Hugh Hefner, legendary founder and editor-in-chief of Playboy, died Monday at the age of 91. He was an icon in liberal Hollywood, and a self-declared conservative foe. Yet there is much for conservatives to celebrate in his life.
He was the kind of person American conservatism seeks to enable — the self-made man; the radical, pajama-clad individual; the author of his own destiny. And he idealized women as women, in a way the left no longer allows.
Conservatives decried Hefner’s influence on sexual mores and popular culture, and he returned the favor. In June 2016, Hefner published an op-ed in his magazine’s “Freedom Issue,” declaring victory over conservatives and the Republican Party.
The growing tolerance towards gays in the GOP, he said, was proof of what he called “the conservative sex movement,” and the end of a 50-year struggle to liberate American politics from sexual repression.
“These [conservative] politicians,” Hefner wrote, “eager to cater to religious voters, campaign on promises to eliminate access to birth control, ban abortion, pass discriminatory laws against gays, and regulate or outright ban any lifestyle or preference that doesn’t fit into their Christian crusade to eliminate all sexual activity that doesn’t lead to procreation.”
But now, Hefner said, conservatives embraced the libertine Donald Trump over Ted Cruz and his ilk. “It’s a sign of the massive changes in the ‘family values party’ and proof of what I’ve watched building over the past several months: a sexual revolution in the Republican Party … core conservatives realize the time has come for the party to stop pandering to America’s fanatical religious minority and give up a losing war to suppress our sexual rights.”
Ironically, Hefner was writing in Playboy’s last nude issue. After years of declining circulation, the magazine had dropped nudes so that it might compete with mainstream publications. Conservatives — and left-wing feminists — who had wanted nudity out of Playboy had finally won, while the magazine had conceded defeat to the readily-available, explicit pornography of the Internet, for which Playboy had in many ways set the stage decades before.
But was Hefner right? Had conservatives fought a war against sex, and lost?
In many ways, the answer was “no.” Many of the causes Hefner mentioned were not really about sex. The ongoing battle against Planned Parenthood, for example, is not about shutting down sex, but — for conservatives — about saving human life. New laws that Hefner called “discriminatory” against gays were actually passed to protect religious freedom from the hostility of gay rights activists, who have been targeting private individuals and beliefs.
Hefner also left out a more potent and persistent challenge to sex, which came primarily from the left. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminism arose and challenged many areas of perceived male dominance — including Playboy, which radical feminists fought to ban from stores. More recently, the academic left has virtually criminalized sex on the college campus, encasing it in rules and Star Chamber trials (which the Trump administration has begun to reverse).
Sometime in the 1980s, Playboy ran a cartoon across four pages of the magazine. The first two pages, titled “The World Without Playboy,” were illustrated in dark tones, with crooked figures doubled over, hands furtively plunged into their crotches, eyeing each other sadly and suspiciously. The next two pages, splashed in bright color, showed the same figures in celebratory postures, partying heartily, enjoying life in a spirit of exuberant happiness.
Oddly, the world that exists today after 60 years of Playboy looks more like the dystopian than the utopian future the magazine imagined. That is not, primarily, because of the conservative sexual enforcers that Playboy has long resisted. It is the work of the radical left-wing political forces with which Playboy increasingly became aligned, and whose views the magazine continued to promote even in its de-sexualized, post-nude incarnation. (After several months of weak sales, Playboy has reintroduced the nudes, but the magazine does not seem to have recovered.)
What, then, did the magazine liberate? Playboy undoubtedly brought pornography into the mainstream, doing so by treading a careful line: showing full frontal female nudity on the one hand, but never showing or even alluding to sexual acts. It was sexuality, but with sex itself only hinted at by the photographer, living only in the imagination of the reader (and, readers liked to imagine, the mind of each model as well, smiling invitingly at the camera lens).
What made Playboy successful, above all, was the willingness of celebrities to be associated with it — and not just celebrities, but writers, artists, presidents, civil rights leaders, and even conservatives. (One of Playboy‘s few great interviews in recent years was its November 2011 debate with Andrew Breitbart.) People understood that to appear in Playboy, in the pictorials or the articles, was to join a unique adult conversation, a salon that existed at the intersection of pop culture and politics. It was an unabashed public affirmation of private fantasy and enjoyment.
In the course of its history, Playboy also liberated talk about sex. It was one of the few places men (and women) could look for, and find, practical advice about sex, alongside mundane tips on cigars and consumer electronics. The advice was rather conservative, encouraging readers to integrate sexual adventure into monogamous lifestyles. Playboy was liberal in the classical sense, not radical, and bounded by old-fashioned ideas of gender and love.
Of course, even mild pornography, like anything taken to an extreme, can also be very destructive. There is some speculation that the so-called millennials, the generation that has grown up with the Internet, watch so much pornography that it has depressed their desires for ordinary sex. “Millennials,” the UK Independent noted in 2016, “are … one of the first generations on record to actually be having less sex than their parents did at the same age.”
Feminists also launched a two-pronged attack on Playboy and pornography in general. The straightforward attack was simply that pornography encouraged women to subordinate themselves to men’s desires, and encouraged men to pressure them to do so. A related, but more complicated, feminist argument was that women became more timid because of porn’s wider cultural impact. Men’s First Amendment rights, they claimed, deprived women of speech.
The religious opposition to pornography had to do with preserving standards of virtue and of modesty. Even Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who encourages couples to invest in sex toys and other racy accessories to assist in intimate life, counsels against pornography, both because it violates traditional Jewish teachings on modesty, and also because it violates the sacred one-on-one intimacy of the marital relationship, potentially introducing jealousy.
And yet, according to a 2015 study cited by New York magazine, “couples that watched porn reported higher levels of sexual desire for a partner and had more positive evaluations of their own sexual behavior.” Pornography, in the context of a healthy relationship, can help intimacy rather than destroying it. A new fad among religious Jewish couples, for example, is women posing for boudoir photographs (with female photographers) that they then give to their husbands.
So, on the one hand, Hefner was right. He won the culture war with the GOP. But he did so with the help of a new generation of liberty-minded conservatives. That includes people like myself, who grew up with Playboy and later the Internet, and whose understanding and experience of sex is entirely different from that of previous generations, who were far more comfortable with the idea of the state setting common moral standards for everyone in society.
Hefner was correct to note that the sexual revolution in the GOP had to do with gay rights and gay marriage — though not for the reasons he may have imagined. Rather, a new generation of openly gay conservatives emerged, including people who are conservative for economic reasons or because they believe in a strong national defense, and in defending Western values against the unabashed homophobia of the ascendant Islamic world. The reason for the shift was not just a surrender of the idea that the state should set moral standards, but also a realization that there were more important battles to fight against a left-wing movement that aimed to dismantle America’s basic liberties.
Hefner was also correct in the sense that Playboy had won a space in broader popular culture for open discussions of sex and sexuality. To the extent that conservatives might have been inclined to make sex, or sexual morality, campaign issues, that possibility has been severely limited by the changes Playboy has wrought in our society. And our politics, fraught though it remains, is probably better, on balance, for that subtle, though incomplete, shift.
And yet Playboy was also defeated. Overtaken, in part, by the cultural changes it had helped create, Playboy found itself failing commercially even as Hefner claimed his Pyrrhic victory. (Hefner’s own fortune also steadily declined. to the point where he was forced to sell his fabled mansion last year,) Nothing the venerable brand had done seemed to have helped it. Its gradual drift leftward, along with the Democratic Party and much of the rest of Hollywood and the media, began to alienate many red-blooded readers — just as the NFL is alienating many of its die-hard fans.
But ironically, when given the choice of going full-throttle into hard-core pornography, and creating the kind of content the market now demanded, or bowing to mainstream traditional standards that shunned full frontal nudity on supermarket shelves, Playboy made the more conservative choice. Even in the battle to survive commercially, there were lines Hugh Hefner would not cross. He thus took his place alongside the very conservatives he mocked.
That does not mean Hefner was a conservative. But Hefner personified the famous promise at the heart of the Declaration of Independence — that this Republic would be devoted to the “pursuit of Happiness.” He pursued that ideal in an age when the left insisted on grievance and misery. He lived an eccentric life. But in the end, he gave up the thrill of three girlfriends for the love of one wife. He challenged social conventions, but he also, perhaps despite himself, affirmed the eternal truth that women are women, and there are moral limits to what may be exploited.
Hefner’s victory over conservatives came with a loss — namely, the institution that was Playboy itself. Our culture now rejects the ideal of feminine beauty that Playboy once promoted, regarding it as a form of oppression rather than liberation.
But that feminine ideal lives on — not in the pages of Playboy, but in the imaginations of millions of quietly dissenting adults in the world Hefner helped create. However he is judged, Hefner changed us all.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.