I understand what Ben Domenech is trying to say in his eulogy for Hugh Hefner, but I’m afraid he has strained out the gnat and swallowed the rabbit. Domenech sees in Hefner’s legacy a nostalgia that conservatives can appreciate—a nostalgia for a time when women were women, and men loved women because they were women. Domenech is correct that the unblushing amorousness of Playboy contrasts with our contemporary “sexless,” politicized public square. But he misses the fact that pornography, which Hefner did not invent but did commodify once and for all, is an agent of our current crisis.
Conservatives have long gained satisfaction from watching the awkwardness that ensues when feminists are asked about porn. After all these years, we still aren’t sure what happens when the unstoppable force of empowerment meets the immovable pillar of anti-objectification. Like the Pharisees who couldn’t answer Jesus’s question about John the Baptist, feminists fear the public implications of both porn-positivity (“So you’re OK with men being dogs?”) and slut-shaming (“So you’re OK with telling women what to do with their bodies?”). This catch-22 is not an accident. Abandoning the natural design and boundaries of the created order is a one-way ticket to confusion, not liberation. The failure of allegedly pro-woman ideologies to speak coherently about an industry more profitable than all sports leagues combined testifies to the emptiness and moral hypocrisy of secular worldviews.
Domenech is wrong, though, to think that Hugh Hefner’s legacy runs counter to these worldviews. On the contrary, pornography is arguably the single greatest secularizing force in American culture.
We are only beginning to collect the evidence of pornography’s moral and political impact. For one thing, porn’s spiritual impact veers toward isolation, addiction, and greater tolerance of perversion. Sociologists have been suggesting for several years now that pornography stunts emotional and psychological well-being, a conclusion to which Time magazine devoted an entire recent cover. Pornography addiction—which the industry, much like casinos, depends on for profits—almost always comes with associated symptoms of loneliness, laziness, apathy, and lack of rootedness. These aren’t peripheral concerns for conservatives. They’re signs of a civilizational crisis.
Baptist theologian Albert Mohler once observed that moral relativism was not ultimately a philosophical decision, but a “pelvic” one. Clever, but also correct. There is a fundamental connection between the moral orientation of the heart and the ideological orientation of the mind. This is why it’s not surprising to learn that men who watch pornography are more likely to support the redefinition of marriage. That’s not to say, of course, that all consumers of pornography are irreligious or politically liberal. But pornography is not just a puerile interest. It’s a sexual liturgy that re-catechizes the soul to see persons as merely bodies and bodies as merely photoshopped parts. By disintegrating the connection between the spirit and the body, the liturgy of pornography recalibrates our conception of what human beings fundamentally are. Is it any wonder that under the reign of Hefnerism, we are now wondering aloud whether there’s even such as thing as boys and girls?
Domenech looks back wistfully on the way Hefner’s magazine asserted, against the consensus of today’s gender studies literati, that sexual differences matter. But this appreciation is misdirected. Like most great salesmen, Hefner marketed something quite different from what he produced. Silk robes, cigars, and sexual complementarity were just the plastic wrapper. The actual product was about shrinking one’s world, not expanding it. This is also why Hefner’s magazine declined in the age of the Internet. Laptops and smartphones unlocked porn’s true isolating, masturbatory potential, something that a physical magazine—which had to be handled by someone who knew what you were reading, either a bookseller or a mailman—could never achieve. Domenech describes Hefner as a version of the “most interesting man in the world.” But his true legacy is millions of locked doors, with windows drawn and a world of light and love kept outside.
In a 2003 essay on Hefner, Read Mercer Schuchardt delivers what should be a decisive blow to the romanticized view of Hefner’s achievement:
The Playboy philosophy, which requires women to be thin, infertile, and always available, essentially requires childlessness. And you can bet your birth control packet that abortion is the natural bedfellow of the successful playboy.
The Playboy Foundation, the (ahem) philanthropic wing of Playboy Enterprises, provides grants and donations to a wide range of projects, most involving reproductive rights and freedom of speech—industry code for promoting sexual license as a natural right, and abortion as a failsafe guarantee. Hence the heavy support of the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and similarly single-minded organizations.
The essay concludes with a sad anecdote about Hefner in his later years:
Hiding in plain sight in the June 2001 issue of Philadelphia magazine is Ben Wallace's essay “The Prodigy and the Playmate.” In it Sandy Bentley, the Playboy cover girl and former Hefner girlfriend (along with her twin sister Mandy), describes Hefner’s current sexual practices in just enough detail to give you a good long pause: “The heterosexual icon [Hugh Hefner] . . . had trouble finding satisfaction through intercourse; instead, he liked the girls to pleasure each other while he masturbated and watched gay porn.”
I don’t believe that abortion, impotence, and homosexual pornography is what Domenech means when he lauds Hefner’s “appreciation of the beautiful.” If the Playboy legacy is one that embarrasses or frustrates feminists, fine. But I submit that we cannot celebrate it, because porn is even worse than feminism.