Hugh Hefner Isn’t Dead. He Lives Rent Free Inside Our Heads

By John Zmirak Published on September 28, 2017

The death of Hugh Hefner has provoked disparate reactions. These range from smarmy fawning by star-sniffers to thoughtful examinations of his legacy. Christianity Today republished a sobering 2003 account of his public impact and private sexual desperation. Those with strong stomachs should read it. Ben Domenech of The Federalist and Robert Oscar Lopez (a Stream contributor) wrote surprisingly gentle accounts of the man.

The best I can say for Hefner is that he was a master marketer, a brilliant propagandist who belongs up there (down there?) with Josef Goebbels. As I quipped on Twitter:

Think about it: Anthony Weiner had a beautiful, accomplished, loving wife. A family. Because of the illusions that Hefner, more than anyone else, created, Weiner believed that following his impulses would be liberating. Honest. Healthy. How many millions of men have followed the same path as Weiner, to sex addiction and impotence, solitude and sadness?

And Hefner used crafty marketing to peel back 2,000 years of Christian attempts to humanize sexuality. To ground it in human dignity and the concern for women and children.

How many young women have felt pressured into joining the “hook-up culture?” Have convinced themselves to emulate the natural, fallen randiness of 16-year-old boys? What did that accomplish, other than to harden our hearts, and fill up Planned Parenthood’s coffers, and its medical waste dumpsters? Or to fill up our (urban and rural) ghettos with fatherless boys on the fast track to prison? Meanwhile, the birth rate throughout the West has collapsed, and marriage itself as an institution is vanishing from some social classes.

It’s Anthony Weiner’s world now. We just live in it.

From Flawed Order to Howling Chaos

Stream contributor Maggie Gallagher wrote a powerful book in 1989, Enemies of Eros. It summed up the Sexual Revolution that Hefner helped launch: It taught an entire culture that teenage boys’ glandular impulses should set our cultural codes. Feminism was a bitter, self-defeating reaction to that Revolution. But it didn’t really answer it. Few feminists questioned the goal of “liberating” sex from “repression,” as Hefner described it. That’s a psychobabble buzzword for “self-control, developed in response to social pressure.”

It’s Anthony Weiner’s world now. We just live in it.

Instead, feminists have either tried to remake (beat down, tame, humiliate) male desire, or teach women to be more like men — cushioning them from consequences via cheap and easy abortions. In Sweden, they’re even training boys not to urinate standing up. No surprise that in the same country, young Muslim men (who lack proper training) are raping Swedish women with impunity. Police are reduced to advising women simply not to go out at night. In a real sense, there are too few Swedish men (real men) left to protect them.

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We have fewer answers now than ever. We question whether “male” and “female” even exist. Our academies deny biology to pretend that they’re mere social constructs. Our combat units have women, and men who think that they’re women. And women who think they are men.

Media lecture us about “men” who menstruate and give birth. Our politicians can’t justify keeping bearded men out of women’s restrooms. Jesuit priests who advise the Vatican encourage gay men to kiss during Mass, and to prepare for marriage in churches. Hefner helped to lead us from rather mild sexual self-restraint in the 1950s when he launched Playboy to howling chaos, a multi-front civil war with no end in sight.

This Isn’t What We Ordered

But Hefner promised us that things wouldn’t turn out that way. No, not at all. In his 1966 debate with William F. Buckley on Firing Line, Hefner sounded reasonable. He appealed to common sense. He claimed to be promoting monogamy, and even helping to reduce the incidence of homosexuality. All by setting us free. He didn’t want to abolish morality, he insisted. Just to liberate us from arbitrary “legalism” and “Puritanism.” He cited “research” and “science.” He promised that “technology” had almost perfected contraception, and banished sexually-transmitted diseases. If only we’d agree to let go of groundless taboos we’d inherited from our ancestors’ misreadings of Jesus. If only we took seriously the “separation of church and state.” We should realize that every man’s choice of moral code was a matter of personal taste, like his preference in cigars or smoking jackets.

William F. Buckley interviews Hugh Hefner on Firing Line.

William F. Buckley interviews Hugh Hefner on Firing Line.

Hefner’s “Playboy philosophy” eerily anticipated Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that liberty itself amounts to arbitrarily inventing our own moral codes. That’s fitting, since Playboy was the first national magazine to advocate legal abortion. The Playboy Foundation directed tens of millions to that cause. And it triumphed. So did that philosophy, which is now (via Justice Kennedy) the official U.S. government position on the meaning of freedom. It will stay that way, until we fix the composition of the Supreme Court.

Buckley vs. Hefner

It’s worth watching the video of that debate. Buckley deftly picks apart Hefner’s logical fallacies, leaving his arguments in tiny, wriggling pieces on the floor.

But Buckley didn’t have a time machine. So he couldn’t foretell how tragically false all of Hefner’s promises would prove, as we know today.

Hefner’s faux aristocratic pose helped to sell his seedy message. To hide the Weiner, if you will. But it wasn’t totally fake. His attitudes were those of an aristocrat. In pagan Rome. And Hefner used crafty marketing to peel back 2,000 years of Christian attempts to humanize sexuality. To ground it in human dignity and the concern for women and children.

When our faith burst forth on the Roman world, it found a society with free and easy attitudes toward sex. Free men had easy access to sex with slave girls. Young women were bought and sold in markets. Their naked flesh was paraded through the Colosseum, in pornographic stage shows where senators tittered alongside their wives. Divorce was astoundingly common, and the Roman birth rate was falling. Still, parents left thousands of unwanted infants to die along Rome’s walls. Christians marched up and down them and tried to save whom they could. The empire could only keep an economy going based on cheap labor from slaves, imported by the millions from a dozen different nations that knew nothing of Rome’s law or culture.

Sound familiar?



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