Hugh Hefner turns 85 this weekend. Like the creepy guy cruising the high school hangouts long after he has graduated, Hef keeps getting older but the girls stay the same age. Toupees, and their latter-day counterpart, Viagra, maintain the illusion of virility for only so long.
But it's not the chimerical picture of youth projected by the Playboy mansion that its former denizens have seized upon for criticism. Instead, Hefner's harem has unveiled the Playboy lifestyle's mirage of freedom as salaried confinement.
Nobody told Izabella St. James that sexual liberation came with curfews, monitors, and allowances. A former live-in girlfriend of Hugh Hefner, St. James has come clean on the dirty life inside the Playboy mansion. The Hefner girlfriends log-out upon departing the mansion and log-in upon returning. Security personnel monitor their movements, with a strict 9 p.m. curfew imposed. Weekly allowances of $1,000, and gratis plastic surgery, keep the ladies in line. The busty blonde reflected in the Daily Mail earlier this year, "Little did I realize that by moving into the mansion I was losing all the freedom I associated with the Playboy lifestyle."
The picture painted of the Playboy mansion by St. James and other playmates is one of joyless, obligatory orgies, dog-mess littered carpets, hall-monitor snitches, and a control-freak master of the house. Reality-television star Kendra Wilkinson, a five-year resident of the mansion, recalls: "It was way more strict than my parents had ever been."
An authoritarian libertine is not as unusual as one might think. American history is littered with immoral moralists seeking gratification through the domination of others. As Chesterton put it, "A man must be something of a moralist if he is to preach, even if he is to preach immorality."
Hugh Hefner is one in a long line of preachy perverts.
John Humphrey Noyes crafted a religion out of his sexual impulses. When a widow caught his eye during the late 1830s, the married Noyes devised the theological idea of Complex Marriage. Though the weirded-out widow demurred, Noyes eventually convinced other wives' men to submit to his theological proposition of group marriage. Ultimately, he settled in Oneida, New York, and housed hundreds of his "Bible Communist" followers in his mansion-commune. There, he established a dictatorship: "I shall watch and admonish all with whom I am associated until they are without fault." Noyes laid claim to his followers' property, their children, and their sex lives. He chaired a committee reviewing proposals for sex, set down "Rules for Sexual Intercourse," and ordered relatives and underage girls to share his bed. Noyes is credited with coining the phrase "free love." Love at Oneida was anything but.
Alfred Kinsey manipulated science to give its imprimatur to his perversions. His famous postwar sexual surveys stacked sample groups with inmates, prostitutes, and gay-bar patrons to make the sex lives of the rest of society seem more like his. The Indiana University professor pushed people around like he did statistics. He demanded the sexual histories of his workers and their families -- and then demanded he become part of their sexual histories. One wife recalled the pressure as "sickening," saying she "felt like my husband's career at the Institute [of Sex Research] depended on it."
Wilhelm Reich believed he could free men by placing them in a box. His phonebooth-sized Orgone Energy Accumulator wasn't the strangest thing about this strange man. The crank psychiatrist ordered his patients to undress. He later began touching them as part of therapy, and finally insisted that they attain orgasms in treatment. The domineering nature of his public practice manifested itself in his private life, in which he compelled paramours -- one died in the process -- to abort his children. The student of Freud's preached freedom from the repression of civilization, but civilization took his freedom away by imprisoning him for medical fraud in the mid-1950s. His body died in prison, but his spirit resurrected during the next decade's bacchanalia.
If you want to dominate, call yourself a liberator.
The Palestine Liberation Organization, Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Earth Liberation Front are among the self-proclaimed liberationists who have sought to impose their will on others. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner is another who has expropriated the word from its meaning.
Like most revolutionaries, the playboy general of the sexual revolution ultimately got overrun by the revolution he helped unleash. Playboy's destruction lies less in any morals the magazine pillaged than in the barbarians it let in the gates behind it. It seems a violence to language, and to the 85-year-old publisher, to use the same word -- "pornographer" -- to describe both Max Hardcore and Hugh Hefner. The beautiful girls in Playboy's pages rarely did ugly things. But the mainstreaming of one skin magazine led to the emergence of publications -- and DVDs, internet sites, and phone apps -- obscene but everywhere on scene.
One is tempted to view life at the Playboy mansion as a metaphor for the sexual revolution that its deed-holder did so much to bring about. What appears sexy on the surface is revealed underneath as unwanted pregnancy, social disease, and empty relationships -- just as the veneer of the-House-That-Hef-Built hides the revolting sights (and smells) of dog-crap labyrinths and octogenarian orgies. But that may be too unfair to the sexual revolution, which wasn't uniformly negative, and to Hef, whose publication of Ray Bradbury stories and thoughtful interviews with the likes of Milton Freidman made his the rare girlie magazine that occasionally made plausible the cliché about subscribing to it for the articles.
But between Playboy's covers, as under the mansion's covers, the women are there to serve.
Keith Richards calls Hugh Hefner a "pimp" in his recent autobiography. He's warm, but "john" is probably a more apt description. The marketed illusion of life as the ultimate bachelor was obtained the same way gratification from a street walker is: cash. When did prostitution become sexual liberation?
Seedy is the new glamorous. An eightysomething playboy's paid girlfriends know this better than most.
One man's emancipation can be another's enslavement. In Hugh Hefner's case, one old man's sexual liberation is a whole harem's subjugation.