Hugh Hefner, the creator of Playboy magazine and a central figure of the sexual revolution, died Wednesday at the age of 91. He lived long enough to see his cause succeed—then turn against him.
Playboy set out to break through puritanical religious restrictions on sex and now finds itself left behind in the dust. After falling from a circulation in the millions to one in the hundreds of thousands, Playboy has struggled in recent years, briefly eliminating fully nude photos of its models in an effort to get on regular newsstands—as if anyone buys anything at newsstands any more—before switching back to Coke Classic. But the magazine still faces overwhelming competition from a flood of free content online that is far more sexually explicit, and the Playboy brand is now mostly sustained by the licensing of merchandise that bears its bunny-ear logo.
In short, Hefner made a revolution, only to be pushed out of power and into irrelevance by people more radical than him. It’s not exactly the first time this has happened.
Hefner and Playboy did not set out to destroy the idea of the special value of sex. Quite the opposite: they relied on it. The ideal Playboy bunny was not a slut. She was the “girl next door,” the kind of young woman who was respectable and even wholesome, but also sexually exciting. And the magazine was oriented toward a sophisticated man for whom sexual adventure is part of an appreciation of the finer things in life. (Or at least that was the idea, even if Hefner was not quite as sophisticated as he thought he was.) This is what differentiated Playboy from cruder imitations and what differentiates it from a lot of what is online for free today.
I have described that old approach as “wholesome sexuality”: the idea that sex is a natural part of a normal life, not the manifestation of some seedy underbelly of existence. That concept is a real challenge to the Puritanical religious views Hefner was rebelling against. But I don’t think he ever fully understood that, certainly not in his later personal life, with its gaudy affectation of having multiple blonde bimbo girlfriends.
That idea of wholesome sexuality is what is in danger of being lost. Hefner helped make the sexual revolution, but the more radical factions took over. On one side, there are those who broke through the restrictions of Puritanism so they could present it with a mirror image in reverse: “Sex is dirty, disgusting, and mindless—and we’re for it!” That’s basically the sales pitch you will get from the notably unsophisticated corners of the Internet that have taken over from Playboy.
On the other side, there were those who wanted to break down, not just excessive restrictions on sexuality, but every basic concept relating to sex, including the very concept of “gender”—and who are now busy rebuilding their own quasi-puritanical codes of sexual conduct. And there is nothing more problematically heterocisnormative than Playboy.
My own bachelor days are long gone, and I was never much of a Lothario, but my own personal stake in Hefner’s legacy is that I am the father of two young boys. It’s still a few years off, but at some point they will be teenagers, and they will naturally want to discover what naked women look like. I wouldn’t mind them finding out from a publication like Playboy. So there is a value in having that brand out there, and having it serve as the rite of passage for young men learning about sexuality.
I am less thrilled at the prospect that they will find out from the seedier corners of the Internet. My worry is that those corners are going to be all that’s left, because Hugh Hefner won the sexual revolution then lost it.
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