The biographical documentary “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel” (Phase 4 Films, 2010) is a very long and complicated story about a great man. What Mr. Hefner accomplished in his life is amazing, and inspiring. He certainly deserves the praise of all freedom-loving people. There is good reason to believe he was a true idealist and not merely a shrewd and unscrupulous businessman out to make money.
Interestingly, Mr. Hefner says he grew up “in a home in which I was not getting hugged, and there was no real show of affection.” Although the stated goal of Playboy magazine was “entertainment for men,” its publication also challenged the traditionally rigid attitude that nudity is “obscene” and warrants censorship. The images that Playboy published were intended to express that “sex was a natural part of life, and nice girls like sex too.” The images weren’t merely of attractive nude women. The images (and text) were composed and posed to cater to the wishful male fantasy that attractive young women are less inhibited and more receptive to sex than they were traditionally supposed to be. At that time (early-middle 1950s) it was a revolutionary idea.
Some critics claimed Playboy was promoting “no restraint,” and “abusing freedom of speech,” and eventually it was blamed for destroying America’s traditional “moral compass” (ignoring that surveys had already indicated the majority of Americans were engaging in sexual practices that were officially against the law). In his early life Mr. Hefner denied that his goals were inconsistent with the ideal of a “monogamous society,” though in much later life he has been back-sliding with multiple relationships at the same time. Within five years Playboy was outselling the older and more conservative men’s magazine Esquire. Playboy paved the way for more radical publishers like Bob Guccione (Penthouse) and Larry Flint (Hustler), who enjoyed similar success.
Mr. Hefner admits he courted controversy, not only by publishing nudity, but also by publishing writers blacklisted as “un-American,” hiring minority jazz performers and comedians to perform in his clubs, debating conservative TV journalists like William F. Buckley, Jr., etc. Of course, courting controversy was good business as well as being courageous. He also fought censorship in the courts (as did Bob Guccione and Larry Flint), and supported the rights of some sexual minorities. Mr. Hefner also supported some worthwhile organizations and individual victims of injustice (the Playboy Foundation continues to do so).
The recent controversy over women dressing “provocatively” illustrates the complexity of sexual ethics. When a law enforcement official suggested that to reduce the risk of sexual assault women shouldn’t dress like sluts, there was an international outcry – the “slutwalk” demonstrations – against the possible implication that women who don’t dress conservatively share some of the blame for being sexually assaulted. What the law enforcement official said may have been true in practical terms (I don’t know the statistical evidence, if any), but people should certainly have the right to dress any way they want, or not at all. If we follow the logic of “provocation,” then nudists are fair game for sexual assault? Temptation or even enticement are not sufficient excuses for sexual assault, and should not be used as excuses to restrict individual freedom. Being free to dress any way you want recognizes each citizen’s autonomy as a competent adult. The Honest Courtesan blog argues convincingly that even prostitution and some other common forms of sex work are a healthy assertion of women’s autonomy, constructive in their consequences, and should be decriminalized.
Mr. Hefner has always said he wants to promote healthier attitudes toward sex. Considering the vast success of Playboy Enterprises, and the oft-repeated claim of promoting “healthier attitudes,” I wonder why he didn’t do more to promote accurate, balanced and comprehensive sex education in primary schools (e.g. by contributing to organizations like the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States SIECUS). Perhaps in previous decades that would have been considered going too far. Some critics might have accused him of trying to cultivate sexual interests to expand the future market for his empire, but such a silly criticism would only serve to embarrass those who support sex hysteria. The opposite could be more reasonably argued: lack of sex education in childhood leads to excessive fascination with “naughtiness,” since there is evidence that obsession is caused by deprivation not by satisfaction.
There is now good reason to believe that sex education in early childhood may be essential to prevent the widespread problem of sexual dysfunction in women. It’s not merely a problem of early shame-training that can be unlearned later. There is good reason to believe that lack of stimulation of the clitoris during early development causes atrophy of the relative brain areas that process sensory input from that organ, leading to reduced sensitivity or permanent dysfunction of the clitoris. A description of the physiological process and citations of medical evidence are available in my previous post: Clitoral Erectile Dysfunction.
With the growing international hysteria over child sexual abuse and child pornography, many parents are becoming more and more vigilant against sex information and sex play, so sexual dysfunction in women is likely to spread and become endemic. Millions of little girls are being mentally castrated, right here in the U.S.A. and Europe. The recent judgment by a German court against circumcision, however, suggests that the time is right for a courageous person like Mr. Hefner to speak out about mental castration too. What a great legacy it would be for Hugh Hefner and Playboy to help stop this gruesome tragedy from continuing. But maybe heroism has its limits.