Hugh Hefner

by Jason Stotts

Here’s a very interesting essay by none other than Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun Times about Hugh Hefner and the positive influence he’s had on our culture.

Many of you will find my comments deplorable. You may believe Playboy was the enemy of women. It objectified their bodies. It schooled men to regard them as sex objects. It stood for all that feminists fought to correct. There is some truth to that, but it doesn’t impact upon my experience, and the best I can do here is be truthful.

Nobody taught me to regard women as sex objects. I always did. Most men do. And truth to tell, most women regard men as sex objects. We regard many other aspects of another person, but sex is the elephant in the room. Evolution has hard-wired us that way. When we meet a new person, in some small recess of our minds we evaluate that person as a sex partner. We don’t act on it, we don’t dwell on it, but we do it. You know we do. And this process continues bravely until we are old and feeble.

Yes, Playboy presented women’s bodies for our regard. Yes, they were airbrushed and photo shopped to perfection. Not a blemish, not a zit, not one single chewed fingernail. This process of perfection doesn’t deny nature, it reflects it. When we meditate on the partner of our dreams, the mental image we summon is without flaw. We don’t dwell upon a pimple or a bad tooth or a little underarm fat. We meditate on the gestalt. We meditate on being accepted and loved by that wonderful person.

I think Ebert is refreshingly honest here, saying the kinds of things that we all know, but that many of us are afraid to say.

He goes on to point out that Hugh Hefner was also an early defender of civil rights:

His syndicated TV program “Playboy After Dark,” which he owned and controlled, showcased mixed-race singing groups and blacklisted performers like Pete Seeger at a time when networks enforced a ban on both. It also showed black and whites dancing together on a set supposed to be “Hef’s Penthouse.” Some stations in the south refused to carry it. The show went on the air not long after Nat King Cole’s show left NBC after failing to find advertisers who would buy into a “black” show.

In New Orleans, Hefner franchised one of the first Playboy Clubs, later to learn it was forbidden by law to mix black and white patrons. He bought back the franchise, and reopened it to club members of all races. It was in that club that a black comedian performed before whites for the first time in Louisiana (although black musicians were “legal”).

Ebert also talks about how Hefner is largely responsible for the kinds of sexual freedoms we have today and is also, at least partly, responsible for the freedom we have to look at and enjoy pornography.  It’s worth reading the entire essay and it is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever read of Ebert. I also think that Ebert is right about Hefner.  Although he certainly has his share of detractors, it’s hard to deny all the good he’s done, and I think that if people step back and look at the larger picture, they should be able to see that Hefner helped to make our country a better place.

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6 Responses to “Hugh Hefner”


  1. Mer

    “Nobody taught me to regard women as sex objects. I always did…When we meet a new person, in some small recess of our minds we evaluate that person as a sex partner”

    evaluating someone as a sexual partner is not treating them as a sex object. just sayin, the fact that we have sexual thoughts does not say anything about commodification or objectification. pornography seems to need to include, imply, promote more than just appealing to sexual desires to qualify as promoting objectification, if we are using objectification in a more substantive way than “object of a sexual desire”. in my view we shoudl be talking about more than that for sociological objectification is not the same as something simply being the object of an attitude. so it is a perfectly valid charge to classify some pornography as promoting objectification, but pornography as such does not necessarily.

    sexual freedom is very important, but in order to promote and protect sexual freedom, attention needs still be paid to the kind of public content that amounts to oppressive speech.

  2. mtnrunner2

    I would agree about Hefner. He took a previously taboo subject, i.e. enjoying nudity and by connection sex, and applied a very value-oriented approach to it. Is it good? Yes. Is it natural? Yes. Then carry on!

    Ebert is also my go-to movie critic. We don’t always agree on what’s enjoyable, but his thoughtful reviews always merit consideration and I’ve seen some wonderful films I’d never have seen if weren’t for him.

  3. JasonStotts

    Mer,

    I think you are right that judging someone as to whether they’d be suitable for a potential sexual partner need not involve objectification. However, I’m unclear what you think the more substantive use of “objectification” is, besides treating a person as a sexual object: i.e. a woman as a pair of tits or a man as just his cock. In fact, I’d argue that an attempt to make objectification more profound is bound to fail, since focussing on body parts instead of the person is what we actually do when we objectify people. But, perhaps I’ve misunderstood what you’re trying to say about objectification.

    mtnrunner2,

    I don’t usually read reviews of movies before I see them, since I usually fail to agree with the reviewers. But in the case of Ebert, there have been a couple of times when I’ve seen his review after I saw the movie and thought that he did a good job. I can’t really say that he’s great overall, since I rarely read reviews, but the couple times I’ve used him, he seemed good.

    ~Jason

  4. Mer

    Jason,

    Maybe this will clarify my point:

    Sexual desires, because they seem congenially treated as propositional attitudes, can be said to have objects (in the sense that the object of a desire is “to drink coffee” and the object of a belief is “snow is white”, the object of a sexual desire can be “nice tits” or “sleeping with person P”). This is a minimal understanding of “object”, and not a sufficient one to account for the phenomenon of “objectification”, which is the negatively-charged reduction of something to an object. When we are attracted to a pair of boobs, or evaluate an individual as a desirable sexual partner, the boobs or sexual partner are the object of our desire. This does not entail that we have objectified the individual with the boobs, or the person who would be awesome to sleep with, because being attracted to someone does not mean that we think that is all there is to that something. Seeing “a woman as a pair of tits or a man as just his cock”, as you mentioned, IS objectification because it neglects relevant aspects of the individual – aspects that are importantly relevant to how we can and should interact with them respectfully. The idea that the only concern we have is the object of the man’s cock rather than the man’s ownership of his body, personal aims, and dignity is what is objectionable about objectification in this way.

    You and I may be disagreeing about something here, but I hope not. I would argue that when masturbating to the fantasy of having sex with Beyonce, I am not necessarily objectifying her, even if at the time the primary aspects of her I attend to are her physical attributes. This is because I am not reducing Beyonce to something that gives me sexual pleasure; I simply am attending to the things about Beyonce that do provide me sexual pleasure. Do you think that in fantasizing about Beyonce I necessarily reduce her dignity/relevance to be to the pleasure I get from fantasizing? That is the substantive understanding of objectification I believe to be relevant to debates about the limits to sexual freedom – if in engaging sexually with the individual the morally relevant particular personhood of the individual is denied or in a strong sense neglected.

  5. JasonStotts

    Mer,

    I follow you about the use of object and objectification, which I believe is how I was using it before. However, my problem is that I think objectification is part and parcel of sexual desire. When you desire Beyonce, you are focusing on her beauty or a particular part of her body, perhaps her breasts. I imagine that you’re not thinking “wow, Beyonce has nice breasts and her character is immaculate and she has set up good goals for her self and really cares about self-actualization…” C’mon, that’s not how sexual desire works. Sexual desire is for a person, but it also objectifies the person and focusses on a particular trait or characteristic and this becomes the object of the desire. I should point out that I don’t mean a generalized desire here, but the specific desire for sexual gratification with a person or self-gratification using the person in fantasy. You simply do not masturbate to Beyonce thinking about her character, you masturbate to Beyonce thinking about her tits (or whatever you find attractive about her) and the kinds of sexual activities you could do with her. You are using the idea of focussing on aspects as a way to avoid saying “objectifying,” but it’s not clear that what you’re describing is any different. Do you reduce her dignity? No, but then again you couldn’t since you’ve never met her and I doubt she cares about you. Nonetheless, by virtue of you focussing on features of her and using those as the object of masturbation, you are objectifying her.

    Now, let’s regard that as sexual objectification of the regular kind. Your objection is, I think, actually to another kind of sexual objectification: objectification that denies the personhood of the object, of the kind “tits came over last night.” Additionally, there is the systemic objectification of the kind “women are only good for sex.” We both agree that these are bad and for the same reason. They deny the personhood and treat the person (or class of persons) as only a haver of a characteristic. We don’t disagree that this is wrong. I think our only disagreement is whether normal sexual desire “objectifies” and I think that it, indeed, does.

    ~Jason

    Also, I appreciate the capitalization, grammar, and spelling in this comment. 😉

  6. Hugh Hefner at Erosophia

    […] saddened me today to learn that Hugh Hefner died last night. I have written about Hefner before (link) and his role in both civil rights and sexual freedoms. Hefner was a great pioneer in the sexual […]

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