News & Politics

What Hugh Hefner Had in Common With Right-Wing Christian Doctrine

Hefner and conservatives shared a hatred for feminism.

Photo Credit: Tinseltown / Shutterstock

When I read that the conservative media was attacking Hugh Hefner, my first reaction was surprise. Yes, he was progressive on a number of issues. But there was a deeply conservative dimension to his exploitation of women and his rejection of societal limits on that exploitation. 

Hefner shared a hostility toward feminism with his conservative critics. He once said that feminists were “our natural enemy.” You could say he put the "libertine" in "libertarian."

The first pornographic image I ever saw was distributed by Hugh Hefner. When I was no more than seven or eight I was allowed to wander over a number of city blocks in my hometown of Utica NY. I made friends with car salesmen and shopkeepers.

One day I went into a gas station's office and saw a nude photo of a woman -- I later learned she was Marilyn Monroe -- on the wall. I hadn't yet reached the age of desire. The image, and its presence on the wall, seemed somehow...well, brutal.

It was Hefner who printed that image, after he purchased and used it to jumpstart Playboy. 

Slate Magazine rounded up some of the conservative reaction to Hefner's death under the heading, "Hefner's in Hell." From it, I learned that the National Review's David French and his childhood friends looked at Playboy pictures too. 

"Before teens could rent porn on tape," French writes, "they could see porn on the page, and once they saw it, they were hooked." Granted, I wasn't a teen when I saw that poster. But I saw Playboy magazines in my teen years and, while I was attracted by the pictures, I wasn't "hooked." Not so French, who continues:

“The effects have lasted a lifetime. Boys grew up believing they were entitled to sex on demand, and the sex would always be amazing...They learned that monogamy was confining, that promiscuity was liberating, and that women should always be hot. The normal female form was no longer enough. It had to be enhanced, sculpted, and waxed.”

Speak for yourself, pal.

French, by the way, once defended an anti-LGBT group by claiming it was attacked "merely because [its members] advocate for orthodox Christian principles and the liberty to live those principles." 

But Hefner's exploitation of women was a crystalline reflection of those "orthodox Christian principles" -- which is to say, that repressive and oppressive distortion of Christian teaching taught by this country's conservative clerics. Hefner rejected church, but his image of women resembled that of his conservative Christian countrymen: apple-cheeked, nubile, and subservient.

Many conservative Christians advocate for something they call "the traditional family": father, mother, and children. But the wife is expected to be as servile as a Playboy bunny to her husband, in the bed as well as in the kitchen. She is there to fulfill the man's fantasies and serve his needs. Daughters are expected to entrust their chastity to their fathers -- sometimes in disturbing father/daughter purity rituals -- until they are lawfully wed, after which they too will take up their servile home roles.

Those roles are as confining, and as artificial, as a bunny costume.

Hefner was decidedly un-Christian about marriage. But when it came to women, his fantasies were deeply rooted in a family upbringing he once described as "conservative, Midwestern, (and) Methodist." 

French's Hefner essay bemoans the effect of pornographic images on most young boys and laments the effect that porn has had on the family. You know who doesn't warrant a mention from French? Women.

Sure, "wives" are brought up in passing, since their supposed disillusionment with their porn-crazed husbands might affect family life. But there's no mention of the women who are exploited, harassed, and objectified on a daily basis by a culture that expects them to remain permanently young, pert, and pliant in the workplace, on the street, or in school.

These women, it would seem, are invisible. Maybe that's because the same expectations are placed on far too many conservative wives as well.

Fortunately, most Christians don't share these beliefs. And most Christians aren't eager to publicly address a stranger's post-death destination, as several conservative writers did in the wake of Hefner's death. "Pray that God has mercy on him," writes the Blaze's Matt Walsh, "but do not run around declaring that a man who spent his life having orgies and taking pictures of naked women must necessarily be reaping eternal rewards."

Let's make it simple. If you believe in God, you believe that God made human beings – all of them. If you deny a woman's full humanity, you are rejecting God. Granted, I’m no theologian. But the same can presumably be said of French, who is an attorney, and Matt Walsh, whose online bio describes him as a “writer, professional truth sayer, and noted alpaca groomer.” At least I'm not pretending to judge that which isn't mine to judge, or attempting to deny full personhood to half the human race.

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, a consultant, and a former musician.

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