Hugh Hefner is 80 today (April 9). America, say happy birthday to our most influential pimp.
Hefner, the legendary founder of Playboy magazine, a pimp? Yes, if we told the truth about Hefner’s “contribution” to society, we would refer to him as a pimp, as someone who sells women to men for sex. While pornography has never been treated as prostitution by the law, it’s fundamentally the same exchange. The fact that the sex is mediated through a magazine or movie doesn’t change that, nor does the fact that women sometimes use pornography. The fundamentals remain: Men pay to use women for sexual pleasure.
These days Hefner is more likely to be called an entrepreneur, publisher or philanthropist. He’s the subject of endless feature stories focused on his personal life and typically is treated as an elder statesman of the so-called sexual revolution. As a CNN anchor put it last year, “He lives almost every man’s fantasy — surrounded by sex, celebrities, and a lifestyle many envy.” He stars in an E! reality show called “The Girls Next Door,” featuring Hefner and three girlfriends young enough to be his granddaughters.
Hefner certainly is all those things. He made his name as the risk-taking publisher of the first sex magazine to win wide distribution in the United States and Europe. Behind his public playboy image, Hefner was a tough businessman whose strategic gambles paid off. Some of those profits created the Playboy Foundation, which describes its mission at “protecting and enhancing the American principles of personal freedom and social justice.” And many men dream of “Hef’s” life of sexual freedom — defined as the freedom to access women’s sexuality based on men’s needs and rules.
All that’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact that Hefner is every bit as much a pimp as the men who hustle prostituted women on the street. But Hefner is the most influential pimp in post-war U.S. history, the person who launched the mainstreaming of pornography that has led to easy availability of hardcore sexually explicit material that is overtly cruel and degrading to women. When the first issue of Playboy hit the newsstands in 1953, it is unlikely that even in his wildest dreams Hefner had any idea that his fusion of a sex and lifestyle magazine would lay the economic, cultural and legal groundwork for a global pornography market estimated at $57 billion a year.
The risks Hefner took have led to the pornographic culture we live with today; in 2005, 13,000 new hardcore videos were released in the United States, and any genre of pornography imaginable is easily available on any media platform. Playboy Enterprises, which has evolved into a multimedia entertainment company run by daughter Christie Hefner, has a healthy share of the market. Although it posted a slight net loss in 2005 and the publishing end of the business is sinking, the company’s revenue from licensing fees is strong. Technology changes, but selling women to men remains good business.
In that market, the fastest growing segment is what the industry calls gonzo pornography — sex on tape with no pretense of plot, characters or dialogue. This low-cost/high-profit genre is where pornographers push the limits, legally and culturally. Hefner’s original images of the girl-next-door with a coy smile have been replaced by the body-punishing penetration of a woman by any number of men. Gone is any pretense — and it always was pretense — of pornography being a celebration of women’s beauty, and in its place is an industry that promotes itself as overtly cruel and sadistic to women.
For example, a standard sexual practice in gonzo pornography is the “DP,” industry slang for a double penetration, a scene in which a woman is penetrated anally and vaginally by two men at the same time, in as rough a fashion as the woman’s body can withstand. In the pornographic world, DPs were once edgy; now they are routine. The edge is much further out, and our studies document how the content of pornography has become more misogynistic in the past decade.
This is the world that Hefner helped create. Along with other pornographers, he would have us believe it’s a new expansion of freedom. But it’s an old story about men’s domination and use of women.
As he nears the end of his life, it’s tempting to see Hefner as self-parody, a pathetic character struggling to hold onto adolescent fantasies long past the time he should have grown up. But in the pornographic world he helped create, Hefner is not alone — men of all ages hold onto those fantasies about sex and domination. And all too often those fantasies become a grim reality for the women, children, and vulnerable men who end up as targets of men’s violence. Gail Dines, an American Studies professor at Wheelock College in Boston, and Robert Jensen, a Journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, are co-authors of “Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality.” They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected] .