Hugh Hefner went with neither a bang nor a whimper, but an exhausted meh. I confess I haven’t the heart to read any of the boilerplate fill-in-the-name send-offs that collect like plates of food brought to the mourning family–which is supposed to be us–when one of these “icons” passes.
A boomer’s fate is to age out of this world to an unending series of such requiems for “pioneers” who “broke boundaries” and “ignored the rules” (as if this is inherently good).
The long-ago routed objections to sexual liberation aren’t even brought up to mock now.
Neither are the original arguments on its behalf ever revisited.
The arguments for sexual liberation are forgotten in the post-coital haze like smooth reassurances of a seduction. They’re frankly a little embarrassing now. Sexual mores were born of nothing more than neuroses, sexism and Freudian angst (this was taken to be proven by science) went the line; their removal would return us to a natural, healthy state.
But we now know Freud was a fraud who made no account of biology and evolution.
That is to say, the liberation we celebrate is based on a pack of lies.
The objections to the sexual revolution–that it would destroy the family and create misery–have been borne out. But the Freudian presumptions still hold cultural sway, and the objections are discredited there still.We foisted a fait accompli on future generations.
This is a pattern in progressive movements: witness civil rights’ journey from fight for equality to microaggressions, safe spaces and cultural appropriation.
Hefner was a pimp, and when he started out that was an insult. As much as anyone else he contributed to turning that phrase and the practice into a joke, even a boast. We are to congratulate ourselves on having lightened up regarding the trafficking of women, as well as sexual disease, parental abandonment, infidelity, the ever-shrinking world of the perverse.
Ross Douthat dared go there:
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.
Hefner’s shtick was outdated from the start, a sophomoric and immature aesthetic of cool, decked-out in all the latest from the previous decade and wading obliviously into the water ahead of the tsunami that was the Sixties. The magazine printed quality authors who wrote quality articles, but had no editorial personality; the liberal consensus of the moment was the magazine’s. A glossy, technical marvel with no character and a whiff of obliviousness.
In mainstreaming pornography it led the way culturally; ever since it’s followed the trend.
Hef’s James Bond vision of an encompassing lifestyle, rich in pleasures, gadgets and consumer goods, failed utterly, of course. He was fashioning a “brand” before the concept was created (I think), and that brand failed even as the magazine rolled on.
So the venereal became venerable. The mansion and Hefner enjoyed a sort of resurgence in later years, owing to the ironic condescension of such as Howard Stern. When the mansion was featured on Entourage it was too perfect, the lineage from obscene parent to mediocre spawn too direct.
Hefner would follow the same failed course he plotted for his generation, as described by Roger Devlin in his Sexual Utopia in Power
A man’s sexual utopia is, accordingly, a world in which no such limit to female demand for him exists. It is not necessary to resort to pornography for examples. Consider only popular movies aimed at a male audience, such as the James Bond series. Women simply cannot resist James Bond. He does not have to propose marriage, or even request dates. He simply walks into the room and they swoon.
The entertainment industry turns out endless unrealistic images such as this. Why, the male viewer eventually may ask, cannot life actually be so? To some, it is tempting to put the blame on the institution of marriage. Marriage, after all, seems to restrict sex rather drastically. Certain men figure that if sex were permitted both inside and outside of marriage there would be twice as much of it as formerly. They imagined there existed a large, untapped reservoir of female desire hitherto repressed by monogamy. To release it, they sought, during the early postwar period, to replace the seventh commandment with an endorsement of all sexual activity between “consenting adults.” Every man could have a harem.
Sexual behavior in general, and not merely family life, was henceforward to be regarded as a private matter. Traditionalists who disagreed were said to want to “put a policeman in every bedroom.” This was the age of the Kinsey Report and the first appearance of Playboy magazine. Idle male daydreams had become a social movement. This characteristically male sexual utopianism was a forerunner of the sexual revolution but not the revolution itself. Men are incapable of bringing about fundamental changes in heterosexual relations without the cooperation—the famed “consent”—of women. But the original male would-be revolutionaries did not understand the nature of the female sexuality.
In helping set loose the sexual revolution he of course helped strand countless men left out of the bacchanal. The magazine promised to lead them to a sexual utopia of never-ending delights–while they engaged in the lonely, pathetic act of masturbation. It was, fittingly, jacking them off the whole time with this con. Now, all that’s left is the masturbation, literal and figurative. The lesson of Playboy isn’t that sexual liberation is freedom, but that it is a prison.
To the extent the average American male took him seriously he was ill-served, but Hefner managed to create that utopia for himself. He championed it his whole life. And its yield was a long dotage of drugs, pornography, mental illness, cuckoldry and masturbation.
His life was a testament to the stupidity and destructiveness of the life he celebrated.