But that slick and vain self-portrait tells only part of the story, and that at a slant.
Hef was a huckster of sex, out from the start to make a buck off of the mid-century American male’s sexual dreams and desires, which back then, at the dawn of the Big Media age, were bursting the seams of his gabardine slacks. Hef was more like the Barnum of the bedroom than any kind of revolutionary.
It was always about money. And Hefner’s pecuniary interest in stoking sexual desire matters. Playboy didn’t transform American sex; lots of things did that. Playboy transformed American commerce.
What Hef really accomplished was the modern-day commodification of the body, stripping it (literally) of the societal protections that the old customs of modesty, and the old taboos against the (public) degradation of women afforded.
After Playboy, mega-corporations and media empires made untold trillions exploiting and sullying some of the most precious and joyful aspects of the human person — desire, delight, fantasy, flesh, and, yes, even love.
A Niagara of imagery of unprecedented volume, velocity and salaciousness cascaded into first American, then global, culture. Everything sexual had a dollar sign attached. And a perfectly retouched face or a perfectly photoshopped body.
This matters, too. Because a real sexual revolution, true liberation, would be natural, not commercial. It would be about us, as we are, men and women, each of us so various in the gift of human sexuality. So imperfect. So joyful. So free.
Sounds sappy, I know, hopelessly idealistic. But it’s been said before in America. The hippies — maybe they were onto something, maybe they were our real sexual revolutionaries, disavowing the money and the slick packaging and all the corporate-sponsored conformities.
“Make love, not war!” That’s still pretty radical. (And it’s worth remembering here that in Stanley Kubrick‘s classic movie “Dr. Strangelove,” made when Hefner’s influence was nearing its peak during the Cold War, the bomber pilot character Major T.J. “King” Kong is seen perusing a Playboy while at the controls of his nuclear-armed B-52.)
Hefner’s nervous smirk betrayed the hustle. A…