Something happens to your conscience when you look at an old photo of Hugh Hefner, pipe clenched between his teeth and fawned upon by gaggles of scantily-clad women in their early twenties, and realize that each of them is now as old or older than your grandmother. The voluptuous bodies, intended as so much eye-and-arm candy back then, transform into people again. They are daughters, aunts, sisters, and mothers. Many have had children and grandchildren, and though they’ve lost the firmness and luster of their riotous youth in the Playboy Mansion, quite a few are probably deeply loved by the younger people whose bodies they produced and nourished with their own.
Hugh Hefner, who died at 91 on Wednesday, will be remembered for a lot of things. He normalized pornography, varnishing it with roguish respectability. He asserted the freedom to have casual sex in a way no one had ever done before. He sent the lives of countless young boys into onanistic tailspins when they stumbled on stacks of his magazines in their dads’ or older brothers’ closets.
But more than anything else, Hefner will be remembered for remaking women to be as much like men as possible.
That’s what paeans to his virtues like this one at The Federalist so catastrophically miss. Domenech may be right that Playboy and the legacy of instantly-available pornography it helped spawn make feminists squirm. They must choose, after all, between opposing smut—in which case they’re accused of “body-shaming,” and supporting it—in which case they’re accused of objectifying women. But in the end, pornography and radical feminism are just two heads of the same hydra. They share the goal of erasing women as a sex and recreating them as men-with-breasts-and-vaginas.
Samuel James gets it 100 percent right here when he points out that both the Hugh Hefners and Gloria Steinems of the world shared a vision of female sexuality divorced from pregnancy and childbearing. It’s no coincidence that Playboy’s charitable foundation gave so much money to organizations devoted to “reproductive rights,” a phrase Mercer Schuchardt at Christianity Today once called “industry code for promoting sexual license as a natural right, and abortion as a failsafe guarantee.”
Hugh Hefner even described himself as a feminist, and was proud of his role in the legalization of abortion:
In the 1950s and ’60s, there were still states that outlawed birth control, so I started funding court cases to challenge that. At the same time, I helped sponsor the lower-court cases that eventually led to Roe v. Wade. We were the amicus curiae in Roe v. Wade. I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism. That’s a part of history very few people know.
You can read more about the long connection of Playboy with abortion, here.
None of this should surprise us. The sexual revolution has always been a covenant: You can have as much free, fun, and sterile sex as you want, as long as you don’t raise any objections about the things we must do in back rooms to erase the consequences. Its heady freedom depended on a transformation of women from the terrible and awe-worthy role of life-bearers and backbone of the human race to the safe, casual status of infertile playmates–equal, not vulnerable, needing neither the protection nor chivalry of any man. Birth control and abortion–virtual sacraments in feminist ideology–not only freed women up to pursue careers, but also allowed them to lead carefree sex lives. For the first time in history, men and women were on equal footing in bed.
The feminist who prides herself on freedom from marriage and children may look down on the Playboy bunny with disgust. “What a wasted life,” she might say. “She’s made herself a slave to men’s lust.” But in the end, it is the same technological and social transformation of women that makes both lifestyles possible. The porn star may embody the male fantasy of a woman who’s eternally slim, available, and infertile, while the feminist shuns the male gaze along with makeup and heels, but they’re both steering by the same stars. The feminist may think her pantsuit and flats are better than a pair of velvet rabbit ears, but if both women praise Planned Parenthood and scoff at monogamy, they’re equally heirs of Hugh Hefner and his revolution. They’ve both been equally remade in the image of man.
That image–so carefully crafted by airbrushes, medications, and curettes–seeks to blot out all the troublesome wonders of female nature and keep the price of sex at rock bottom. As University of Texas sociologist, Mark Regnerus demonstrates, this cheapening process has left women at a profound disadvantage in the mating market, and made it stunningly difficult to find men willing to pay the steep price of faithful marriage and fertility. The feminist dream of freedom from the kitchen and cradle and the lecher’s dream of consequence-free trysts mutually reinforce each other as they seek to extract the great monkey wrench in the workings of the sexual revolution: children.
Women, in the course of sex, tend to make people. The very word “woman” contains the root for “womb”–an irrepressible reminder that boys who play around tend to become fathers. And nature stubbornly refuses to let us forget that those silky, supple forms surrounding Hugh Hefner in the old photos became mothers and grandmothers. Generations have sprung from them. People you know and may even pass on the street were nourished by their once purely ornamental bodies. Our very existence cries out that sex is more than playtime. But our culture has been at relentless war with this fact for nearly half a century.
This is the real legacy of Hugh Hefner. Far from being at loggerheads with feminism, consequence-free sex is apiece with the cultural project that seeks to make women as safe as men. But no matter how many babies are killed–no matter how many men are enslaved in the darkness of their rooms to fake love–no matter how many lives are devastated by the craving of a middle-aged father for a younger lover–no matter how many women find they have sold themselves cheap–that project will fail. Because the flawless forms in the photos beside Hefner aren’t the risk-free creatures men want them to be. They are women.