Hugh Hefner, the founder and former editor-in-chief of Playboy magazine, has died. He was 91 years old.
Hefner will be remembered in two ways for the next 24 to 72 hours. He will be remembered as a crusader for sexual freedom, equality and social justice, and he will be remembered as the man who made the objectification of women a mainstream experience available at every newsstand.
Both views are correct, so I’m not here to attack or defend either one. That argument will rage forever, or at least until the next celebrity dies, and I just don’t have the time, energy or inclination to engage it. Sorry. I’m reclaiming my time.
What I do know is that Playboy was my introduction to the wide world of pornography, for better or worse, and it served that function for countless millions of people across the globe. How you feel about that is entirely up to you. Was he a glorified human trafficker who set the women’s movement back immeasurably, or did he do the world a favor by giving millions of men pictures that they could jack off to?
Again, I only have my own experience that I can speak about. I don’t remember clearly the first time I ever saw an issue of Playboy, but my recollection is that I was at summer camp, and I might have been 11 or 12. It was shown to me by a fellow bunkmate whose name now escapes me, and who had smuggled it in to peruse at his leisure.
I opened its august pages, went to the centerfold, and I can remember actually being a little disturbed by what I saw. I had seen breasts before, but there was something about the soft-focus treatment of them in the magazine’s pages that seemed kind of strange to me. Stranger still was the perfectly trimmed pubic hair.
The model, whose name I can’t remember, was wearing a white teddy, and the whole thing was lit in a kind of ethereal haze that made it look distant and unreal, like she was an apparition from the mild smut dimension.
I also looked at the back of the centerfold, in which she listed her turn-ons (walks on the beach, sunsets) and turn-offs (smoking, negative people). At no time while perusing these materials did I get a boner, nor have I ever gotten one while reading Playboy.
As the years advanced, my understanding of the question, “What is porn?” became more three-dimensional. By the time I was about 15 or 16, I had already written off the publication, definitively classifying it as “not porn,” as by then I had already seen the real thing, via a videocassette that featured Amber Lynn.
That thing was porn, I tell you what, what with the bad lighting and flying semen and entreaties to “put it in my ass.” Playboy seemed like a quaint relic next to that, like something that would be rendered obsolete with the advent of “talkies” or wax cylinders.
Many years later, “porn” now means to me the borderline-snuff shit that you can watch for free to your heart’s content on the internet, with people spitting in each other’s pussies and being strangled and triple anal and all that.
Hefner is getting a lot of the credit and blame for it today, and honestly, I don’t think that’s correct. He may have opened the door, but when you saw “Playboy After Dark” footage of him with his pipe and smoking jacket, it was clear that he was more of an inspiration for Don Draper types than for Seymour Butts. The producers of the “Massive Facials” video series are not looking to a publication that featured writing by Norman Mailer for inspiration, I’m pretty sure. It’s like blaming the guy who invented the printing press for “The Turner Diaries.” A lot of shit had to happen on the way there.
So today, with Hefner’s passing and the attendant handwringing and woke takes that will follow, I would like to take this opportunity to say I’m staying out of both the lionizing and the demonizing. This was a man who the industry left behind decades ago, and who hasn’t been relevant for over 40 years. His time ended long ago. That’s not a plea to view him charitably either – it’s just what happened.
Hef, I bid you farewell, and may your afterlife be a walk on the beach at sunset, free of smokers and negative people.