Late Wednesday, the Playboy Magazine Twitter account announced the death of the magazine’s founder — and perhaps the inspiration for generations of increased sexual licentiousness — Hugh Hefner at age 91.
As a public figure and avatar for a different kind of cultural change, Hefner is fair game for analysis. What is the lasting impact of his Playboy media empire and the cultural evolution it helped spawn?
Playboy Magazine was founded in 1953, when Hefner was just 27 years old. Those were different times; the past is always different, both in reality and as our perceptions change.
There are too many anecdotal stories and data points which suggest but cannot conclusively support a causal connection between the advent of public sexuality, represented by Hefner’s empire and its many media avenues, and certain social ills such as children borne out of wedlock, single-parent homes, unmarried mothers, divorce and even substance abuse.
Whatever the causes, it certainly seems over the last four decades that America (if not the entire Western world, influenced heavily by American entertainment and mass media) has experienced a weakening of the association between sex and love, between sex and marriage, and chastity in general.
As sex has been pulled out of the realm of the private, it has become a subject not only welcomed in the public arena, but expected to be public in its very nature. The disturbing implication? Sex is something to which one should have no expectation of privacy, of love or indeed of any emotion.
Of course, few dare to express the actual emotions which now accompany public, unemotional, unattached sexual expression: remorse, regret, shame, guilt, emptiness and loneliness. Just to name a few.
The baggage of the so-called liberation of sex is rarely discussed. However, when several full generations have experienced it, only to consequently feel its emotional and painful aftereffects, we should wonder what the long-term ramifications have been.
When families are torn apart, when children lose their innocence at younger and younger ages, the common denominator is emotional pain.
Some people attempt to self-medicate this emotional pain, through substance abuse. Others engage in equally dangerous activity, trying to assuage their guilt or remorse by encouraging others to repeat their mistakes in an attempt to normalize dysfunction.
We have seen the weakening of Western social and cultural institutions, but most particularly, the family, in recent decades stretching back perhaps to the post-World War II era (if not earlier).
Sexual liberation, involving both temptations of the flesh and producing far-reaching and damaging consequences such as unplanned pregnancies, single mothers and successive generations raised with little or no mature parental guidance, has been an effective tool for weakening these institutions and the larger society.
Now, as we see a Western civilization where ideological divides are more apparent than ever (magnified by social media) and traditional values are more openly under assault than most of us can remember in our lifetimes, it is possible than a cultural revolution — of which Hefner played a role in encouraging — is not merely ongoing, but has occurred. In fact, it could have been so profound, yet gone so unnoticed over decades, that the tipping point we might have been theorizing as to its existence has in fact already taken place.
Cultural revolutions engender political revolutions, as politics is downstream from culture.
Classic Gramsci Marxism proposed that revolution in the strongly Christian West could be achieved by weakening its institutions, targeting the family in particular.
Could this mean that Hefner, long viewed as a sexual liberation icon and worldwide celebrity, can appropriately be viewed as not just a libertine, flamboyant “playboy,” but as a Gramsci Marxist, a perhaps unwitting agent of Marxist revolution?
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
1 John 2:15-17
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
That is all.
Hugh Hefner published the first issue of Playboy in 1953, with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. He has died age 91. https://t.co/QvvOEyO2fD pic.twitter.com/CFowu1N2x8
Hefner contributed an introductory essay in which he envisioned the magazine’s readers: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex …”
Hugh Hefner, publisher of skin mag everyone said they read for the articles, is dead at 91. pic.twitter.com/vrEeXCAgrF
— Philip Gourevitch (@PGourevitch) September 28, 2017
The death of any person is a tragedy. Hugh Hefner is no exception to that. We can't though w his obits call his life "success" or "a dream."
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) September 28, 2017
Well at least Hugh Hefner has gone to a better place. No…hang on a minute.
— Tony Shepherd (@tonysheps) September 28, 2017
— CNN (@CNN) September 28, 2017
— Steve Berman (@stevengberman) September 28, 2017
[This is Steve, not Eric writing this part – Ed]
I was going to write my own obituary for Mr. Hefner, but it seems most of what I was going to say has been written for me. “Contribution” is not the word I would use to describe Hefner’s transaction with society. I’d say it was a “withdrawal.” This paragraph from CNN describes his ethos and his customer base very well.
“We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex …”
Think about that. Within years after World War II, men, many who have seen horrors beyond description and suffered emotional damage we’d call PTSD today, were looking for a life of meaning, or distraction. I’d like to contrast Hefner’s life with one of his contemporaries.
Two men rose up at about the same time. Billy Graham started his public preaching ministry in 1947, offering meaning through salvation and relationship with Jesus Christ. Hefner offered distraction, abstraction, Nietzsche (whose benighted teachings led directly to the two wars we had just fought), music and eroticism. The two things could not be more in opposition to each other.
We can observe the results with our own eyes. As Graham’s influence waned in America after the turbulent 60s and cynical 70s, the rise of Internet pornography that ultimately ruined Playboy’s almost quaint smut by comparison and its influence on society was in many ways enabled by Hefner’s societal “withdrawal.” He got the life he deserved, as the Gospel tells us, surely he has his reward. We can only pray that a deathbed confession brought redemption. But we cannot expect to live a life venerating sin and enter Heaven. Such an expectation is frequently futile and self-deceiving.
Hefner’s death is the marking of the passage of one man’s era, whose time passed a decade or more ago. Billy Graham lives on still, but his era will not pass until the one he preaches returns for His bride.