In the wake of Hugh Hefner’s demise this week, the BBC solemnly promised, “we’ll discuss whether he empowered women or turned them into sexual objects.” Damon Linker at The Week led with the question: “Was the late Hugh Hefner a friend or a scourge of feminism? The honest answer is: Both.” And those are just two examples of the pseudo-sophisticated efforts that the press and the media made to introduce sage conversation into the obituaries for the twentieth century’s leading purveyor of porn.
A better question might be: “How does a world-class lecher with a publishing platform, who objectified and exploited women for fame, fortune, and sexual gratification become the subject of such convoluted efforts to valorize his work?”
There are undoubtedly a number of ways in which that question might be answered. But the answer, it seems to me, is quite simple: The sexual revolution of the sixties and at least some brands of the feminism that wrapped itself around that revolution were squarely focused on rights, not the question of what makes for human flourishing.No one was asking, what the place of sexuality might be in the lives of human beings, men and women alike. So, the children of that revolution lacked – and still do — the moral and intellectual center that would have allowed them to work for anything deeper than the permission to practice the same latitude for sexual expression that men experienced.
Decades later in that zero sum game, we lack the gravity and wisdom to avoid wrapping an aggrandizing narrative around the life of a man who satisfied his own needs at the expense of others, made a fortune out of his appetite, and will be buried next to his first public victim, Marilyn Monroe.
Hefner may have been one of the first to publicly flourish in the sewer and he managed to drag the culture right down with him. But it is clear that we will be burying more than Hefner later this week.