Hugh Hefner, who died this week at 91, claimed to be a liberator of American sexuality. You’ve probably heard about Hefner’s limited approaches women: They could be frisky girls next door who, until competitive pressure from Penthouse in the 70s, were never shown in centerfolds to have pubic hair. Bunnies were told, as an undercover Gloria Steinem was, “We don’t like our girls to have any background. We just want you to fit the bunny image.” Or they could be uptight prudes, feminists whom Hefner once described as “our natural enemy.” Ladies, take your pick!
But for all the assumptions that “Hef’s” life was every man’s fantasy, he also shortchanged men. He told them the best way to be a man was to implicitly treat women as the enemy, as products to consume. It is a grim, banal, consumerist way of life that, in practice, would deny men the pleasures of being partners to women, sexually or otherwise.
Hefner launched Playboy magazine in 1954 amid a flurry of articles worrying that masculinity was in “crisis,” under threat from overbearing women. Playboy, with its celebration of leisure, played into some of those critics’ fears of weak postwar men, but everyone could agree women were to blame. “Take a good look at the sorry, regimented husbands trudging down every woman-dominated street in this woman-dominated land,” Playboy columnist Burt Zollo wrote in an early issue in one of several stories the magazine would run bemoaning the “womanization” of men. A half-century later, in an interview with Carrie Pitzulo for her book, “Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy,” Hefner explained that “the womanization of America” was related to “prohibition, anti-sexuality, censorship.” He mentioned to her how prudish his mother had been.
Throughout his life, Hefner seemed to vacillate between terror of…