When I was around seven or eight, I’d sometimes accompany my brother to our local mall’s Tower Records (remember that?), whereupon I would immediately head for the nudie magazines on the top shelf of the magazine racks. Eventually a store clerk got wise to me and would chase me away whenever he saw me hanging around. After this went on for a while, I stomped over to my brother and demanded that he order the clerk to let me look at the Playboys and Penthouses. My brother, quite sensibly, refused to do this. Some time later the store moved all of that stuff into a cordoned-off “Adults Only” section, most likely due in no small part to my shenanigans.
It is a curious thing, looking back: why was I interested in such things? I don’t mean merely that I was an eight-year-old boy who had no business looking at naked women (though that in itself is pretty obvious); I mean more generally. Pornography, even relatively un-explicit centerfold playmate shots, seems so profoundly pointless, a little bit like watching cooking shows except that, in contrast to pornographic material, you can pretty easily emulate cooking shows inside your own home. It’s pretty simple to go out and buy the ingredients for gourmet flank steak tacos; finding a way to mimic the perverted adolescent boy fantasies of modern smut is a bit more difficult.
I thought about all of this with the passing of Hugh Hefner, whom my friend Neal Dewing described as “a flim-flam man using toothpicks to build a framework for a civilizational debauch.” There was something curiously, almost comically childish about Hefner, a sort of creepy oversexed version of Peter Pan: he’s the boy who never grew up, the guy who clad himself in pajamas and surrounded himself with slim-waisted, perky-breasted twentysomethings even unto his 100th decade. This is the vision of the Good Life—for an hormonal 14-year-old boy. By the time you’ve broken 90, it’s creepy, and it’s been creepy for a long time.
That Hugh Hefner could be so creepy and yet so publicly adored is a profound commentary on the effect he had on our public mores. Rob Lowe hailed him as an “interesting man” and a “true legend.” Elijah Wood claimed he was a “giant of cultural influence.” Norman Lear called him a “true explorer.” Larry King said he was a “true original.” All of these things, unqualified, are technically true; what is obvious is that these celebrities tactfully left out the proper context of Hefner’s legacy, namely: he made a career out of degrading and debasing our culture and convincing women to sell their bodies for money. It is an odd thing, that a man should be so honored whose cultural benefaction is, more or less, convincing a great many women to take their clothes off. A side effect of that legacy is the coarsening of our civilization’s presumptions about sex and sexuality: you cannot convince thousands of women to publicly get naked for money without—inadvertently or otherwise—convincing millions of men and women that sex is cheap and, unless otherwise so imbued, meaningless.
But that was kind of his point: when asked by the New York Times “of what accomplishment he was most proud,” Hefner responded: “That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex. That gives me great satisfaction.” If that was what got his rocks off—er, no pun intended—then he should have been proud, because he surely did have a large hand in “decontaminating” the “notion” of extramarital sex. But decontaminating the notion of a thing is not synonymous with decontaminating the thing itself: one can turn sexual intercourse into a glossy mass-market commodity, but that doesn’t mean one has effected any real meaningful change, unless we’re counting the cash-cow debasement of sexual relations between men and women. Put another way: you can publish as many photos of as many naked ladies as you want, but sex before marriage is still going to be a bad thing.
But that’s the point: pornography and sexual licentiousness—two sides of the same coin, and both in which Hefner reveled for all of his adult life—are, as I wrote above, profoundly useless: spiritually and emotionally useless, yes, but useless too on a baser, more practical level. The cheap thrills of Playboy and the cheap thrills of casual sex are not only inadequate for a full and healthy life but are in fact actively opposed to it: they degrade things—both actions and the men and women who perform those actions—things which should be sacred and precious and yet which are turned into commodified products by creepy gross old perverts.
I did not know these things when I was eight years old—but most eight-year-olds don’t know them. That Hugh Hefner made it to 91 years old while still reveling in such profligacy says a lot: about Hefner himself, and about a culture that supporter and even revered him for such base and public indecency. Yes, Hefner was a “giant of cultural influence.” That was the problem. RIP.