Hugh Hefner is dead. He's left the building…life, the Playboy Mansion and its legendary grotto for the final time, dying at the age of 91 from natural causes. I don’t have much to add to the many articles that have already been published about Hefner’s remarkable life and career, but his passing made me consider what my life would have been like without Playboy and Hugh Hefner.
That may sound strange, or even a little creepy, but bear with me. For a person my age, Playboy and the social changes that Hef’s empire created or promoted had a profound effect on the world I grew up in. I was born at the very tail end of the ‘60s, when Playboy had already been around for more than 15 years, so I never knew a world before Hefner’s Bunnyverse helped kick off the sexual revolution.
It's likely that in the pre-Internet world, a huge percentage of young males got their first look at erotic nudity in the pages of their dad's or uncle’s copies of Playboy; nowadays such a rite of passage looks almost innocent in comparison to the bleak revelations that await people online. Sure, lots of folks criticized Hefner and Playboy for objectifying women, but people objectified women well before Playboy arrived, and Hefner’s magazine seemed to glorify female beauty more often than simply exploiting it. Haters are going to hate, but Playboy usually seemed to treat women seriously, and with respect and class, especially compared to many of its cruder imitators.
Under Hefner’s guidance, Playboy presented erotic content as something normal people could enjoy, not as sleaze reserved for dangerous men in back alleys. He mixed the pictorials with progressive social commentary and, yes, really great articles and contributions from world-class writers. You could read Playboy for the articles, and a lot of people probably did.
Hefner himself seemed to be an introspective and extremely intelligent man, and while his public persona was one that could easily be parodied, he appeared to have a lot more interests than bombshell blonds and smoking jackets.
It was that style, the Playboy “brand,” that changed the world. Sex could be something that smart and sophisticated people discussed and indulged in, not something reserved for procreation or crude locker-room talk. I don't know how anything relating to sex was handled before 1953, but looking at old stuff from that era makes me glad Playboy came along to challenge America’s prudish nature.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
I spent some very wild years in bands, none wilder than when I was a member of Bozo Porno Circus, a crazy industrial-rock group with a very developed fetish stage show. I found myself wondering if such a band would have even existed in a world without Hugh Hefner or Playboy, and I have my doubts. Without him planting the seeds that expanded America’s acceptance of erotica, the kind of social changes that made our kind of show palatable to a wider audience might never have occurred.
What would the world have been like without Playboy or its iconic creator? Would I have enjoyed growing up in an environment where sex was taboo, and having a healthy libido or enjoyment of erotica might have labeled me as a pervert or worse? I doubt it.
This country has always needed creative people who push the envelope and make us question why things are the way they are, and Hugh Hefner was one of them — a true American original who stood up for his vision, and made our world a more interesting place.