The New York Times’ obituary of Hugh Hefner briefly touches on a deeply significant moment in Hefner’s life: Hefner married his longtime girlfriend—Milly, the only woman he had slept with—at the age of twenty-seven. In what Hefner described as “the single most devastating experience of my life,” Milly admitted that she had had an affair while they were dating. “I had literally saved myself for my wife, but after we had sex she told me that she'd had an affair … My wife was more sexually experienced than I was. After that, I always felt in a sense that the other guy was in bed with us, too."
Following this betrayal, Hefner transformed from a man who waited for and then enjoyed the sexual favors of one woman to a man who, by his own testimony, enjoyed the love of a thousand—and who taught men and boys to seek the love of a thousand women, whether alone in the privacy and comfort of their bathrooms or by imitating the Playboy lifestyle with flesh-and-blood women. This siren call is predicated on the lesson Hefner learned from Milly: do not give yourself to a woman, who might hurt you. Instead, use her.
The Times article contains another telling disclosure. When asked later in life about what he saw as marriage’s benefits, Hefner said that in his experience, the “rewards” of marriage “unfortunately . . . come from other women,” a remark that reveals a central tenet of the Playboy legacy. The message is clear: men’s needs cannot be satisfied by any one woman in the context of a long-term, committed relationship. Rather, male sexuality requires for its satisfaction diverse encounters with infinite versions of the beauty of the female form.
Yet this pursuit can never lead to satisfaction, because change itself is the condition of arousal and desire. There is a foundational relationship between Hefner’s account of desire, which has so profoundly shaped our culture, and the use of women as objects rather than persons.
Playboy and the Gentleman?
Given this deeply twisted philosophy of masculine desire that is built on objectifying women, imagine my surprise to find a recent article by Ben Domenech of the Federalist arguing that Hefner’s Playboy kingdom testified to sexual complementarity, not by poverty of example but by its demonstration of delight in sexual difference:
Embedded in [Hefner’s] work was the idea that what we appreciate in one another isn’t sexless. It’s deeply rooted in our differences. Without those differences, sex itself becomes much less interesting. So while he was derided as selling prurience and stereotypes to the profane and stereotypical, he was actually celebrating the sexual complementarity that has bound men and women together since the dawn of time.
Though Domenech acknowledges that Hefner is responsible for much of our culture’s present disarray, he draws a sharp distinction between Hefner’s vision and the sexual chaos that the right so often critiques. He writes:
What separates [Hefner] from the more lurid members of his industry is an appreciation for manners and a particular form of American masculinity: he advised you to be a gentleman, not a cad, in your pursuit of the centerfold or the girl next door. As Lileks put it on Twitter yesterday, “Few men wanted to be Hef. They wanted to be the guy Hef was happy showed up at his party.””
Reading this, I felt a kind of instant revulsion. Is Domenech naïve, I wondered, or simply blinded by nostalgia? What woman with any worldly experience would imagine these parties to be anything but hell? The man who wants Hefner to invite him to his parties is the kind of man who does not notice—or actively welcomes—the despair characterizing drug- and alcohol-fueled sexual encounters predicated on use and insecurity.
The women who lived and partied with Hefner tell us this quite clearly. According to Bunnies Carla and Melissa Howe, the mansion’s male visitors “were really pervy; all the girls were fighting to run away.” Hefner was no better than his visitors. Holly Madison claims life in the Playboy mansion was “a living hell,” where Hef forcefully offered her Quaaludes. Izabella St. James said that, while very few women actually wanted to have sex with Hefner, “in his eyes it was the only way we had of showing gratitude for all that he did for us.”
Perhaps most tellingly, Jennifer Saginor, whose father was Hugh Hefner’s doctor, recalls her experience of life at the Playboy Mansion through the eyes of a female child. At a Playboy Party at the age of six, she saw John Belushi and a Playboy Bunny having sex in a Jacuzzi, a kind of decadence that was commonplace at the mansion. “It was so bizarre. If I was not seeing other people having sex, I was seeing my father walking around naked. I would see naked girls around the pool and people openly having sex in the games room. There were just no boundaries.” Unsurprisingly, she drew seriously distorted lessons about masculinity and femininity from these experiences. “I started to identify more with the guys,” she says. “The men were always presented to me as the intelligent and powerful ones, so I wanted to be more like them.”
Christianity, Complementarity, and Sexual Desire
By contrast, the Scriptures present a captivating vision of eros—one that sees the desired woman as an equal who can speak and be free, not a being confined by an objectifying male gaze. The Bible talks about ardor between men and women in explicit, positive ways, particularly in the Song of Songs. This desire of man is for a “fearfully and wonderfully made” partner. Genesis scholar Robert Alter draws attention to the phrase “ezer kenegdo,” used in Genesis 2:18 and commonly translated as “helpmeet.” Alter argues that this translation is faulty: “‘Help’ is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer’ elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.” For John Paul II and Alter, the portrait of the desired woman that emerges in the Bible is one of a beloved peer, partner, and comrade-in-the-fight.
Like Domenech, St. John Paul II illuminates complementarity by focusing on sexual difference and sexual delight. But, while the Playboy version requires an attitude of use toward women, St. John Paul’s is based on equality and respect.
In his Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II writes of the “mystery of complementarity” known most profoundly in the conjugal act, in which man and woman “become one flesh . . . to rediscover, so to speak, every time and in a special way the mystery of creation.” For John Paul II, sexual complementarity is a kind of union that draws the man out of himself, compelling him to leave behind his former life and to “cleave” to his wife as the principle of his new life. The man and the woman’s desire for each other leads to the conception of new life in the form of their children. According to John Paul II, man’s sexual discovery of woman is not one of use, but one of self-giving.
This is precisely the kind of self-gift that devastated Hefner when his first wife was unfaithful to him—causing him the kind of pain that only a person, and not an object, can inflict on you.
An Anti-Complementarity Sexuality
The only alternative account of human sexuality, John Paul II claims, is one in which “one of the two persons exists only as the subject of the satisfaction of the sexual need, and the other becomes exclusively the object of this satisfaction.” This is the path that Hefner inevitably leads us down.
When churches accept the vision of sexual complementarity Hefner and Domenech endorse, many women run from churches screaming. And rightly so, because this account of complementarity is nothing more than an intellectualization of domination and dehumanization.
Playboy is not a testament to healthy sexual difference, because it is not representative of “complementarity” to be conditioned to “get off” to fantasy women one can never have sex with. They are not real—they are airbrushed images of real women the men will never know, who likely bear little in common with un-airbrushed, actual women. The women in these images are merely representations. They cannot speak, and so can make no demands or critiques, nor can they express their own desire. What is more symbolic of an “anti-complementarity-sexuality” than the act of onanism carried out to mass-distributed pictures of reified women who are deprived of voice, action, and thought? And what is less likely to promote the habits of engaging with living women as people?
Though some on the right may view Hefner as a martini-drinking gentleman surrounded by beautiful women, it is better to think of him as a coward. Instead of viewing women as persons (who are capable of deeply hurting men), Hefner’s account of human sexuality made us symbols. Rather than dealing with the challenges of the vulnerability demanded by authentic eros, Hefner hides, and he teaches American men to hide. Without question, what he left in his magazine's pages is a history of cowardice that is irreconcilable with any healthy philosophical or theological position on sexual complementarity or masculine strength.
The Consequences of the Playboy Philosophy
Thanks in part to Hugh Hefner, we live in a world where women purportedly have equal dignity, yet men still feel free to cop a feel on planes, trains, and automobiles, in workplaces, doctor’s offices, and classrooms. (I have personally been inappropriately touched in at least four of these locations.) Many women worry, with reason, when a man gazes too long, knowing that he may feel free to imagine her for his own pleasure without a second thought for her personhood or consent. Many women have to deal with boyfriends, fiancés, or husbands who struggle with lust and cannot be trusted to be competently self-controlled partners, a fact David French captures in his piece on the effects of pornography on relationships. The untold impact of these things on women’s minds and hearts is worth an article in and of itself, and the study of the humiliation and pain behind it could probably fill a book.
Hefner’s attitudes about sexuality, even in their most sanitized versions, have helped create a culture where our understanding of masculine sexuality is intimately connected to use. Many people think sexual assaults are understandable hormonal indiscretions if the perpetrators are young enough (like Josh Duggar, who molested his sisters when he was a teenager) or drunk enough (like Brock Turner, who humped and digitally penetrated an unconscious woman behind a dumpster).
Similarly, Donald Trump’s collection of wives and his ownership of strip clubs are seen by many as colorful outgrowths of normal, healthy, virile impulses. If we, like Domenech, accept an account of male sexuality predicated on men’s use of women, then it seems only logical to also accept the sexual vices of men like these. Then, when Trump brags about grabbing “women by the p****,” he merely describes an understandable impulse toward women that he fails to properly channel, or that he misguidedly uses to increase his status among other men.
What Hefner has left us is a juvenile understanding of masculine sexuality and sexual complementarity. It does more harm to conservative accounts of sexuality than good to try to find anything redeemable in his magazine or his mansion.
Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo is assistant professor of political science at Texas State University.