SYNDICATED COLUMN: Hugh Hefner Said His Critics Were Prudes and Puritans. The Negative Obits Prove Him Right.


No one has ever accused Ross Douthat of excessive astuteness. “Donald Trump isn’t going to be the Republican nominee,” he wrote in January 2016. Dude is paid to prognosticate politics. Even so, Douthat probably pulls down six figures at The New York Times, which doesn’t grant me the courtesy of a rejection letter. So people pay attention to him.

Hugh Hefner’s death didn’t move me. Penthouse was my print media stimulus of choice. I only read Playboy after the magazine’s late delightful cartoons director Michelle Urry commissioned some samples during her campaign to update the magazine’s hoary cartoon section with edgier, more political work. (Alas, those weird Marxist sex cartoons are lost to history.)

The worst cartoon editors are former aspiring cartoonists. Hef was one of those; he killed my stuff for being too edgy and political.

But Hefner sure managed to rile up Douthat.

“Hef was the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution, with Quaaludes for the ladies and Viagra for himself — a father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis, a pretentious huckster who published Updike stories no one read while doing flesh procurement for celebrities, a revolutionary whose revolution chiefly benefited men much like himself,” Douthat wrote upon the Playboy founder’s passing.

As if syphilis hadn’t existed pre-Hef.

Or abortion.

Or porn, for that matter.

Banging out an all-out assault so shrill it would come off as over-the-top if it concerned Charles Manson, Douthat even blames Hefner for the sins of the political class: “Liberals should ask why their crusade for freedom and equality found itself with such a captain, and what his legacy says about their cause. Conservatives should ask how their crusade for faith and family and community ended up so Hefnerian itself — with a conservative news network that seems to have been run on Playboy Mansion principles and a conservative party that just elected a playboy as our president.”

Get real: I never met a liberal who considered Hefner a leader, much less the captain, of liberalism. And where exactly are these devout family-values crusading conservatives? Sending other people’s kids off to kill Middle Easterners for fun and profit, or pimping trickle-down economic BS to benefit their rich patrons?

I align myself neither with liberals nor conservatives nor Hefner. Honestly, though: the vituperative nature of so many Hefner postmortems have done more to validate Hefner’s claim that his critics were prudes and anti-sex identity feminists than everything he ever said or did.

There is more than a little ageism in these “The Loin in Winter” depictions of a porn entrepreneur who lived too long, couldn’t figure out the Internet and counted out his final years like a male Norma Desmond in the fading grandeur of a decaying Playboy Mansion, in denial that the culture had moved past him. Douthat opined: “Early Hef had a pipe and suit and a highbrow reference for every occasion; he even claimed to have a philosophy, that final refuge of the scoundrel. But late Hef was a lecherous, low-brow Peter Pan, playing at perpetual boyhood — ice cream for breakfast, pajamas all day — while bodyguards shooed male celebrities away from his paid harem and the skull grinned beneath his papery skin.”

A disgusting depiction — one that reflects upon its author more than its target.

Hef’s passing prompted a few genuinely positive assessments of the man and his product, like this from the refreshing Camille Paglia: “Pornography is not a distortion. It is not a sexist twisting of the facts of life but a kind of peephole into the roiling, primitive animal energies that are at the heart of sexual attraction and desire…It must be remembered that Hefner was a gifted editor who knew how to produce a magazine that had great visual style and that was a riveting combination of pictorial with print design. Everything about Playboy as a visual object, whether you liked the magazine or not, was lively and often ravishing.”

But most post-Hefs were like Peggy Drexler in CNN: “The terms of [Hefner’s] rebellion undeniably depended on putting women in a second-class role. It was the women, after all, whose sexuality was on display on the covers and in the centerfolds of his magazine, not to mention hanging on his shoulder, practically until the day he died.”

True enough. But not really fair.

Porn is weird.

Porn commodifies women, reducing them to flat 2-D imagery crafted to titillate. If you feel dirty after you use to it to masturbate, it’s because you feel at least a little guilty about the high probability that the women in those photos and videos almost certainly wouldn’t expose themselves if they didn’t really need the money. Yet Drexler misses that visuals are key to sexual attraction, and that includes the way hetero women assess men based on their physical appearance. We are all commodified by this culture of consumption and relationships based at least in part on mutual opportunism and exploitation.

Really-existing feminists rarely frame their critiques of pornography where it belongs, within the construct of a slave-labor capitalism in which construction workers and yoga teachers and professional athletes and UPS workers and cartoonists wear down their bodies for cash — or starve.

Largely divided between anti-Hefner obits and anti-Hefner obits that give the marketing genius his editorial due, what shines through is a deep discomfort with sex in mainstream American media. What is wrong with a 91-year-old man, even if he looks 91 and resorts to Viagra, viewing himself as a sexual being? Or a 101-year-old woman?

May we all be so alive until we are just dead.

Why does Douthat assume we should share his revulsion when he describes Hef as “a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies”? The aesthetics may not be yours, but the choices were his — which is as it should be. (On the other hand, criticism of Hefner seems legitimate when it attacks the man as manipulative of women in his orbit.)

As Paglia says, “Second-wave feminism went off the rails when it was totally unable to deal with erotic imagery, which has been a central feature of the entire history of Western art ever since Greek nudes.”

Relax. It’s just sex.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


  • Bye, Hef, and thank you. I remember seeing a letter recently wherein someone asked why Hef got all the bitches. His reply was to the effect that “perhaps it’s because I don’t call them ‘bitches.’ ” In recent years, Playboy was very supportive of strong women and women’s rights. (maybe they did in the past as well? I only recently discovered the articles 😉

    I never saw Hefner as a ‘leader’ but he did consistently speak out on liberal topics. Marijuana, civil rights, and yes – sex. (Back in the day when sexuality *was* a liberal thing, and women felt that expressing themselves as sexual beings was a form of liberation.)

    • Ursula K Leguin once was asked to write a column about SciFi for Playboy, back in the 1970s or so for which she was to be credited as U. K. Leguin. She agreed but later came to deeply regret her decision and henceforth made sure to always be Ursula (and thus recognizably female) in the credits.

      So Playboy didn’t credit their own readers to take a woman seriously – unless she takes off her clothes and looks barely over 17 and just on the right side of bulimia (for a celebrity those one’s may be relaxed as long as she also disrobes). I think you will find Playboy’s “support” of strong women to be a recent thing at best, a fig leaf at worst.

      And this was not just back in the dark ages, think of J. K. Rowling (that’s Joanne K Rowling not John K Rowling, but one wouldn’t know that from the cover). I don’t mean to disrespect Rowling, she merely did what she had to do to break into the big ranks writing about her titular boy wizard… although I cannot help but respect LeGuin more for her decision (and consider Earthsea incomparable to Harry Potter for that matter).

  • No denying that abortion, syphilis, and porn predate Hugh Hefner, though, quibbler that I am, Douthat did describe him as merely A father, not THE father of “smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis.” (Never met a hair I wasn’t eager to split.) Not that this negates the paranoid shrillness of his diatribe — it is indeed OTT. (Get a grip, Ross.) But to go from him to the “refreshing” Camille Paglia, however, strikes me as just a bit of (pardon the expression) cherry-picking. Simply put, they’re both nuts.

    “Porn is weird.” Well, yes, it is. And war is heck.

    “We are all commodified by this culture of consumption and relationships based at least in part on mutual opportunism and exploitation.” But some animals are more equal than others….

    I don’t see Hugh Hefner as the anti-christ nor as someone to be revered, or even respected much — like you, Ted, I neither celebrate nor mourn his passing. Nonetheless, he did do his part in perpetuating the oppression and debasement of women — a big part — under the banner of liberation and hedonism, and I’m sorry, boys, but for some of us that’s still a Big Deal. It’s quite true that mainstream media have a deep discomfort with sex — the whole bleedin’ culture does, and I don’t think it’s unrelated to patriarchy.

    There are certainly situations in which one can reasonably say “Relax. It’s just sex,” but I don’t think this is one of them. To some degree, for women it’s rarely “just sex”: as far as having it, yes, that’s true — it’s just sex — but Hugh Hefner’s influence, or at least this and other discussions of it since his timely demise, is not necessarily about “having sex.” Here’s much to do with sexuality and more with patriarchy, more with oppression, more with the (willful?) obtuseness of many men (and many women) who refuse to accept the fact that anti-feminism is not a thing of the past.

    Ted, I wanted to respond to your column a couple of weeks ago about rape on college campuses, but fact is, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, and surely these kinds of online comment sections are not the place for essaying on the maddening subtleties and contradictions of extremely complex social issues. I guess I’m just not strident and polemical enough, despite being a feminist. As always, I found your arguments in that column quite compelling, and I mused on them for days. But the piece also exhibited a kind of easy glibness about rape (often expressed by men but not always) that I find disquieting, and unfortunately I feel a bit the same about this discussion of pornography and/or the commodification and denigration of women (choose your label). The parenthetical remark — “(On the other hand, criticism of Hefner seems legitimate when it attacks the man as manipulative of women in his orbit)” — for instance, is just slightly dilute. Seems legitimate? Manipulative? Never mind the implications of women “in his orbit.” Yes, and Trump may not be the most politically savvy president we’ve ever had.

    The continued subjugation of women is very much alive and pernicious, and I fear the more we insist to the contrary, the more it will remain that way.

    • It is conflicting, isn’t it. There is something clearly wrong with 99.9% of porn-erotica commodities and pointing that out is not the same as being prude.

      Actually the opposite: Even apart from the routine violence (ok maybe I just should stop here…), it’s the scriptedness of the whole thing. This is also why a 70-80s edition of those magazines is likely more interesting than a current, even glossier edition, since they have become so bland and utterly predictable in every detail. It was supposed to be art at one point (something that even the magazines with erotic art in the title rarely glimpse).

      And Hef was instrumental in creating some of those scripts. As Ted said, very visual. As in external observer (the camera) who is not involved (and wasn’t getting engaged the whole point?): Look at this body – it could be mine (in the sense of ownership and control).

      Another world of erotica is possible?

    • Thumbs up from me!

  • Ted, why waste your powder on someone like Ross Gregory Douthat ? That’s sort of like blasting away at Thomas Loren Friedman. Does anyone outside the precincts of the New York Times take Mr Douthat seriously ?…


  • I can’t say I’m surprised at the pushback, here. A little disappointed, yes, but not at all surprised. If anything, it validates Ted’s point about prudery.

    Bob Guccione (publisher of Penthouse) once wrote a great editorial. Who, he asks, is Penthouse ‘exploiting’ ? Is it the women – who are all volunteers, well paid, and treated with respect? Or is it the men who shell out money every month to satisfy hormonal urges over which they have no control?

    Whenever Playboy rolled into town & announced that they were auditioning, women lined up around the block for a chance to pose. Playboy launched many careers; their Playmate of the Year famously received a a million dollars in cash & merchandise. If that’s exploitation, then *please* exploit me!

    Many of today’s feminists seem completely unaware of the sexual revolution. Penicillin, The Pill, and yes, Playboy freed women to explore their own sexuality. They were no longer constrained by biology, even though society was slow to catch up. In the 50’s we believed that any woman who actually enjoyed sex was a slut. We moved away from that belief in the 60’s with books like The Sensuous Woman and Sex and the S1ngle Girl.

    Playboy was again on the forefront with articles about how to please women in bed. Far from portraying them as ‘objects’ to be exploited, they portrayed them as partners for *mutual* pleasure.

    Unfortunately, our cultural attitude is still that sex is something that boys take from girls. That’s an extremely archaic & patriarchal belief – even the far left Ted Rall bought into it with his comment about guilt. The fact is that those women *do* have other choices, and they chose to express themselves in Playboy.

    Camille Paglia believes that hetero sex is normal, natural, and enabling. Andrea Dworkin believes that all hetero sex is either prostitution or rape. Which philosophy is more likely to bring about equality of the sexes?

    = OTOH = we can buy into the belief that women’s bodies are vessels of iniquity. That men should not look upon them lest they be temped into sin. That women should not be allowed out of the house unless they are wearing their burkas … only then will they be truly liberated!

    • And did Bob Guccione then cede the editorial space for a serious debate? I thought not. They would also publish a lot of defensive letters sounding pretty much exactly like yours, also without allowing for response. Generally every letter and every column reflects the stereotypical male point of view only…

      Try listening to 15 year olds to get a sense of what they feel like they’re supposed to do now and exactly how it’s done?

      Relax, it’s just sex work. An oxymoron if there ever was one – this should be about pleasure and openness, not drudgery and compliance.

      Dude, if you suggest that the people who don’t consider Penthouse etc. as only a positive influence on society want women to wear the Burqa this doesn’t exactly advertise that you are willing to hear us out…

      • > And did Bob Guccione then cede the editorial space for a serious debate?

        I don’t actually recall, it’s been awhile. In general both he and Hefner did publish letters with predictable knee-jerk responses to their editorials. Usually they were emotional diatribes sounding “pretty much exactly like yours,” defending the status quo while claiming the opposite.

        Luckily, the Rallblog does allow for serious debate. Do you have any to offer?

      • What is the status quo that I’m supposedly defending – and that eventually pretty much did in both Playboy and Penthouse?

        There is the hard stuff where double penetration is apparently considered too vanilla and the glam stuff like maxim magazine where seemingly every female actress and/or celebrity shows all but for strategically placed fingers to get the equivalent of an R rating.

        Isn’t that a rather shallow and sorry outcome for what is effectively a major economic sector and cultural obsession? Who exactly is this liberating?

        As an analogy, after WWII capitalism styled itself as the alternative to the totalitarian systems that promotes freedom, arguably true at least compared to Stalinism and Hitler. Pointing out that the neoliberal machine itself is now the primary obstacle to freedom and wanting to try something new is neither mainstream nor the same as being nostalgic about feudalism. (If anything, neoliberalism is becoming neo-feudalism).

        In the same vein, feeling stifled about the scripted, commodified “mainstream” sexuality that actually suffocates any liberatory potential doesn’t mean that we want to go back to puritanism.

        If anything, think it’s actually the opposite: the felt cultural obligation to go X bases on date number X makes it quite understandable to me that a substantial number of girls who aren’t otherwise into organized religion decide to “save themselves for marriage”. This is unfortunately perhaps the only widely cultural available format to put a stop to those expectations – expressed in a baseball metaphor of all things, who is the puritan here? – and get some semblance of agency back.

        Can we do better than that?

      • @A5 –

        You obviously take issue with something I’ve said. But I’m a little vague on exactly what that is.

        The post you replied to has eight paragraphs. We can number them 1-8, can you tell me which – specifically – you disagree with and your arguments against it?

        re: “What is the status quo that I’m supposedly defending – and that eventually pretty much did in both Playboy and Penthouse? ”

        That’s a complex question. The first part, “the status quo” is the Victorian idea that women should not enjoy sex, should be virgins when they marry, and men should not be allowed to gaze upon their bodies lest they be lead into Temptation. Sex is dirty, and any decent woman should clothe herself appropriately – preferably with long skirts, a bustle, and a blouse designed to hide any hint of her secondary sexual characteristics.

        That’s pretty much the opposite of the second part of your question. Playboy and Penthouse brought about their own demise by challenging that status quo. When they were no longer edgy, they were no longer relevant.

      • 1-8 😉

        We can probably agree factually on most things, I don’t think that’s the issue.

        I usually enjoy reading what you write, I think what got to me is what looks to me as the self-serving character of what you have written this time – and what I construe to be denigration in particular of lburanen’s thoughtful post.

        I have been in that position, at one point I looked at a lot of magazines like that. They suggest a certain mode of reading them, maybe sharing with (male) friends, of rating and finding the best parts. I found that the letters in there – all from male point of view – strongly reinforce this way of reading and applying these scripts in real life, and to conveniently sideline the critical voice. It’s a bit like watching pro-wrestling and being mostly taken in while obviously realizing at some level that “none of this is real”. Seriously, why is there the obligatory all-American cheerleader cv and the waxing poetically about how “the photo-shoot was so much fun” included with every bunny/pet of the month or whichever telling label they put up? At some level we know that there is an actual person behind all this make-up and photoshopping (unless it’s fully digitally created images which is beginning to look like the “real” thing).

        This creates the standard dynamics of “guilty pleasures” with assorted defense mechanisms just like smoking and eating meat and so on. They all have the general format: “I know there is something wrong with it, there is injury involved to others and eventually myself – but I’d rather indulge without thinking about it”. And then to latch onto whatever inconsistency is to be found in criticism of it to keep the debate running.

        To cut through this spinning in circles, to me the practical upshot is to not give any money to the sex industry (like to factory farming and big tobacco) and to not participate in justifying or sugarcoating their existence so one doesn’t help them grow bigger still. Closer to home, to identify and question the frames that this stuff creates so as to at least not be part of the problem. For starters, they had a gag on the British sitcom “Men behaving badly” by having the actors predict “she is going to take that shirt off any second now” when watching whichever programme on TV and a woman character would appear on screen, followed by “and she has done it”.

        This is perhaps why the part about “the mainstream” got to me since Playboy is now the mainstream (if anything too tame). This stuff is all around us. Of course there is also puritanism to contend with (especially in American culture) which is co-existent with it. As I said before, I think the mainstreaming of the kind of porn formula we seem to be stuck with (which is what Hef’s legacy comes down to) is precisely what has given puritanism an actual reason to exist and thus a second lease on life.

      • andreas5 – I do enjoy your and lburanen’s posts & assure you I meant no personal insult with mine.

        We are in agreement 98.6% of the time, and kicking around the 1.4% can be interesting or even enlightening. OTOH, parroting “me too” adds nothing to the conversation.

        I think we’ve kicked this one around enough, but I’m sure the topic will come up again.


      • @ CH
        I’m sure the topic will come up again.
        You mean Ted isn’t going to stick to safe and uncontroversial topics? 😉

  • if “visuals are key to sexual attraction,” how do blind people have sex?

    • Clumsily?

    • Enthusiastically?

    • Visuals are key for single-person sex. As soon as you have two people, touch takes over…

      Apparently it is hard to for industry to do touch vicariously, but straightforward enough to sell pictures and now video.

      • There’s also the fact that magazines like Playboy not only promote the idea that women are just objects (not people) for sex but also the idea that women must have perfect bodies. Think of all the women and girls with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, for example. There’s also sexual harassment in the workplace due to men being accustomed to thinking of women as just objects to be used for their pleasure. Criticizing Playboy has nothing to do with puritanism. I understand why heterosexual men like to look at naked women. But it’s the notion that women exist simply for men’s pleasure–that we’re like flowers a man can just pick and use to satisfy his desires. This is what leads to rape, assault, abuse and harassment of women.

  • Disappointed you would quote someone like Camille Paglia. Seriously? I just registered to leave comments but maybe need to unregister as this is possibly not the “liberal” site I’d expected. Amazing to me how so many “liberals” suddenly become conservative when it comes to women’s rights or economic inequality. Limousine liberals worry a lot about climate change and saving the whales but when it comes to issues that affect ordinary people, you turn status quo.

    News flash: Feminists who dislike Playboy aren’t anti-sex or anti-heterosexuality.
    It’s the notion that women are objectified, looked upon as just objects for sex and dehumanized that bothers feminists. No one–male or female likes being dehumanized. Women being treated as sex objects, judged by how well we can please men, and being expected to have perfect bodies, etc., is what holds women back in the workplace. It’s also a reason for violence against women. Camille Paglia is and always has been against women’s rights. She obviously believes in her own right to speak but cares little for the rights of other women. And as a lesbian, she doesn’t have the experiences that heterosexual women have in relationships with men.

    Very disappointed by this viewpoint. Hatred of women is just as bad as hatred of any racial or ethnic group, in my opinion.