Hugh Hefner Made Sex Uncool

Hugh Heffner didn’t invent naked women. Plenty of magazines sported naked and near naked ladies before Playboy. Publications like Stag, Gent and Rogue fueled a vision of rough, right angle masculinity. Forty pages of hunting, war and adventure stories would nestle three pages of girls in their underwear.

Hefner’s big innovation was to dress up that ’50s masculinity in a smoking jacket fit for an inner ring suburb cocktail party. Oh, and to publish nude pictures of Marilyn Monroe from early in her career, without her permission. She was cool about it, so he pulled the same trick on Madonna and Vanna White.

But back to the Playboy conception of sophisticated masculinity. It’s cheesy as hell and turned a biological function into lechery. Because of him, a generation of men retreated into irony because openly being horny seemed so embarrassing.

He tried to wrap sexual desire in a veneer of sophistication, which really only works if your name is Cary Grant (whose real name, by the way, was not Cary Grant). Hefner’s hornball magazine featured Gore Vidal essays and Kurt Vonnegut short fiction alongside New Yorker-style cartoons. He wore expensive bed clothes and palled around with celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. and James Caan while cultivating affectations like pipe smoking.

An early master of branding, Hefner built Playboy clubs that could only be entered by key holding members. The keys became a kind of aspirational status symbol. Less than a quarter of key holders ever entered the doors of a brick and mortar Playboy club.

The idea was that dudes would swill gin and tonics and and banter about Roy Lichtenstein and talk a woman into their hotel suite. For a minute in the ‘60s, he probably seemed like a good model to emulate. Aluminum siding supply store managers nationwide wore ascots and fancy bathrobes and showed off their keys and maybe got laid a little more than they used to.

But it was almost certainly a coincidence. The playboy thing overlapped with a period of sexual liberation. The ascots were far less of a help than prevailing social attitudes.

By the ‘90s, the Playboy vision of well-heeled horniness was supplanted by its Hegelian antithesis: Maxim magazine’s fart joking-loving lads. Maxim didn’t pretend any of its male readers were getting laid or that anybody thought of them as cool. It just offered a trough of gross jokes and TV stars in bikinis for piggish men with no illusions that they’d ever physically interact with women.

As his empire crumbled, Hefner pivoted into reality television, the last refuge of fame-seeking scoundrels. On The Girls Next Store, he was a a crypt-keeper husk in desperate need of a nap, haunting Los Angeles alongside three blonde women where an oxygen tank and an IV should have rightfully been. Behind the scenes, everything was even more sordid and sad than you’d expect.