Hugh Hefner was raised Methodist. He launched the magazine in December 1953 after writing for Esquire. His first issue, whose centerfold was an old nude photo of rising film star Marilyn Monroe, sold 50,000 copies. In 1963 he was arrested on obscenity charges but the jury failed to reach a verdict and charges were dropped.
Hefner advocated a “Playboy philosophy,” attempting to give an air of sophistication and savvy to his life.
His magazine carried fiction from Ray Bradbury, Ian Fleming, Joseph Heller, Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates and Ursula K. Le Guin. It interviewed leading figures in music, culture and politics. It was best-known, however, for its nude photos of women.
Hefner would gather Playboy centerfolds and other models to live at his Playboy Mansion, where he hosted sordid parties. His critics said he kept women who lived there under strict rules, pushed drugs on them, required sex acts, and manipulated their lives, according to Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the magazine Current Affairs.
Political and social change were among Hefner’s goals. The Playboy Foundation funded work against obscenity laws and anti-abortion laws, while also funding sex research at the Kinsey Institute and even the dissenting group Catholics for Choice. Future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, co-signed a thank-you letter published in the August 1973 issue of Playboy in response to one donation, Vice Magazine reports.
Sears reflected on the missed opportunities of Hefner’s life. If Hefner had had a public conversion, “he could have a great influence for the good,” he said.
“Who knows what the influence would be on some young man who admired one of these pornographers, if the pornographer came forward and repented of the harm that he had done to women and children, to families, to marriages?” said Sears.
He cited the influence of abortionist Bernard Nathanson, who had performed thousands of abortions before his conversion, then became a pro-life spokesman and saved countless lives.
For Patrick Trueman, president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Hefner left “a sad legacy.”
“We shouldn’t be celebrating. We should be mourning his death. He lived the life of a predator and sexual exploiter,” he said, contending that Hefner has fewer admirers than he did 10 or 20 years ago because the harms of pornography are better recognized.
Four states have passed resolutions proclaiming pornography to be a public health crisis.
“Reams of research show that Internet pornography is linked to neurological harms, sexual dysfunctions, and increases in rates of sexual violence,” Trueman continued. “Hugh Hefner was not a champion of free speech. He was a pioneer in the sexual objectification and use of women.”
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Playboy Magazine presented women’s sexuality in a subordinate role and as universally accessible to men.
Sears said that everyone researching the effects of pornography in the 1980s recognized Playboy as “the gateway to lower people’s inhibitions” that increased acceptability of more extreme pornography.
He pointed to Hefner’s portrayal of legally adult women in “very young” situations, dressed in school uniforms and pigtails or using lollipops, portraying them as children.
Playboy marketed its trademark across many products and venues, including several clubs around the world staffed by waitresses dressed as bunnies.
The women who worked for Playboy both promoted, and suffered from, “the idea that your intimate self is a commercial product for sale,” according to Sears.
While the Playboy centerfold opportunity had a reputation as a glamorous career-launcher, Sears said the women whom his commission interviewed had the opposite impression.