Beasts and Men

Playboy Celebrates 50 years

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Ph.D.

December 2003 marked a dubious cultural milestone in America: the fiftieth anniversary of Hugh Hefner’s founding of Playboy magazine. Although a quick Internet search reveals that the anniversary was amply noted and celebrated at the time, it somehow passed right by me, reaching my radar screen only several weeks ago when the A&E network announced its plans to repeat the star-studded celebration it had featured in December.

And star studded it was. Among the celebrities featured, according to the network’s website, were Drew Carey, Kelsey Grammer, Dick Gregory, and Raquel Welch. Half a century ago a celebrity so deranged as to celebrate such a thing – and publicly, no less – would have spent the rest of his life a pariah. Today, by contrast, the only thing that earns the reproach of our cultural censors is making a film about Christ’s Passion.

In case anyone needed more evidence that mainstream “conservatism” today is indistinguishable from leftism, here you go. National Review Online, the web version of the magazine that once defined the American right, actually found kind words to say about Playboy on its half-century milestone. “Playboy really does have something to do with freedom,” wrote Catherine Seipp, “and these days maybe that’s worth remembering. A society that allows Playboy is not a society that allows women to be stoned to death for adultery.” The choice, she said, was between Playboy and burkas; take your pick. That article, remember, was published in a periodical that over the years has featured the likes of Russell Kirk, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Richard Weaver, and L. Brent Bozell.

(It’s not clear just when official conservatism became indistinguishable from a frat party, but from its un-conservative foreign-policy adventurism to this endorsement of soft pornography, that’s pretty much what it now is. If there is any major issue on which self-appointed conservative spokesmen have not yet capitulated to the left I would like to know what it is – yet the very same spokesmen spend their time writing books about all the wonderful successes that conservative ideas and politics are enjoying. It’s a fascinating sociological phenomenon, worthy of an essay in its own right.)

Exactly what it is we are expected to celebrate about 50 years of Playboy is far from clear. Am I supposed to be impressed that Hugh Hefner correctly predicted that men would purchase pictures of nude women? Are our standards of entrepreneurial genius really so low?

The celebrities who commemorated Playboy’s anniversary had a lot to say about the magazine’s role in liberating Americans from the supposedly so repressive social mores of the pre-Playboy dark ages. But there was a reason for the modesty of the old days. When matters of human intimacy are treated as sources of humor, bandied about as normal topics of conversation, or rendered farcical on the afternoon freak shows that rot Americans’ brains, it is only natural that people would begin to think of the marital act as no different from any other activity. What else are they to conclude when it is spoken of as openly and at least as frequently as anything else? (In fact, what topic is more emphasized in the typical motion picture directed at teenagers?) And if it is no different from any other human activity, like ping-pong or mountain climbing, then what gives anyone the right to set the terms on which (or the people with whom) I participate in it? If physical pleasure and self-realization are values to be cherished and celebrated in and of themselves, then why shouldn’t I pursue them even if it means leaving behind my wife and family?

That Playboy (as well as Bob Guccione’s Penthouse) has suffered declining readership and financial free-fall in recent years is due not to any rethinking of the sexual revolution but rather to two principal factors. One is that as the pornographic revolution has proceeded, Playboy has come to be seen as relatively mild and uninteresting by more recent standards. But secondly, as Paul Belien pointed out earlier this year in The American Conservative, there is a gruesome irony in the fact that the Playboy philosophy of abortion on demand, promoted vigorously by the magazine since before Roe v. Wade, has aborted a huge proportion of young men, the magazine’s key demographic. Thanks to legal abortion, there are now 12 million fewer men aged 15-30 than there would otherwise have been. (“Keep telling people that killing a fetus is moral,” a 1973 letter to the editor presciently observed, “and eventually there will be no one left to read your magazine.”)

Hefner has admitted to more than his share of extramarital affairs. Yet like so many public figures who flaunt the moral law, he describes his infidelities not as moral failings but almost as virtues. “I was finding it increasingly difficult to honor the conventions of society rather than to follow my own convictions,” Hef says. By “the conventions of society” he means the obligation to be faithful to your wife, and by “my own convictions” he means his desire to use multiple women for his own satisfaction. A real martyr, that Hugh Hefner.

Among Hefner’s trademarks is that attractive young women consistently accompany him in his public appearances. Hef continues to age, but his female entourage does not. And there, notwithstanding the fevered denials of the magazine’s supporters, is what Playboy and its progeny are all about: the idea that women are things to be enjoyed and then discarded, for a new crop of them is always available.

The casualties of the sexual revolution are well known – divorce, skyrocketing illegitimacy, maladjusted children, abortion, and depression – but sometimes overlooked is the epidemic of desertion. Years ago an acquaintance of mine, a woman in her mid-40s, was abandoned by her husband, who ran off to be with a much younger woman. There is the Playboy philosophy – indulging my appetites trumps everything else – in action, though at least this man had the decency not to pretend that abandoning his wife and children was a noble blow for human liberation against “the conventions of society.”

There are so many people like this unfortunate woman, left to explain to her four children where Daddy went. Yet so thoroughly indoctrinated have they been in the philosophy of sexual liberation that they cannot see how directly their own tragedies can be traced to that very philosophy. The idea of “turning back the clock” to a time when delicate matters of human intimacy were treated with reserve and circumspection is thought to be “repressive” and out of the question even by those whose lives have been ruined by “liberation.”

The pornography that Hefner and Playboy pioneered is like a drug, leaving its viewers longing for greater and greater doses and encouraging cravings that can never be satisfied. Hef calls this liberation, but what he is peddling is a particularly insidious form of bondage, and one to which a spiritually impoverished generation, whose own shepherds have robbed them of the most potent spiritual weapons in the Catholic arsenal, is particularly vulnerable.

Playboy and its attendant philosophy are everywhere, and growing more mainstream all the time. Any bishop in possession of the Faith would be leading a ceaseless crusade against them. Our bishops have apparently been unable to pencil in such a campaign amid their busy schedules of shielding pedophiles, bulldozing sanctuaries, and apologizing for Christopher Columbus. Instead, the teen Masses and other toothless schlock that the bishops offer to the young only confirm the kids’ dumb prejudices about the irrelevance of the Church. The young are spiritually disarmed before an onslaught whose sheer ubiquity leaves a rather more distinct impression on them than the schmaltzy music and hand-holding around the altar that greet them on those Sundays when they bother to show up for Mass.

Tragedy number 11,453 of being governed almost exclusively by weaklings and apostates is that no bold and visible effort is being made to let young men know that another kind of life is possible from the one peddled by poor Mr. Hefner and his dirty magazine. The bishops should be recalling the great men of Christendom – like Charlemagne, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Francis Xavier, to name a few – and holding them up as models for how true men live. The message could be: you can aspire to be one of these men – a builder of civilization, a great genius, a servant of God and men, or a heroic missionary – or you can be a self-absorbed nobody fixated on his little collection of magazines. Our society does everything in its power to ensure that you wind up on the latter path. But teenagers pride themselves on their independence of thought and deed. Then rise above the herd, declare your independence from a culture that thinks so little of you, and proclaim that you intend to live not as a beast but as a man.