RIP Hugh Hefner | How Playboy Empowered Generations of Sex-Positive Women

Author: Coco Marett
09.28 / Lifestyle

“Women have traditionally been either put on pedestals or damned as the source of all sexual temptation and sin. These are two sides of the same coin, since both place women in a nonhuman role. Playboy has opposed these warped sexual values and, in so doing, helped women stand down from their pedestals and enjoy their natural sexuality as much as men.” - Hugh Hefner

I’m just going to come right out and say it. Hugh Hefner was - in his own way - a feminist icon.

When the first issue of Playboy was published in 1953 - with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, no less - it shook America’s wholesome stepford values and rigid conservatism to its core. But this wasn’t Hefner’s intent; there was no anarchy behind Playboy’s glossy pages. If anything, at the time, the magazine was promoting completely mainstream ideas of sex - it’s just that no one was talking about it, because no one could.  

All of this came leading up to the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, behind which Hefner was a major driving force. Finally, people - especially women - began to embrace sex as something to be celebrated rather than shamed for. In a 1999 documentary, feminist scholar Camille Paglia approvingly dubbed Hef “one of the principal architects of the modern sexual revolution.”

Hefner once said, “If you don’t encourage healthy sexual expression in public, you get unhealthy sexual expression in private. If you attempt to suppress sex in books, magazines, movies and even everyday conversation, you aren’t helping to make sex more private, just more hidden. You’re keeping sex in the dark. What we’ve tried to do is turn on the lights.”

There's no question, though, that Hefner's relationship with feminism is a complicated one. Ideas of sexual liberation and female empowerment aside, the man did build an empire on feeding men's sexual fantasies. Sure, the intent was there and good, but did the execution communicate it correctly?

Popular opinion was and still is that Playboy promoted promiscuity, which is a fair and easy assumption to make. But there’s something fun, detached, gentle even, about Playboy that says something along the lines of “we’re not telling everyone to get into the Playboy Mansion grotto for an orgy, but if that’s what you’re into and what you want to do, then that’s totally okay too.”

At the end of the day, Hefner was a liberal. Someone who believed in the idea of “to each their own” so long as nobody was getting hurt, and this principle went beyond sexual expression. Hefner was famously an early and open supporter of free speech, civil rights, abortion rights, the need for rape crisis centers and child day care centers, and LGBT rights such as gay marriage.

In 1991, long before Caitlin Jenner, Playboy featured transgender woman Caroline “Tula” Cossey in a pictorial. Over 30 years later, Cossey said in an interview that she “had done pinups and calendars and glamour shoots, but to be the first transsexual in Playboy, I felt absolutely honored. I remember being invited to the Mansion to meet Hugh Hefner. He looked into my eyes and I immediately knew he felt my story. He felt my cause."

Hef never kept his position on these issues quiet. Each month, he wrote a column that was a kind of “Playboy Philosophy” manifesto that highlighted and discussed these issues. He also hired top writers and editors to give the mag cultural credibility - so hey, maybe the old “I read Playboy for the articles” excuse held some weight after all.

Whatever your opinion about Hugh Hefner and Playboy might be, it's hard to deny the impact and influence that he has had on the world and sex as we know it. In his own words, "If you let society and your peers define who you are, you’re the less for it."

RIP Hugh Hefner.

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