As a child, I was raised by one parent who was a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine and spent weekends in the bachelor pad of another who collected (also from its first issue) Playboy. Perhaps it is no wonder then that today I am a professor of gender and sexuality studies, currently teaching a gender and popular culture class that examines contemporary U.S. representations of manhood and womanhood. However, I find that while many excellent feminist sources like Jean Kilbourne's Media Education Foundation Killing Us Softly videos on sexism in advertising exist to help us critically examine popular images of womanhood, gender studies has room for improvement to develop equivalent sources engaging popular U.S. understandings of manhood. To this end, I offer a re-examination of the Playboy philosophy, which in spite of the magazine's recent decline continues to exert a powerful influence on popular cultural images of the ideal of manhood -- all the more powerful because as the magazine itself declines we have ceased to engage the philosophy from which it derived and no longer bring our critical defenses to bear against the messages we've absorbed from it culturally over the last few decades.
First published in late 1962, Hugh Hefner's The Playboy Philosophy applied then-new scientific views of human sexuality in Alfred Kinsey's best-selling Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). In an opening chapter, Hefner decried religious-based employment discrimination against professors who progressively integrated these new scientific views on human sexuality in their university work -- much like my own situation 50 years later. Throughout the Playboy philosophy, Hefner equates "Free Love," or an enlightened, scientifically-informed view of human sexuality and behavior, with "Free Speech -- a strategy later successfully employed by his competitor, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, in the famous 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case against censorship by right-wing Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell. The Playboy philosophy explicitly equates sexual freedom with psychological well-being, physical vigor and democratic liberty of every kind, for example in the magazine's ongoing feature, "The Playboy Forum." Hefner recounts centuries of historical impediments to such holistic individual and social well-being in his closing chapters, detailing the methods and consequences of sexual repression, particularly the categorizing and punishing of certain sex acts as "crimes against nature" in contrast with the healthy and humane sexual freedom promoted by the Playboy philosophy.
However, while Hefner's Playboy philosophy attempted to define some reasonable scientifically-informed guidelines for consuming healthy sexuality in popular culture as an alternative to censoring cultural production and representation of sexuality, its explicitly heteronormative assumptions about "the sexual nature of man" build this philosophy of "clean and wholesome" sexual liberation for heterosexual men on the backs not only of women but also of transgender, gay and lesbian people -- all labelled explicitly here as "deviates." Hefner concludes his chapter on "The Sexual Nature of Man," for example, with this argument for heterosexual male sexual freedom:
If we remove the primary heterosexual sources of stimulation from society, or through practiced propagandizing make an individual feel guilty about his natural responsiveness to such stimulation, then he will affix his responses to something else -- other men, perhaps, or perhaps a shoe or a bit of lace underwear. This is the kind of sickness that the unknowing censor can bring to society.
As the closing chapters detail historical repression of sex acts framed as "crimes against nature" punished through social sanctions, religious fear-mongering and even imprisonment, Hefner carefully distinguishes between "homosexual sodomy" and "heterosexual sodomy" in separate titled sections. His reason for doing so, he confesses, is "a strong personal prejudice in favor of the boy-girl variety of sex" reinforced in his later critiques of the absence of the heterosexual vs. homosexual distinction in both historical Western and contemporary U.S. anti-sodomy laws. To his credit, he did attempt to modify this overt heteronormative bias by asserting that the Playboy philosophy's rational humanism
demands a tolerance of those whose sexual inclinations are different from our own -- so long as their activity is limited to consenting adults in private and does not involve either minors or the use of any kind of coercion
and further noted the injustice of enforcement of anti-sodomy laws in his time as increasingly "more frequently enforced against homosexual than heterosexual partners," almost without exception against men.
The Playboy philosophy's rational and humane approach to sexuality endorses Kinsey's 1953 observation that no other global culture so punishes homosexual relationships as that of the United States and cites Kinsey's finding that about one in three adults and all other species of animal life have experienced orgasmic homosexual activity, concluding therefore that homosexual behavior cannot "be scientifically defined as abnormal." However, the summative argument of the Playboy philosophy, finally, is that although "almost all of us have, within ourselves, the capacity to respond to both heterosexual and homosexual stimuli," still the "great majority" of those with "homosexual experience" are actually "primarily heterosexual." Even while defending homosexual behavior as natural for nearly all people, the Playboy philosophy concludes that one who identifies primarily or exclusively as gay or lesbian is a "true invert, who may emotionally disturbed and for whom homosexuality represents an escape from relations with the opposite sex" -- even after Hefner himself has cited both Freud and Kinsey as having rejected that pathologizing interpretation of homosexuality.
Of deeper concern is the explicit equation of heterosexuality with "manhood" itself in the Playboy philosophy as the foundational manifesto of the U.S. sexual revolution. In his closing remarks critiquing repression of certain sex acts as "crimes against nature," Hefner makes his clearest argument that "vigorous attacks on the heterosexual aspects of our culture" (sexual freedom defined heteronormatively) leaves what he calls "sexual deviation," specifically, "the asexual, homosexual, sadomasochistic and fetishic to flourish." Although he decries the uncommon severity with which male homosexual activity is punished socioculturally, especially in religious communities and through aggressive enforcement of discriminatory laws selectively against same-sex couples, almost exclusively against men. However, the persecution of heterosexual men is explicitly the central concern of the Playboy philosophy, which most importantly seeks to prevent heterosexual emasculation and homoeroticism through actively promoting heteronormative male sexual freedom through popular culture:
precisely at that period in his development when a young man's sexual desires are greatest, society forbids him to find release through heterosexual contacts. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most sexually precocious males are the ones most apt to be drawn into early homosexual experiences
patterns that Hefner argues "tend to continue for a lifetime, "so that social repression of heterosexual activity "combines with nature to perpetuate homosexuality." Thus Hefner builds the Playboy philosophy itself on the explicit argument that "the only effective way to discourage homosexuality" is "to encourage heterosexuality... Nothing but a healthier emphasis on the heterosexual will ever reduce the homosexual element in society."
Though few today may have recently read Hefner's 1962 volume, the influence of this philosophy on popular culture in the United States over the past fifty years can scarcely be overestimated. As we approach what we in the LGBTQ community affectionately call "pride season," I celebrate how far we have come, perhaps in part with the help of those who have long promoted freedom and equality of sexual expression in our culture. Yet as a transgender gay-identified man, I am wary of definitions of manhood and freedom that have deep (unexamined) roots in the idea that male heterosexual behavior is central to all human freedoms, including freedom from homoeroticism. During pride season, we proclaim an empowering alternative to the Playboy philosophy's argument that LGBTQ relationships are deviant, perhaps to be permitted by a paternalistic rational humanism, but limited to being expressed only in private. To celebrate an even broader and more meaningful freedom than this heteronormative and woman-objectifying "free love" of the Playboy philosophy, we take to the streets each summer -- loud, public, grateful, and proud -- upholding the freedom of all people equally, as the rainbow of the pride flag itself symbolizes, and our sexual relationships as sacred.