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.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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.