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In response to Hugh Hefner’s recent death, Nia Evans argues that he was neither sexual revolutionary or women’s liberator, and that students should embrace our own sexuality rather than the type Playboy portrayed. 

Playboy was never meant for women. It seems like a blindingly obvious point to make. The first issue, published in December 1953, made no bones about its intended audience, introducing itself with the line, ‘If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked this up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.’ In other words; ladies, stay in your lane.

Playboy’s unique selling point was its nude photos of women, and there is nothing revolutionary about objectifying women

Yet, in the wake of the death of its founder, Hugh Hefner, publications such as the Wall Street Journal have praised the porn mogul for helping ‘usher in the sexual revolution’, and leading us to our sexual liberation. This made me wonder exactly whose liberation we are talking about, and how the fight continues for female sexuality to be openly discussed.

Thankfully, we are not bound by the standard that Playboy set, and young women are redefining themselves in Bristol and beyond.

Many writers have described Hefner’s professional legacy as complicated; his support for civil rights, as well as Playboy’s coverage of women’s reproductive rights in the lead up to the landmark ruling of Roe v Wade, were influential due to the quality of their writing and the magazine’s huge readership. But let’s not pretend that those millions of readers were all buying it ‘for the articles.’ Playboy’s unique selling point was its nude photos of women, and there is nothing revolutionary about objectifying women and showcasing a particular kind of female sexuality designed for that famously oppressed class, the straight horny American male.

As feminist writer Claire Heuchan argues in Glamour, ‘Hefner’s legacy is selling male fantasies of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality as ‘freedom’. But really, it’s just more of the same old misogyny.’

‘There are some cases where consent is clearly an issue’

Supporters of the magazine often defend it on the basis that women made a free choice to have their photos featured in it. This raises the question of how free any choice women make about their bodies can be in a sexist society, which is a complicated issue that I can’t hope to do it justice in this article. However, there are some cases where consent is clearly an issue. By the late 1970s, Playboy magazine had featured pictures of children Brooke Shields, aged 10, and Eva Ionesco, aged 11, on its pages. The picture of Shields was one of a series taken by the aptly named Garry Gross as part of a Playboy issue named ‘Sugar and Spice’, and Ionesco later sued her mother for allowing the pictures to be published.

I think we can all agree that whatever we imagine sexual liberation to be, it is not a child with a full face of make-up appearing in Playboy magazine.

‘If only he cared about women as much as he apparently cared about wild animals’

Writers such as Sady Doyle have also criticised the first issue’s use of images of Marilyn Monroe, used without her express permission. Hefner’s purchase of the plot next to Monroe’s in Westwood Cemetery suggests that even in death, women cannot escape creepy men encroaching on their space. Holly Madison, a former Playboy Bunny, recently published a memoir that detailed how controlling Hefner was towards the women living with him in the mansion.

While researching this article, I found that Hefner was so passionate about the cause of wildlife preservation that the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, or sylvilagus palustris hefneri, was named in his honour. If only he cared about women as much as he apparently cared about wild animals, perhaps his legacy would have been more positive. Thankfully, we are not bound by the standard that Playboy set, and young women are redefining themselves in Bristol and beyond.

‘Consent, a vital part of our sexual freedom, is now firmly on the university agenda as well as part of a broader national conversation’

This is an exciting time when women are creating their own space for sexual liberation. This is what we should be celebrating, rather than creating a false narrative of Hefner and Playboy’s influence as somehow liberating. Consent, a vital part of our sexual freedom, is now firmly on the university agenda as well as part of a broader national conversation, though Epigram reported last week that consent education remains an optional part of online university inductions. Women are also organising and resisting the negative effects of sexual objectification through body positive cafés happening in Bristol, where we can support one another against the onslaught of idealised female bodies in the media.

Vanessa Kisuule ❤ #poetry #spokenword #bookfest #edinburgh #vanessakisuule

A post shared by Kasia Jackowska (@kasia_jackowska) on

Hugely successful spoken word poet and former UoB student Vanessa Kisuule has been contributing to the dialogue on female sexuality with her show SEXY, whose popularity shows how hungry women are for a genuine, funny, and frank take on our sexual selves. Not to mention the success of OMGYEs, the website that collects information on female sexual pleasure, and entrepreneur Cindy Gallop’s alternative porn site, makelovenotporn, which shockingly features women who are genuinely enjoying themselves.

‘The revolutionaries are the men and women organising talks, setting up businesses, and campaigning for a genuine change’

We have lost a hugely influential figure in Hugh Hefner, but need not mourn a sexual revolutionary or liberator of women. The revolutionaries are the men and women organising talks, setting up businesses, and campaigning for a genuine change to the sexist norms of porn culture. They are all around us, and they truly deserve to be celebrated.


Disclaimer: The views presented in Comment are those of our writers and do not reflect those of Epigram or the editorial team.

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