Belfast Telegraph

Did Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine empower women ... or actually degrade them?

By Mary Kenny

When Hugh Hefner - founder of the famed Playboy empire - died last month, some feminists finally felt legally free to describe how they saw him.

Suzanne Moore of The Guardian called him "a pimp" - as she had done during his lifetime, though under threat from his lawyers.

Once he departed this life, aged 91, she returned to the subject of the "disgusting old sleaze in the smoking jacket".

The 'bunny girls' in his Playboy mansion were "Hefner's petting zoo/harem/brothel". His business acumen "was to make the selling of female flesh respectable and hip, and to make soft porn acceptable".

Other obituaries chronicled some of the less savoury aspects of Hefner's life. He'd been sued, in 1975, by a bunny girl who claimed she had been drugged and forced into sex. Another 'playmate', Dorothy Stratten, was murdered, and her lover, director Peter Bogdanovich, wrote that she was "lured to her death by her involvement with the Playboy organisation" and that Hefner had "put her under sexual pressure 24 hours a day".

Yet another Hefner girlfriend, Carrie Leigh, said she'd had her breasts enlarged, her cheekbones altered and an abortion at Hefner's behest, but he ratted on his promise to marry her and "turned me into a sex machine."

He has his defenders among libertarian feminists, who point out that Hefner's handmaidens had made a free choice in becoming playmates.

Rowan Pelling, founder of London's Erotic Review, wrote that Hefner was a social progressive who supported contraception and abortion, and thus was a defender of women's rights.

Hefner did indeed campaign against restrictive birth control laws (contraception was illegal in Minnesota until 1967) and in the early years he was regarded as a kind of liberationist.

In the late 1960s, I was invited to the Playboy casino in London to conduct interviews with visiting writers, such as the gentle Alex Haley, author of the African-American odyssey Roots.

Haley thought Hefner was enlightened on race issues, with an inclusive attitude towards black Americans. At that time, sexual liberation, women's liberation and black liberation all seemed to share common cause.

But we had forgotten - or didn't know - our history. The feminist revolution and the sexual revolution were never quite the same thing. Although they may converge on issues, like contraception and even divorce, they diverge subsequently.

The sexual revolution in theory frees both men and women from taboos, but it tends to free men rather more, and that may well be in the nature of things. In any free market of sexual exchange, women are bought and sold more than men (there aren't many brothels where women purchase the services of 18-year-old boys). Women are perceived to lose attraction with age more than men, and, wherever a pregnancy occurs, the cost is higher to a woman, even if she's free to have an abortion. Even sexually transmitted disease can take a higher toll on a woman.

The roots of historical feminism include restraining men's appetites. Early feminists were serious types. Christabel Pankhurst's battle cry was: "Votes for Women - and Chastity for Men!" In America, feminists took hatchets to the brothel and the saloon bar. Campaigning for Prohibition, they proclaimed that men would be under greater control of women if they were made sober and straight-living.

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Early feminist Christabel Pankhurst

The Suffragette generation was appalled by the new sexual freedoms of the 1920s, represented by sexologist Havelock Ellis, the writings of D.H. Lawrence and the jazz age.

Marie Stopes called herself a feminist, but she was more supported by men than by women - almost all the letters she received were from men seeking birth-control advice.

There were always some feminists who were sexual liberationists and some sexual liberationists who were feminists (theory and practice could converge too: Bertrand Russell proclaimed himself a feminist - by sleeping with his daughter-in-law).

And that's how liberationism seemed in the 1960s, when Hefner came to prominence. But the two tendencies split, as feminists perceive that it is seldom enhancing to women to be categorised as 'playmates'.

Hefner's Playboy was banned in the Republic of Ireland for a time. It didn't break any law, but it was submitted to the Censorship of Publications Board by members of the public as being contrary to decency.

We do not know which members of the public caused its ban, but I'd wager a pony on its being the ever-active lady members of the vigilante library committees who were so often the instigators of book prohibitions.

Irishmen I knew thought the ban outrageous. Eventually it was lifted, and eventually the female flesh available in its publication became much easier to view on the internet.

Hefner died as he lived: surrounded by the lubricious blondes who were ordered to perform sexually for him. The obituaries all mentioned that the carpets at the Playboy mansion were daily covered in disgusting dog poo that had to be cleaned up by the playmates. There's a metaphor in there somewhere.

Mary's book Am I a Feminist? Are You? will be published later this month by New Island

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