The Sexual Revolution called another Robespierre to the guillotine this week.
The magazine that made America safe for pictures of naked women announced its decision to clothe its models because ubiquitous pictures of naked women make it unsafe for their profits. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free,” Scott Flanders, Playboy’s CEO and resident Captain Obvious, reasoned to the New York Times. “And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”
Playboy sprinted from lewd to quaint in less than a lifetime. Its decline from saturation rather than suppression speaks to the degree to which the sybarites stomped the prudes in the Sexual Revolution. We live in the world Hugh Hefner made. Now Hugh Hefner finds that he can’t live in that world. Our dreams sometimes become our nightmares.
Hefner launching Playboy while working in circulation for a magazine called Children’s Activities may strike as a confusing career change. But the Playboy philosophy of delaying or eschewing marriage—manhood—for pleasure-seeking more accurately comes across as stunted adolescence. This appears more clearly in Hef at 89 than at 39. Like a lot of juvenile pastimes, the enthusiasts of Playboy labeled it “adult.”
Hefner announced in the inaugural issue that Playboy aimed for an audience that liked “putting on a little mood music on the phonograph” and sought a “diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age.” A Space Age, Age of Aquarius, and Digital Age later, magazines, like phonographs, arrive on store shelves in a less than golden age.
Playboy always wanted you to buy it for the articles. Whereas High Society exuded irony in its name, Playboy screamed pretension. The smoking jacket, pipe, and mansion marketed sophistication, elegance, class. But you can only dress up a 19-year-old sex bomb so much. Why not drop the conceit and call it Chronic Masturbator, Jack Mag, or No Date, No Problem, and throw in a book knife gratis with every $29.99 subscription?
Perhaps this exaggerates the prurient material within the covers as much as Hefner exaggerated its respectability. Whereas Hustler, Club, and Swank fetishized making beautiful girls do ugly things, Playboy celebrated the female form. Unlike competitors, Playboy did not include a perfunctory piece on monster trucks to satisfy censors. Writers whose naked prose appeared between its covers include John Updike, Roald Dahl, and Jack Kerouac. The magazine published an early draft of Fahrenheit 451, important interviews with Malcolm X, Milton Friedman, and Jimmy Carter, and Norman Mailer’s memorable coverage of the Rumble in the Jungle. Now that we look more than we read, 2015 may seem a strange time to order the girls to put their underwear on and contemplate abolishing the centerfold.
If the demand for seeing women naked remains high, so does the supply. Now that the girl next door texts racy pictures without the expectation of remuneration, the embarrassing purchase of a skin mag at the local newsstand, assuming such places still exist, becomes an obsolete passage rite. Cable television offers Naked & Afraid, Naked Dating, and Buying Naked. And an exhibitionist quality that characterizes social media nudges amateurs to give away sights gained at great cost to earlier generations of men.
Naked women, even two-dimensional ones on pulp, beckoning young men wield great power. Clothed ones rejecting them hold more. “I started referring to myself as ‘Hef’ after Betty Conklin, a girl I had a crush on, rejected me,” the former Chicago high school student recalls. More than seven decades later, Hef can’t forget Betty. Does he remember the naked girls appearing in his magazine last month?
With the obscene everywhere seen, consumers necessarily devalue Playboy. Forty years ago, Americans bought 5.6 million copies a month. They now purchase one-seventh that number. A glut, especially of slut, necessarily cheapens.