photo courtesy of Art Shay/Morrison Hotel Gallery, “Hugh Hefner in Office Bedroom”
Hugh Hefner, an already controversial man, became even more controversial in his passing. In the last week or so I have learned more about the ninety-one year old Chicago native and founder of famed Playboy magazine, than I have in my last nineteen years. Since Sept. 27, the day of his death, I have heard everything from “he is a human rights activist” to “how he was horrible to women,” and everywhere in-between. So I decided to do some research of my own in order to come to my own conclusion as to why people were so emotionally charged by Hefner’s death.
Right when Hefner died I saw posts that said, “RIP Hefner, thanks for helping women and so many others,” and many other mostly positive comments about Hefner. Upon seeing these posts and commented, many people felt prompted to try and educate others on who they say the “real Hugh Hefner was.” Hefner, who was known for advocated for sexual freedom, was often manipulative to women in his personal life. All of Hefner’s positive efforts were countered by his actions.
The main debate surrounding Hugh Hefner is whether or not he should be considered a feminist. And in his eyes, there was no doubt that he was one. The fact is, Hefner supported many social issues, including the enforcement of sexual education and Roe v. Wade. He was also adamant about the fight for birth control in the workplace. On the other hand, Hefner treated women as if they were trophies, forcing Bunnies to wear next to nothing and placing them in uncomfortable situations. One of Hefner’s old girlfriend’s, Holly Madison, wrote the book, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” illustrating the horrors she experienced in the Playboy Mansion. She spoke of the rigid rules about physical appearance and sexual relations in the mansion. Madison explained that the girls living in the mansion had strict curfews unless it was a Wednesday or Friday, when they were permitted to go out clubbing with or without Hefner. The night would end with the other Bunnies in Hefner’s room for sex. He chose women who were young and ignorant and gave them a false expectation of sexual freedom.
As well as his political advocacy for women, Hefner also fought for LGBTQ rights. A story was published in Playboy Magazine, called “The Crooked Man,” in which heterosexuality and homosexuality were reversed. Every negative portrayal directed towards homosexual people, in this world, is directed to toward heterosexual people. They even go as far as to outlawing heterosexuality. The public was angered by this because stories of this nature were not usually published, especially in something like Playboy. Hefner responded by saying, “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society,” he wrote, “then the reverse was wrong, too.”
Closer to the end of his life Hefner also spoke in support of trans rights. This was all very interesting to me because, although Playboy is geared towards heterosexual men, Hefner seemed to truly care about LGTBQ rights. I think adding a homosexual narrative to Playboy was a good start, but it should have been taken a step further.
Another human rights issue Hefner was passionate about was the AIDS epidemic. While people were demonizing AIDS and calling it a “gay issue,” Hefner was different. He wanted to educate the public and his readers about safe sex, and debunk outright lies. Speaking as an advocate, Hefner said, “The only thing ‘wrong’ with AIDS is the way our government responded to it. They are culpable on many, many levels. … I have chosen every aspect of human sexuality — and the discrimination that goes along with some of those aspects — as my major concern. Homosexuality and, later, the homophobia that surrounds the AIDS crisis are part of a much bigger picture for me.” The way he spoke and educated about AIDS was controversial for the time, as was the way he advocated for other human rights issues.
Hefner proved to be a very interesting person to learn more about. After researching different aspect of his life, I wondered “how did I not know about this when he was alive?” All I knew about this man were the stories attached to Playboy; I did not know beyond behind the magazine. Now that I understand a more comprehensive version of him, I believe Hefner to be an advocate for civil and social rights. On the other hand, I believe how he treated the women in the Playboy mansion painted a different picture. I wish that his actions in the Playboy mansion reflected the words he preached in the public eye– and more than anything, I wish it didn’t have to take him dying for people to start this very necessary conversation.