leader of the revolution that helped take sex in America from furtive to ubiquitous, should stop publishing images of naked women.

Its executives admit that Playboy has been overtaken by the changes it pioneered. “That battle has been fought and won,” said Scott Flanders, the company’s chief executive. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

Then a few key quotes from The Federalist. This article in particular is worth reading.

Mollie: I find it fascinating that Flanders says “the battle has been won.” On the one hand, he shows a certain self-awareness about the nature and outcome of the war that was being waged by Playboy against sexual morality. On the other, can you imagine a more Pyrrhic victory? Hugh Hefner—and by the way, that New York Times story was mostly noteworthy for letting me know that Hugh Hefner is still alive, God bless him—dreamed of a world where gentlemen enjoy all these luxuries—cigars, fine spirits, voluptuous and willing women who exist to cater to their whims. But his own magazine so cheapened sex that any profits the Playboy corporation makes are derivative from the time when sex still had some kind of value.

Yet Hefner’s vision of sexual libertinism also created a campus culture that took us from furtive exploits in the 1950s to “Animal House”-style romps in the 1970s and 1980s to, now, some weird dystopic sexual lockdown where you can’t even attempt a kiss without getting expelled from campus on rape charges.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the case of Playboy, the opposite reaction is abjuring nudity and returning to the days of imagination and mild restraint. We may think that the libertine has no bounds, but when the libertine is boundless, embracing bounds is subversive. Whether or not it will work for Playboy remains to be seen, but this is a positive step.  A counterculture built on restrained imagination is one better poised to deliver productive results than one built on the sands of unrestrained libertinism. And if a libertine pioneer is riding on the shoulders of a newlywed, then we may have reached a welcome tipping point.

By the end of his life—for at least the last few decades, really—Hefner’s lady friends were bought off with drugs, nice digs, and a chance at fame, later telling stories about how much they detested what they had to do in exchange for those things. They weren’t in a position to discuss Picasso, Nietzsche, or jazz any more than Hefner could.

He may have thought that his vision of sexual libertinism would please himself but only the most adolescent of men would believe that he achieved that. It’s a great morality tale about what happens when you throw off received knowledge about something as important and foundational as sex. Sex is much more complicated than Hefner’s commercial product suggested and pretending otherwise was a good way to end up extremely lonely, if not diseased.

On some level, the image of manhood and sexuality that Hefner was selling was always contradictory. You don’t get to be a cultured and refined modern man without exercising judgment and self restraint, but the sexual revolution that Hefner helped kickstart encouraged men and women to abandon the very inhibitions that helped make sex so alluring in the first place.

Hefner suggested that the complete male was a man who appreciated the finer things in life. In this view, women were just one of the many consumer goods that a gentlemen would appreciate. But such a view is profoundly demeaning to women and, it turns out, even worse for men. Hefner threw away the intimacy and drama of monogamy for what was supposed to be the excitement and fulfillment of easy sex.

The lack of any naked ladies in the pages of Playboy is a perfect description of where sexual libertinism actually leads.

(Update: See this relevant article at First Things too)

For some context on Hefner’s “battle,” watch his justification to William F. Buckley on The Firing Line.

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