Hugh Hefner's true legacy: Mainstreaming the sexual objectification of women

Friday, September 29, 2017
Patrick Trueman - Guest Columnist

Haven't we learned from the consequences of the last 50 years that Playboy is actually just another brand for old-fashioned misogyny?

With Hugh Hefner's death, the media has erupted in praise for his alleged contributions to society through the pornography magazine he founded, Playboy.

In reality, Hefner leaves behind a colossal legacy of sexual exploitation.

Playboy popularized the commodification of the female body in soft-core pornography magazines in the 1950s, and it laid the groundwork for the public health crisis of pornography that America is experiencing today.

Without Hefner, pornography may have never gone mainstream. His opportune use of nude photos of Marilyn Monroe, who was just becoming a Hollywood sensation, in Playboy's inaugural issue immediately gained the magazine national attention and notoriety. Further, by cunningly using models that captured the male sexual fantasy of the "girl next door," and creating an archetype of the detached, "sophisticated" male connoisseur of pleasure, especially sex, Hefner succeeded in making pornography seem as American as apple pie.

Hefner was not a revolutionary, folk hero, or champion of free speech. He was a pioneer in the sexual objectification and exploitation of women.

PlayboyFrom its very inception, Playboy made its views on women clear. As Hefner opined in the first issue, "We want to make it very clear from the start, we aren't a 'family' magazine.' If you're somebody's sister, wife, or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to the Ladies Home Companion."

Research shows that Playboy portrayed female sexuality as subordination and women as universally available to the male sexual gaze – a fundamental characteristic of pornography that carries on today.

His plan to mainstream pornography worked well. Too well, in fact. In the end, the advent of the Internet created a direct portal into the homes of America, something Hefner's competitors moved fast to exploit. The quick and easy access to copious amounts of pornographic material eventually made Playboy obsolete.

With an unlimited supply of pornography on the Internet, a myriad of harms have taken the country by storm: sexual addictions and disorders, damaged and broken relationships, sexting, child-on-child sexual abuse, revenge porn, increased rape on college campuses and the military, rampant sexual objectification of women in popular culture, psychological effects such as anxiety and depression, and the list goes on.

For instance, research is showing that pornography is neurologically detrimental. A 2014 study found that increased pornography use is linked to decreased brain matter in the areas of motivation and decision-making, impaired impulse control, and desensitization to sexual reward.

Due to increasing sexual dysfunctions surrounding pornography, it's also clear pornography is blatantly sex negative. A 2015 study on pornography users found that 20.3 percent said "one motive for their porn use was to maintain arousal with their partner." It also found that pornography use was linked to higher sexual desire, but lower overall sexual satisfaction, and lower erectile function.

Studies also show that the sexual tastes of those who start out consuming mainstream pornography can shift, taking them on a path that leads to violent and other extreme forms of pornography.

Perhaps most alarming of all, research shows that pornography is linked to increased sexual violence. A meta-analysis of 46 studies reported that the effects of exposure to pornographic material are "clear and consistent," and that pornography use puts people at increased risk for committing sexual offenses and accepting rape myths.

How can our society accept, let alone applaud, Hefner and the messages about the value of women he unleashed when we are simultaneously struggling with campus sexual assault, military sexual assault, and the culture of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley?

Haven't we learned from the consequences of the last 50 years that Playboy is actually just another brand for old-fashioned misogyny?

Hugh Hefner's legacy is nothing to be celebrated. Today should be heralded as a day of national mourning for a man whose talents were wasted, and for the intractable legacy of sexual harm he left behind.

Patrick Trueman is president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. He is a former chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Criminal Division at the Department of Justice from 1988 to 1993. This column was posted originally on the website of the Washington Examiner.

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