For some reason, American culture tends to venerate dead celebrities, whatever their contribution to society. Still, I was surprised to see so many in the media telling the story of “the Hef’s” life in a way that presents him as a hero. Despite the praise he is receiving in some arenas, the founder of Playboy’s legacy ultimately was one that led to the normalization of objectifying the female body, and to a general disconnection between love and pleasure in our culture. In short, he taught a generation to habituate vice. (There actually were, I’ll concede, some important articles and essays, and an interesting interview with Jimmy Carter).
Why, then, in our mainstream culture—one in which sensitivity to feminist concerns about the commodification of women is amongst the unforgivable sins—does Hefner get a pass? I can see two possible reasons. First, he spearheaded a full frontal attack on the Puritan ethos of the nation. In this way, he was a bit like Marilyn Manson for pastor’s kids: he infuriated the conservative powers. Emerging in the 1950s and hitting a stride in the era of the counter-culture, his magazine became a powder keg at the base of a decaying cultural Christian edifice. Second, he offered society a parody of the Kingdom: the Playboy Mansion. U2’s song “Playboy Mansion” identified this a couple decades ago. In a world obsessed with fame, an invitation to Hefner’s lavish estate served as a sort of heaven or salvation for those who had lost hope in the transcendent.
The problem with Hefner’s contribution to society isn’t primarily that he was a pornographer. He was not the first to sell smut, nor will he be the last. The problem is that he and his publication created an alternative ethos of vice, and this vice was made palatable for respectable, bourgeois society. The birth control pill promised a way for women to take control of some aspects of their personal destinies, but Hef hijacked all that primarily for the gratification of self-centered men. Playboy was about a lifestyle that rejected the idea that love, commitment, and respect were important ingredients in a sexual relationship. His cultural manifesto of loveless sexuality seems to have been successful in our era. And the implications for families and couples—again, even apart from the negative affects of pornography itself—has led to a world in which many live today in an erotic hell.
My criticism here does not necessarily require a commitment to Christian beliefs. For instance, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and veteran actress and former Playboy Bunny Pamela Anderson wrote a thoroughly sane opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal: “Take the Pledge: No More Indulging Porn.” Their admonitions are worthy of consideration:
From our respective positions of rabbi-counselor and former Playboy model and actress, we have often warned about pornography’s corrosive effects on a man’s soul and on his ability to function as husband and, by extension, as father. This is a public hazard of unprecedented seriousness given how freely available, anonymously accessible and easily disseminated pornography is nowadays. Put another way, we are a guinea-pig generation for an experiment in mass debasement that few of us would have ever consented to, and whose full nefarious impact may not be known for years. How many families will suffer? How many marriages will implode? How many talented men will scrap their most important relationships and careers for a brief onanistic thrill? How many children will propel, warp-speed, into the dark side of adult sexuality by forced exposure to their fathers’ profanations?
Notice that their talk of debasement isn’t coming from the evangelical right. This is a matter of universally accessible wisdom, what the rabbis call chochmah in Hebrew. Chochmah can be found among the pagan nations, so the rabbinic perspective goes, and should be embraced, though if these same pagan teachers claim to have Torah, or God’s revealed Law, it is not to be believed. Boteach and Anderson recognize that it is not currently feasible to stamp out pornography through strong legislation or Internet regulation. Rather, they rightly point to what my recent book on sexual ethics is exploring: the cultivation of virtue within a caring community and a return to healthy eroticism.
The Christian who understands Gospel-based love recognizes the false promises and rewards of the Playboy Mansion
What I’m calling a return to sexiness, they describe as a “sensual revolution”: “The sensual revolution would replace pornography with eroticism—the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships.”
What they are talking about is reframing the conversation about sex and porn by looking to the sort of values and virtues we want to cultivate in our children and ourselves. And why shouldn’t it? Now that the dust has settled on the sexual revolution, and now that explicit Christian concerns are no longer directly dominant in the public square, we can start asking about what matters: the health of our communities. Perhaps we are mature enough as a culture to start talking about porn the way we’ve learned to talk about mental health and alcoholism. This need not be a matter of private shame and despair. Rather, it is a public health concern that we can address collectively and with love.
I’ve said here that one need not be a Christian to diagnose the problem of Hefner’s legacy, or even to point to virtue as a way forward. However, I am convinced that the only way to avoid being conformed to the patterns of this world is the renewed mind that comes through connection to Christ. (Romans 12:2). Only by understanding and trusting in a new logic of love: one in which we are offered the unconditional love of God can we start treating each other with unconditional (agape) love. The Christian who understands Gospel-based love recognizes the false promises and rewards of the Playboy Mansion. It turns instead to one’s neighbor, which most definitely includes one’s romantic partner, and love him or her (or at least seek to love him or her) as Christ loved the church.