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Hugh Hefner’s Incomplete Sexual Revolution

Anti-puritan but blind to his male privilege, the Playboy mogul liberated men by demeaning women.

Hulton Archive/Getty

When Hugh Hefner launched Playboy in 1953, he could scarcely have imagined that one day he would be celebrated by conservatives and excoriated by radicals. Publishing even a soft-core sex magazine was a subversive act in the gray-flanneled world of the 1950s. Aside from its pushing the boundaries of free expression with nude photography, there was much else about the early Playboy that marked it as a progressive publication, most notably Hefner’s outspoken advocacy of civil rights for African-Americans. When Hefner started a line of Playboy Clubs in 1960, he made them fully integrated, with black members and employees, even in the Jim Crow South. Beyond that, Hefner was a lifelong advocate of progressive causes like abortion rights and marriage equality.

Yet when Hefner’s death was announced on Wednesday, there was a discordant note on both sides of the political spectrum. Ben Domenech, the publisher of the right-wing website The Federalist, found much to admire in Hefner for “celebrating the sexual complementarity that has bound men and women together since the dawn of time.” Conversely, the left-wing magazine Current Affairs highlighted Hefner’s “totalitarian control” of the women who lived in the Playboy mansion, calling him a “tyrant” and “an abusive creep.”

There’s an element of truth to both accounts, yet they ignore Hefner’s historical impact, which was distinct from the figure Hefner cut at the end of his life. Hefner launched Playboy at a time when heterosexual monogamy was hegemonic in American culture. He led a revolt against that ideal. It offered liberation to men (including gay men), but not to women. Yet by breaking the cultural stranglehold of domesticity, Hefner opened the door for a wider sexual revolution, one that would have room for the half of the human species that Hefner himself was often hostile to.

As the historian Barbara Ehrenreich recounts in her 1983 book The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, Playboy was fueled by rebellion against the constraints marriage put upon men. Hefner married his first wife Mildred Williams in 1949, when he was 22. Millions of other young Americans were marrying during those post-war years, which brought the U.S. marriage rate to its all time per capita peak. Many of these people, including Hefner himself, came to feel they had married too young, with too little sexual experience. Playboy was the magazine for that cohort.

The anti-matrimonial position easily shaded into a misogynist one: The first issue of Playboy featured an article warning of the danger of gold-digging women. “It was a no-holds-barred attack on ‘the whole concept of alimony,’ and secondarily, on money-hungry women in general, entitled ‘Miss Gold-Digger of 1953,” Ehrenreich wrote. “From the beginning, Playboy loved women—large-breasted, long-legged young women, anyway—and hated wives.”

If wives were a threat, then even single women, although desirable for sex, were also dangerous as potential wives. Every single woman was an enemy in embryo: a future spouse who could one day henpeck the ensnared Playboy reader. Thus, Hefner’s first editorial took a strong “no girls allowed” stance. “We want to make clear from the start, we aren’t a ‘family magazine,’” he insisted. “If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies’ Home Companion.”

Catching the rising anti-matrimonial mood, which would eventually lead to a rising divorce rate and Hefner’s own first divorce in 1959, Playboy benefitted from fortunate economic timing. Post-war American capitalism was entering its long Golden Age, from the mid-1950s to 1973, driven by the rising discretionary consumer spending of the very types of men who read Playboy. Hefner, himself a cagey capitalist, would argue that the Playboy lifestyle was “obviously desirable in our competitive, free enterprise system.”

Playboy was about lifestyle as much as sex (or rather, the sex was one of the benefits of the lifestyle). In Ehrenreich’s terms, it was a promise that men could enjoy “not the power lawn mower, but the hi-fi set in mahogany console; not the sedate, four-door Buick, but the racy little Triumph; not the well-groomed wife, but the class companion who could be rented (for the price of drinks and inner) one night at a time.” All of this added up to a “coherent program for the male rebellion: a critique of marriage, a strategy for liberation (reclaiming the indoors as a realm for masculine pleasure) and a utopian vision (defined by its unique commodity ensemble).”

What derailed the male revolt was the female revolt. Women reasonably asked themselves: If men like Hefner were abandoning the traditional claims of chivalry, then what were they offering? The answer: a patriarchy without any promise of protection—a raw deal.

Was there anything more to life than keeping a Playboy man happy? In 1963, Gloria Steinem went “undercover” as a Bunny and reported for Show magazine that far from being glamorous, the Playboy lifestyle was demeaning. Steinem’s article was an early salvo in the emerging feminist critique of Playboy. Hefner, who saw himself as helping to liberate people from sexual repression, was blind to his own privileged position as a man; he reacted to these critiques with defensive ill-temper. In 1969, Playboy editors commissioned journalist Susan Braudy to investigate the feminist movement. When she came back with a fair-minded and complex report, Hefner was infuriated. In a memo on Braudy’s article, Hefner wrote:

The women’s movement is rejecting the overall roles that men and women play in our society—the notion that there should be any differences between the sexes whatever other than the physiological ones. It is an extremely anti-sexual unnatural thing they are reaching for. It is now up to us to do a really expert, personal demolition job.... These chicks are our natural enemy.

Within the space of a decade and a half, Hefner went from being a radical to a reactionary. His brand of sexual revolution had nothing to offer women (other than the right to be a Bunny). In the face of feminist criticism, Hefner was unwilling to revise his sexual politics to make them more inclusive. Playboy would cease to change in any meaningful way, but become trapped in its original premises. And Hefner himself became increasingly anachronistic as the years went by, living in the fantasy world of his mansion, forever in his bed clothes: the sexual radical as Dorian Gray.