How Hugh Hefner Helped Me Embrace My Sexuality

Photo: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong.
When I woke up to the news that Hugh Hefner had died Wednesday night, I was immediately sad. It wasn't because I was a particularly avid reader of Playboy, or because I had dreams of visiting the Playboy Mansion and seeing the founder himself sitting in his smoking jacket surrounded by women. It was because, despite his questionable role in feminist history, Hef and Playboy helped me to embrace my own sexuality.
While my family wasn't the most conservative on the planet, I was raised in a house where sex wasn't spoken about all that often. We were Roman Catholic, and I was taught that sex should be saved for marriage. The message from my parents, my family, and the people around me was that women should be modest in order to avoid looking "fast" or "easy," and as the only girl in the family, I wasn't allowed to talk about my budding sexuality the same way my brothers were. To a point, this still holds — although my mother and I are able to talk about certain aspects of sexuality, my father doesn't want to hear much about my love life. And the romantic advice he gives my brothers stands in direct contrast to the advice he sometimes gives me. Men can and should be sexual. Women shouldn't. Que será, será.
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Playboy was already a cultural phenomenon long before I started having sex — it launched 37 years before I was even born. And when I was growing up, I never actually considered what the magazine actually meant. It was just another cultural touchstone, something I understood was significant to many people (and reviled by many, many others). But around the time I was in college, I started paying attention, thanks in no small part to the episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians in which Kim poses for Playboy. Every time a big-name woman would pose on the cover, or appear as a centerfold, the criticism rang loudly. "Why does she need to exploit herself like that? She's a wife and mother! What will her children think? What kind of role model is she?"

Whether or not Playboy has been a beacon of feminism, I can't deny that it made me — as a woman — break away from the norms I was taught and embrace my feelings about sex.

Part of me hated the idea of critics telling women what they could and could not do. But the budding feminist in me was conflicted. Were these women being exploited and objectified for a man's profit? Or were they simply expressing their sexuality and using its power in their own favor? I couldn't deny that I thought the photos, and the women posing in them, were, frankly, pretty hot. And I loved the idea of a woman being allowed to put her sexuality on display, especially since I had begun to realize that the example of sex I was taught (or, rather, was simply expected to understand) didn't really jive with me.
Ever since I lost my virginity in high school, I had a hard time thinking of sex as shameful. Actually doing it showed me that sex could be sensual and exciting and really, really fucking fun. All I wanted to do was talk about this thing that seemed to be so great, even though my peers barely spoke about it, aside from the occasional crude joke — and here was a relatively mainstream magazine telling me that my ideas about sexuality were normal. It gave me permission to enjoy sex in the same way the men in my life were taught to.
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That's why I've been a quiet champion for the glossy that Hef built ever since I became more acquainted with it in college. Of course, not everything Playboy has done has been "good for women." There is an argument to be made that Hefner and his magazine have objectified women, and fed into the culture of toxic masculinity. And those arguments aren't necessarily off base. But Playboy also tackled issues like the importance of birth control access and raised awareness about LGBTQ rights. And considering the era in which Playboy launched, the way it features women as unapologetic sexual being was (and arguably still is) radically progressive.
I'm someone who believes that women should be able to talk openly about their sex lives, and that they should be allowed to embrace their sexuality in ways that feel right for them. I know that a woman can be strong, independent, and educated and a sexual being at the same time. A lot of the women who have been on the cover of Playboy — like Kate Moss, Drew Barrymore, Anna Faris, Dolly Parton, and Naomi Campbell — have been high-profile actors, models, rockstars, pop stars, and women who run their own business empires. Hef gave them all a place to be unabashedly sexual, but that never overshadowed the fact that they knew how to get shit done for themselves and their careers. Whether or not Playboy has been a beacon of feminism, I can't deny that it made me — as a woman — break away from the norms I was taught and embrace my feelings about sex.
So, yes, Hefner's legacy isn't the most straightforward or easy to ascertain. But the way I see it, he helped shepherd America from a time when the word "pregnancy" wasn't even allowed to be spoken on "I Love Lucy" to where we are today: a much more progressive — albeit imperfect and still developing — sexual landscape. And even if I have no dreams of posing for a centerfold, I can't help but feel grateful to Hef for allowing me to see myself in the pages of his magazine.
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