Play Boy and the Myths of Sexual Revolution

Addressing patriarchal control: Hugh Hefner, or any other male mogul, did not start a sexual revolution for women.

Imagine telling most of the second wave feminists of 1960 who fought for sexual freedom that Hugh Hefner started the sexual revolution, and opened the world’s eyes to sexual liberation, as much of the main press was covering this month with his obituaries.

The New York times stated that Hefner turned the world onto sex – an emblem of the sexual revolution, while the BBC described him as a political activist and philanthropist who created a whole lifestyle in which to live the dream. The Washington Post stated he introduced sexuality and nudity into the mainstream, and The Boston Globe stated him as the father founder of the sexual revolution.

This may all be true, on one level – if you don’t count women. In 2017, for the press not to be considering, first and foremost, the role of women in discussing a sexual revolution is alarming. During the early stages of second wave feminism, women’s liberation was equated with sexual liberation rather than just associated with it, and is crucially part of the sexual revolution.

Hugh Hefner failed in any sense to create a sexual revolution for men and women together, and to not shine a spotlight on this aspect, is to undermine the very meaning and discussion of modern liberty and equality.

His female agenda only fitted to benefit and profit men first and foremost. His revolution was a male revolution; his treatment of women was objectifying, oppressing and abusive. It is known from primary sources that Hefner’s world operated using curfews, rules, and totalitarian control, which was based around sexual compliance of his women – arguably nothing short of a cult – and irrelevant what overlaps there were in his support for some of the wider female agenda (he supported abortion, contraception rights for women). It makes sense to support causes to contraception and abortion when you’re having sex with hundreds of women in a gated compound at a set given time, refusing to use condoms, or to test for STDs. Many girls started to give harrowing accounts of imprisonment and indeed, from Gloria Steinem – leading 60s feminist and political activist, who part fronted the liberation for women and who was an underground bunny spy in 1963 – exposed “rampant sexism and dehumanizations of the bunnies.”

Yet, debaters still talk of the symbiotic relationship, and the drive to be accepted by many of those “bunnies” who desperately wanted to be there (despite others later referring it to imprisonment) – however, let’s be careful to ensure this so called symbiotic relationship isn’t one based on uni-directional dependence. A symbiosis bred by an entire society of institutional sexism that was built and reinforced, and thus not at all revolutionary.

A structure that dictates how women should be, look and act – the all American female – presenting an unrealistic dream, sculpted out of sex, beauty, capitalism, commodity, power, profit, for men, by using sex and objectification, that we still fight today. Hefner said it himself: “women are not objectified, they are sex objects,” “they are objects to me.”

There was no empowerment of individual self worth, or sexual exploration on equal terms (those are the foundations of free love and sexual revolutionary spirit to my mind) – where a girl could be replaced so easily if she did not perform or conform to a man’s (or many men’s) sexual demands and needs. Instead of being liberated these women, as reports later confirmed, detailed abuse, drug addiction, being fed amphetamines to stay thin, plastic surgery, abusive pressure to please a man sexually (or many men), in a mans world, controlled by men. A world where only by acceptance you may benefit, based on the whims of male temperament and male selection. A world in which the woman appears desiring in order to be desirable, for men, at their demand. Hefner’s sexual revolution and liberation, if it was his, was one built on superficiality, bullying, sexism and control. So, how was this changing the status quo?

The sexual revolution is described as challenging oppression and establishing that sex and erotica were a natural part of life, and while Hefner’s Playboy mansion certainly holds its place in history in bringing the images of sex into the mainstream – it failed many women and damaged the assertion of women’s rights and status.

And further, what happens to the sexual revolution if you take Playboy out of the equation all together? And more crucially, has there actually been a full sexual revolution yet?

Alongside the female movement – lobbying for equal pay, reproductive rights, non bias to men, non objectification of women, liberating women in their choice of sexual partners without judgement or external interference – were prior factors such as the post-war technological revolution, the contraceptive pill, rubber for condoms (which Hefner refused to wear), and also the earlier invention of penicillin, and its mass production, which later cured syphilis.

Betty Frieden’s bestseller “The Feminine Mystique” which challenged the housewife image and demanded women’s liberation, would arguably better place her as the mother founder of the real sexual revolution. Hefner stated he agreed with Betty Frieden’s novel, and indeed he let some feminists write for Playboy (Hefner undoubtedly published content of value), yet he is quoted as wanting to “destroy” many other feminists. Notably, as the feminist movement grew it directly challenged and depleted his success and empire – and, in fact, Frieden’s book is exactly about not entrapping women in a role, of not being imprisoned, but rather empowering them to achieve as a woman’s own right. This was not the branding – and it was branding – of women under the Playboy label, who were rescued from the role of housewife, but into the entrapment of the role of bedroom mistress.

Might it even be fair to suggest without the glorification of images of women as such, we would actually be closer to reaching equal pay over 50 years later and after an equal pay act of 1963? Or even had the “bunnies” been given a fair share of the profit of the glorification of their bodies, rather than Hefner’s monopolizing, they would be in a much more economically liberated position to advance liberty over these 50 years for future generations.

Rather than focus on his supposed revolutions and liberations in reference to Hefner’s philanthropic aims, are his objectives not more accurately defined that he founded a platform to profit from the exploitation of women for himself? A platform of American corporate scale – a white, elitist, system – as he exercised all control, and got rich on his own terms. He created an empire; a capitalist monopoly, from selling the female body – he was a highly successful pimp. For sure, pimps, successful or not, do not lead revolutions, they gain power for themselves by oppressing and controlling.

There should be no issue with safe polyamorous sex or that the female body be acknowledged in nudity as art and beauty. Women should not be judged who are sex positive feminists and wish to use sex, or their body, to better their lives – however, there is a need for also tackling the entire patriarchal system to create equality and safer sexual freedom, where all women can succeed independently, and that can not happen based on selectivity via the male gaze. It fails to help the most vulnerable in society, where the women can never be in control in such situations, and worldwide are victims to abuse, violence, and murder.

What concerns today, and is of most relevance, is Trump America, “the grab them by the pussy” mindset which is reinforcing the same system of sexism, female stereotypes and image – and breaks down true independence for women, for future women, allows the same dangers in the working environment, and plays right into the hands of maintaining a crippling patriarchal structure.

This can still be seen as rampant in Hollywood (arguably nothing more than an extension of Playboy Mansion culture), movies, model agencies, the fashion world, advertising – as all employment – regards gender inequality. This environment should have been long diminished, but we are miles behind. For a true, equal and necessary revolution, where definition of revolution stands as the completion of drastic change for all involved, we must aim to tear down the patriarchal structure by bringing constant awareness, and encouraging others to speak out forcibly on anything based in sexism and control.

In 2017, we must stop making these men relevant and glorified and cool. We need to stop wasting any more time crediting abusive moguls, such as Hugh Hefner, in life and death, and all examples of this character prevalent everywhere, and let us all – men and women – focus on bringing awareness to revolutionaries that are emblems for real agenda: agenda that demands equality and safety from oppression for everyone inclusively.


This article was first published over at the excellent Louder than War here. With thanks.


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Comments (18)

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  1. Willie says:

    Reads like an article written by a fixated and obsessed woman.

    A tiring rant if I may opine.

    1. Charles Ashton says:

      may be a bit long – as many of Bella’s articles are!! But speaking as a male I’m glad someone is remembering the true tale (tail?) of HH!

    2. Alan Bissett says:

      You’d perhaps need to say exactly what you disagree with, lest you sound tiresome yourself.

    3. Alasdair Macdonald. says:

      I note that it is a willie that has commented.

    4. John Mooney says:

      Are you for real? or just another sad misogynist troll,your comment says more about you than you obviously do not realise, or do you? I am nearly in my seventh decade and I found this article hugely impressive and it certainly shows Hefner up for the pimp he always was,sorry to say but you appear to be the tireless “Ranter”.

    5. jac Gallacher says:

      The standard and expected first comment to this type of article

  2. Alba Woman says:

    Alan and Willie go and sit in a corner with a large cone shaped hat with a huge D on the front.

    Joanna Pickering has provided you with a well written account of the necessary drives of the feminist push of the 1960s and beyond. As an on the ground Scottish woman living in those times women could not get a mortgage in their own right, contraception was only available if you were engaged to be married. There was no Women’s Aid so I saw women with bashed faces, black eyes and haunted looks in the area where I lived.

    Today, I work with women whose stories tell of the violence and abuse still meted out to women in Scotland….have a look at what cases are being brought to your local court,..have a look Willie and Alan,at Women in Scotland’s health statistics……you will may regret your wee postings.

    1. Anna says:

      Think you should have read Alan’s comment more carefully before replying.

      1. Alan Bissett says:

        Sorry, Alba Woman, maybe wasn’t clear – I was taking issue with Willie’s comment, not the article itself, which is excellent.

  3. Dougie Harrison says:

    Absolutely spot on Joanna. Hefner was simply a standard male capitalist; find an area of human need, and exploit it. Except in his case, what he did encouraged to objectification of women. Precisely by people like Willie, it appears.


  4. Alba Woman says:

    Thank you Alan … can immediately remove that hat….I certainly misunderstood your remark… apologies to you.

  5. jac gallacher says:

    Great article Joanna, Hefner certainly was a glorified pimp. Holly wood needs sorting out big time and hopefully it won’t stop at one depraved director.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    I think one of Hefner’s propaganda aims might have been to create anxiety in woman that they had a short shelf-life of influence, whereas as men like himself could expect to accrue power into old age. Desperate women might make poorer choices, be more manipulable. And possibly to play on competition between women to reduce solidarity, although I am less sure of the nature of divergent thought here.

  7. James Thompson says:

    Excellent article well written.

  8. Kenny Smith says:

    Totally agree with article and most of the comments above. I never could get my head round why girls would fawn over him and beg to be a bunny. I suppose it’s like the insincere youngster going with a sugar daddy or cougar, like material things over substance and genuine connection. By the way I’m not saying anything about age difference just the ones where you know it’s an act like Anna Nicole Smith and the like just to be seen or have money.

    1. Willie says:

      Anne Nicole Smith is an example of the attributes of an individual who used her sexuality in an aggressive and manipulative way to go gold digging. But there are more, many more.

      Nicole Smith and Hugh Hefner were birds of a feather. A mirror image of manipulation. Yet many on this column see only Hefner as the villain. Indeed they see him, but not her, as the cause of bashed faces and haunted looks.

      So what is it exactly that these tiresome comments actually say. Are all men as evil as they bleat whilst there is no equivalence in the female kind. If they indeed believe so then they consign women to being truly the down trodden sect that they say that they are.

      I for one don’t think so, and I’m

      in awe of some of the smart women who are now competing, or should I say collaborating very well with men.

      Times are indeed changed – but the bleat goes on.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    I was reading historian Keith Lowe’s book The Fear and The Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us. Chapter 13 deals with the USA, where he discusses anti-communist McCarthyism, which seems to have suppressed many views besides communism, including “questions of women’s roles in society”:
    “For the whole of the 1950s and early 1960s, almost anyone who stepped outside their traditional roles in society automatically opened themselves up to charges of dangerous radicalism.” p231

    Soviet and Maoist introductions of formal measures of male-female equality were presumably unacceptable to US conservatives. Now that female oppression is a stick used to beat Islamists, there is a temptation to rewrite history, making the ‘West’ the champion of women’s rights, and Soviet and Maoist equality (no doubt limited and facing backlashes from their own conservatives) slandered as somehow inauthentic.

    Oddly or not, Hefner’s domestic arrangements were more reminiscent of popular imaginings of a sultan’s harem. Which I suppose is reflected in the patriarchal governments the USA supported round the world, Truman Doctrine and all.

  10. Meaghan says:

    Excellent article, Joanna

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