On the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, the ABC asked me to consider his legacy. I wrote that it was second wave feminism that drove sexual liberation for women, while Hefner was more interested in controlling women. This article was first published online by the ABC on 29 September here.
On a warm weekday afternoon in Sydney recently, I rested on rocks by a Sydney ocean pool and noticed a young girl, perhaps 20, maybe 22, dancing topless at the pool’s edge, under the clock for swimmers tracking lap speeds.
She was striking poses for the three or four boys and one girl she was with. One of the boys was capturing her on a camera at her direction.
She was glorious: an athletic Miley Cyrus-lookalike. Every now and then she dived into the water, emerging to pointedly shake water from her hair and legs. She prowled the pool deck, the centre of her group’s attention. I kept stealing glances at her, as did the smartly-dressed patrons drinking on the hotel balcony above, and the handful of swimmers and sunbathers around me.
It was, in a way, a classic Playboy scene: water, beautiful girls, men dressed in smart casual, alcohol. And it was this scene I thought of when I heard of Hugh Hefners’ death. Superficially, my poolside Miley looked like a Hefner woman: minimally dressed, playful and libidinous. But unlike Hefner’s bunnies, she didn’t seem to be in anyone’s employ.
I didn’t know anything else about her, but it was easy to invent back stories for her: she had an Instagram account with tens of thousands of followers and dozens of sponsors; she was a businesswoman making soft core porn for regular grateful clients.
At the very least, she reminded how many young women like her are not just comfortable in their sexuality, but revelling in it and acutely aware of deploying their power. But despite the superficial links with Hugh Hefner, there’s little else connecting the world he created and Sydney’s Miley.
In many ways, she has much more to do with the legacy of second-wave feminism than Playboy. Even if the initial radical aims of women’s liberation — that women’s sexual liberation would lead to widespread social and political liberation — have, as it turns out, morphed into a much more modest aim: women taking back the control and production of their sexual images from men.
Feminism wasn’t anti-sex
When Hefner passed away this week, journalists credited him for practically singlehandedly starting the sexual revolution: “As much as anyone, Hugh Hefner turned the world on to sex” the Washington Post’s Matt Schudel wrote on his passing yesterday.
On the ABC, Hefner was given credit for “revving up the sexual revolution” and helping “to slip sex out of the confines of plain brown wrappers and into mainstream conversation”.
This story we’re asked to believe is that Hefner lifted the lid on a repressed 1950s culture and, later, fought against a censorious, anti-sex feminism. But the idea that sex and nudity was a dormant thing Hefner “discovered” would be news to the libertines, pornographers, writers and painters of erotica and, well, lovers throughout history.
And the notion that the women’s liberation movement — which, from its inception, was linked to sexual liberation — was actually a primly puritanical force against Hefner’s Dionysian utopia is a powerful, but equally erroneous one.
It’s true that a not insignificant strand of women’s liberation argued heterosexuality (at least under patriarchy) was an incurably oppressive condition, and a separatist approach was the only true route to liberation. But for many second-wave feminists — buoyed by the pill, liberalising attitudes to abortion, and the belief that communal living might free them from stultifying nuclear units — sexual liberation and women’s liberation were inseparable.
Some of the most-read pamphlets of the early women liberation era dealt with sexual pleasure, such as Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. Germaine Greer was against censorship, and posed nude for the underground magazine Suck, legs above her shoulders to allow the best view of her pubic hair and vulva (although she was betrayed by the men on the editorial board, who failed to live up to an agreement to pose nude themselves).
The undercover bunny
Perhaps the notion that Hefner was a pro-sex champion against the stuffy feminists stems from Gloria Steinem’s now famous 11-day undercover stint as a playboy bunny in 1963. Though just 28 when she wrote the expose, Steinem’s essay bristles with intelligence and humour and sass.
She doesn’t moralise about the bunnies’ trade — selling sex — rather she forensically exposes the appalling industrial and OHS conditions bunnies are working under. They are charged for make-up and $2.50 a day for costume “upkeep”, she wrote. They received demerit points for dirty tails or tights with runs. The club and busboys would keep half (and sometimes all) of their tips.
She writes scenes that might have inspired Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. She visits an arrogant male doctor for internal examinations, blood tests and an X-ray before the club would hire her. She is taught the bunny bible rules; a ban on fraternising with regular customers, while being obliged, on pain of being fired, to give full names to, and attend private parties with, Number One keyholders.
Private detectives were hired to trap bunnies by offering payment for services off site, and they had to meet husbands and boyfriends at least two blocks from the club. To sell more drinks, bunnies were encouraged to be personal with customers and make eye contact, but they were left to fend off the sexual harassment that resulted.
A sexual revolution with men at the centre
Hugh Hefner did do much to mainstream sex, and to make it something unashamedly associated with pure pleasure. But he did so, first and foremost, for men. For women there were regimes of control — from regulation three-inch shoes and suits made a rib-crushingly two inches smaller than a bunny’s measurements.
Bunnies weren’t supposed to have histories, or sexual desires that weren’t directed towards selling more drinks for the club and pleasing top customers.
Second-wave feminists extended the claim for sexual liberation to women. And they made the much more radical argument that sexual liberation could be the basis of social and political liberation. Women’s liberationists wanted sex to blow the system apart. They didn’t succeed, of course, in finding the kind of sexual liberation that would lead to liberation from alienating work or from the nuclear family. How to care for children in the libidinal chaos that might ensue, however desirable, was a particular problem.
But Hugh Hefner, dying amid all the wealth and glamour of Playboy Mansion, didn’t, in the end, succeed in controlling sex either. Sex, as Freud taught us, contains contradictions and excess. It contains both revolutionary and oppressive potential. Feminists are still trying to reconcile these two. We probably never will.