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Hugh Hefner's influence lives on in his particular brand of “feminism”

It’s Hefner’s puritanism – not his liberalism – that’s keeping so many of us in check today.

September has been a difficult month in terms of losses to feminism. First we saw the death of Kate Millett, the radical second-wave author of Sexual Politics. Now it’s been the turn of Hugh Hefner, the Playboy publisher who once described himself as “a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism”.

Obviously it would be difficult to say which of the two fought the hardest for women. Would it be Millett, who sought to liberate us from the bounds of patriarchy, or Hefner, who sought to free us from body hair, inner lives and clothes? An impossible call to make. Still, if it came down to the question of whose brand of feminism has won the day, there’s an easy answer to that.

Hefner feminism is all around us. It’s the feminism of pre-teen girls seeking designer vaginas; of men who rent out vaginas and wombs; of women who diet, shave, starve and never say no. We’re not free from oppression, but oppression is no longer stigmatised. Isn’t that enough?

In a 2007 interview with Esquire magazine, Hefner described himself as a champion of “sexual liberation”. By which he meant not the liberation of women as a sex class, but the liberation of women to be fucked. Same difference, some might say. Certainly, anyone who dared to raise an objection would surely have been dismissed by Hugh as the wrong sort of feminist.

“Unfortunately,” commented Hefner, “within feminism, there has been a puritan, prohibitionist element that is antisexual.” He then went on to quote extensively from Dworkin’s Intercourse and Brownmiller’s Against Our Will. Or rather, he didn’t, since he knew what these women thought anyhow. Besides, they weren’t fuckable and didn’t have cotton tails stuck to their arses, so what was the point of reading a word they’d written?

Satisfying though it is to say that Hefner was never a real feminist – for him it was always a marketing tool, a game – it’s worth considering how far his view of women has come to align itself with what passes for feminism today. Very few young women would now dare take the line that women are exploited and abused because of their biological sex.

We put it all down to “stigmas”, to “phobias”, to that “puritan, prohibitionist element” that needs to be rooted out and held up for public humiliation. Feminists who oppose pornography or prostitution are routinely deemed ignorant, sexphobic or prejudiced against women who work in those industries. Major political parties and student bodies push for the liberalisation of laws prohibiting the exploitation of female flesh. It’s easy to dismiss Hefner as a dirty old man taking feminism’s name in vain; when he told women they were the real bigots, we believed him.

The trouble is, Hefner was half-right, and in a world that silences women, half-right is all a man needs to be. The denial of female sexuality is real. The insistence that female sexual pleasure doesn’t matter is of huge political significance. Yet anyone who really cared about that wouldn’t focus on telling young, large-breasted women to loosen up and open their legs.

They’d focus on issues that prevent women of all ages from having happy, healthy, fulfilling sex lives. Issues such as FGM, birth injuries, vaginismus, post-menopausal dryness, the neglect of female bodies in medical research, the misrepresentation of non-penetrative sex as “not real sex”…  These are issues that relate to the interior lives of women, not just the number of holes via which one might enter them.

Of course Hefner had little time for such things. The reason why? Because, like all ageing playboys defending their right to fuck silent women, he was really the one with hang-ups about sex, the one so terrified of female sexual and reproductive power he had to sanitise it in glossy magazine shoots, reducing real, live women to airbrushed skin and compliance.

The Playboy vision of women is utterly joyless. It’s one built on fear. There are few things more puritanical than pathologising women who make their own demands regarding sex. It’s Hefner’s puritanism – not his liberalism – that’s keeping so many of us in check today.

So rest in peace, Hugh, you great big pearl-clutching, woman-phobic conservative. Right now your feminism lives on. Still, let’s hope a more open-minded, truly sex-positive version comes to replace it.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist