The Purveyor of Pleasure Brought Nothing but Pain

hugh hefner twice

The Washington Post’s Theresa Vargas reminds us of the murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten as “the dark side of Playboy.” And it is a sad, tawdry tale indeed.

But what in the world was the bright side?

Hugh Hefner is finally dead after an implausibly long life filled with alcohol and promiscuity. The New York Times’s Ross Douthat bid him a scathing good-bye, but many obituaries seem to be fondly appreciative, as if a rascally uncle had finally passed on, leaving lively wakes full of laughter over tales of the old boy’s antics.

What the old boy did, however, was to bring shadows into the lives of millions of people. If it is obvious that Hefner did nothing to elevate the status of women, he didn’t do much for men, either.

Hefner brought pornography into the public square. He brought it out from behind the counters of disreputable little cigar shops onto convenience store shelves, and out from the seedy, smelly peep shows to pay-per-view TV in your Holiday Inn room—and finally, like a tidal wave, into everyone’s life via the Internet, the Internet that, ironically, largely did in his empire.

He also glamorized strip clubs (and, thus, the prostitution that invariably lurks nearby). Bachelor and birthday parties of even respectable men could be held at so-called gentlemen’s clubs with anyone who objected to the objectification of women risking the label of “prude” or “spoilsport.”

Worst of all, however, Hefner brought the shadow of unfaithfulness into thousands of homes.

It might seem no big deal nowadays to come across airbrushed photos of nude women tastefully arrayed in soft light and luxurious fabrics. We have even learned to call it “soft porn.”

But it was a big deal for every wife who happened across her husband’s stash behind the suitcase in the attic. There were her husband’s fantasy loves and lusts. There was a heartbreaking array of impossible women impossible to compete with.

Likewise, it was a big deal for every son, and every daughter, who was looking for something else in the garage and came across proof of their father’s mental disloyalty to their mother. Every child has to reckon with one’s father’s humanity eventually, but with this ugly side of him, while so young?

It is impossible to estimate how many people have become addicted, in a serious clinical sense, to pornography. But you don’t have to be addicted to something for it to powerfully affect your life. And just because some drugs are worse doesn’t mean the other drugs aren’t dangerous.

Playboy encouraged sin on a wide scale, and not a little sin: the kind of sin that damages marriages and diminishes the respect of a child for his father. That’s not something to be laughed off as trivial, let alone roguishly charming.

Hefner, at least early on, seemed to take himself seriously as a philosopher. The magazines featured his long essays promoting hedonism as a splendid, even healthy, emancipation from his cramped Methodist upbringing.

But it immediately became a joke that anyone bought Playboy for the articles, no matter what Hefner said or how many famous authors were glad to be paid to write for it. And it soon became evident that no real playboy would be bothered reading his silly, striving magazine.

No, Playboy was not just an alternative to, but an act of revenge upon and subversion of, Hefner’s middle-class, Midwestern, middle-of-the-road origins. And in that it was tremendously successful.

But nothing to be celebrated.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).