Hef, Playboy, & American Sex

With the passing of Hugh Hefner today, lots of sex writers and educators are reflecting on his influence on their lives and work. It is undeniable that Playboy has shaped the ideas of women, sex, and beauty for a huge percentage of Americans since it began publication in 1953. It has peppered the landscape of American sex for the better part of 70 years and has impacted American’s ideas of sex in ways few other magazine’s ever have.

My introduction to Playboy was not traditional at all! I had heard of it and I knew a few boys in high school who reportedly sold the copies they stole from their dad’s spank banks, but I did not see one until college. My introduction to the publication came from reading Gloria Steinem’s “A Bunny’s Tale” in my first edition copy of Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

I found her book in a mall bookstore when I was about fourteen. I was already involved in activism and volunteer work and as an overly driven teen, I gobbled up this feminist tome. I can remember reading the essay and being horrified at the objectification of women and what seemed to be absurd amounts of stuffing and cramming and dieting it took to become a bunny. I can also remember thinking that it would be kind of awesome to be able to work as a bunny.

For me, the Playboy clubs seemed almost wholesome compared to the porn I was reading. From my late teens onward wasn’t much of a visual consumer of porn, I preferred to read stories. At fifteen I discovered a copy of Macho Sluts in a gay-friendly bookstore and scarfed that down, immediately seeking out all other works by Patrick Califia. His world was what fueled my fantasies. Lesbians clad in leather, wielding whips and handcuffs, having hot, wet, rough sex was what got me off and was the sex I sought out. Playboy magazine and clubs, on the other hand, seemed nearly chaste!

In college, I began pursuing pornographic magazines with a roommate. During my sophomore year of undergrad, my roommate and I developed a ritual. On Fridays after classes and work was over, we would go to the movies, then dinner, and then to the liquor store to by a “dirty” magazine. We would go home, had a beer, and flip through the issue of the week. She was an art major and I was deep into my queer activism. Most of our discussions focused on the actual critique of the images, writings and choice of models. I cannot remember ever masturbating to an issue or this ritual leading to sex in any form.

Playboy’s choice of models, its styling of the shoots, and the general depiction of women was never sexy to me. These images were always over-styled resulting in a cartoon-ish effect of women (at least for me). I distinctly remember one issue where some girl band had done a “lesbian-lite” type of shoot. I remember looking at the huge blow-out hairdos, the long acrylic nails painted bright pink, and the way the women were touching each other. Even as a baby dyke I recognized that this in no way represented lesbian sex, even if it was supposed to be between two “femmes.” There was no connection between the models- no fingers digging into flesh, no wetness, and the nails! Even with my limited number of female partners at that time I knew long, pointy acrylic nails on both models meant no one was getting a good hand job!

While the images of the women in Playboy never aroused me as spank bank material and I continued to recognize the issues with the male gaze, the lack of diverse representation of women, and the continued dedication to the most absurdly stylized photo shoots, I began subscribing to the magazine in grad school for the most cliched reason: the articles.

Probably the most repeated line about Playboy is that men “read it for the articles” followed by a wink, or a snicker, or a knowing look. But damn it if there weren’t a number of thoughtful articles included in the magazine. Over time, I came across social commentary, decent coverage of current events, and in-depth interviews. Even in this past year I have passed along decent articles from the magazine to sex educators and my readers on social media.

What I like about Playboy was its balance. Sure, people buy it for the centerfold or cover model (I still have a copy of my favorite issue with Dita von Teese on the cover). The articles provide some substance. Finally, the issues include some comedy, cartoons, and even fashion advice. The magazine, at least for me, read as a world where sex was natural and important, but it had to come with a balance.

I think that balance has been lost with many other pornography magazines and definitely with porn websites. As we have advanced with what can be streamed and accessed over the internet, so many sites reduce themselves down to sex and sexy pictures and nothing more. There are millions of sites where people with no context and no background are already mid-intercourse when you click on the thumbnail and three to eight minutes later they are done and there is nothing more.

Yes, this type of sex-only focus existed in magazines when I was reading Playboy and many others in undergrad 25 years ago. Those magazines were also big turn offs. Like so much of the free porn on sites today, the focus of these magazines were genital close-ups, penetration shots, and bukake shots. Don’t get me wrong, I have my collection of “rough, interracial, anal, pain” clips I watch when I need a few minutes of inspiration, but that is not the whole (or hole) of my pornography collection.

I appreciate sites which try to integrate pornographic videos with other things like education, STI/STD information, links to STI testing sites, classes, events and more. Sites which are more well rounded are growing every day and I find this to be a great thing for sex in America.

American’s are MESSED UP about sex in so many ways. We have so much shame, and body policing, and judgement, and acceptance of rape, and lack of good health information that it is appalling out there! Sex IS important and it IS a big part of many of our lives. My mother (a LCSW and psychologist) is fond of saying, “Sex is only about 10 percent of any relationship. However, when that 10 percent isn’t working, it affects the other 90 percent.” I don’t have a time diary or breakdown of how much time the average couple spends having sex, talking about sex, and preparing for sex, but ten percent seems about right.

We need to focus on treating consensual sex as something healthy and natural. In my own development, Playboy did a decent job of showing sex as a healthy part of the adult experience. For all its flaws, Hef’s magazine showed some balance. For that, I am grateful.

#Playboy #HughHeffner #PatrickCalifia #pornography #porn #MachoSluts #sex #balance #spankbank #healthy #women #exploitation #GloriaSteinem

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