Hugh and Harvey and Sex

Commentary, Culture Wars, Gerry Bowler

Hugh Hefner has finally died and I have competing Latin maxims battling in my head. On the one hand, De mortuis nil nisi bonum – “of the dead say nothing but good” – is a wise and charitable saying. On the other hand, so is De mortuis nil nisi verum– “of the dead speak nothing but the truth.” If one were to speak nothing but the truth about the man one would find very little good to say, so I will chart a prudent middle course in assessing the effect of his 91 years on this planet.

Hugh Hefner, it must be said, was a brilliant entrepreneur. In 1953, using borrowed money, he assembled a nude photo of Marilyn Munroe purchased from a photo agency, pieces of fiction lifted from Boccaccio, Ambrose Bierce and Arthur Conan Doyle (all long dead and unlikely to sue for payment), a chicken and rice recipe, a football piece with free pictures supplied by the University of Illinois’ sports department, a look at the Dorsey brothers which wondered if they would revive swing music, an article on the high cost of divorce and some cartoons, and published it as the first issue of Playboy magazine. It was cheap but pretentious and self-consciously urban-sophisticate. It was, said Hefner in his introductory column, “a pleasure primer for the masculine taste” but it was not the typical men’s outdoor magazine. “We plan on spending most of our time inside”, said Hefner, “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”

It was the start of something big, a publishing empire based on smut. Until Hefner came along, pornographic images were sold furtively over the counter or watched in flickering 8 mm in smoky basements of men’s clubs. Hefner commodified bare breasts for a mass market. His mixture of lewd pictures with ads for high-end stereos and cars, sprinkled with progressive politics made Playboy wildly popular with two generations of young men who learned, as they said, to read with one hand. Along with the inventors of the contraceptive pill, he advanced a social revolution by proposing the impossible: sex without responsibility.

Enter Harvey Weinstein, for few men embody the Hefner approach to sex as well as the now-disgraced movie producer. For Harvey, women were commodities, to be enjoyed whenever and wherever his pleasure demanded. Despite being fat and slovenly, Harvey had his way with beautiful actresses, and for decades they kept silent because of the power he wielded inside Hollywood, an industry which leads the way in selling sex and violence as entertainment.

Hefner died a tawdry parody of his former self but society is still paying the price for his program. He taught North American males that sexual pleasure should be unrestrained by morality or consequence; his philosophy drastically lowered the cost of copulation. Before Hefner and The Pill, the price which males paid for sex was marriage, or at least signals of emotional commitment. After Hefner and his disciples (which included Weinstein), the price was low for the individual male but extremely high for society: epidemics of STDs, high rates of single-woman pregnancy, family breakup, porn addiction, and a crisis in the relationship between men and women that is far from being resolved.

Rest in peace, Hugh. We are still cleaning up after you. And Harvey: get some professional help.