Sometimes it’s appropriate to speak ill of the dead.
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died Wednesday, aged 91. But his work of mainstreaming porn will likely live on—and continue to hurt men and women—for many years to come.
Playboy helped usher in an era of porn addiction, decreased happiness, and strained relationships between men and women.
Porn did of course exist before Hefner, and the internet—a technological innovation Hefner had nothing to do with—greatly accelerated the use of porn.
But what Hefner did was to bring porn out of the shadows, to make it something that could be discussed openly and without shame. Decades before the characters on “Friends” were cracking jokes about porn use, Hefner planted the seeds by creating Playboy magazine.
This article from ABC News shows how revolutionary Playboy was:
In 1953, a time when states could legally ban contraceptives, when the word ‘pregnant’ was not allowed on ‘I Love Lucy,’ Hefner published the first issue of Playboy, featuring naked photos of Marilyn Monroe (taken years earlier) and an editorial promise of ‘humor, sophistication and spice.’
Within a year, circulation neared 200,000. Within five years, it had topped 1 million.
By the 1970s, the magazine had more than 7 million readers and had inspired such raunchier imitations as Penthouse and Hustler.
Porn, proponents say, is just a harmless foray into fantasy. That might have been credible in 1953.
But now, 64 years after Playboy was launched, it’s clear that’s just not the case—and there are real human costs to our society’s porn addiction.
Thirty-eight percent of heterosexual men and nearly 7 percent of heterosexual women admit to viewing porn in the past six days, according to data in University of Texas at Austin sociology professor Mark Regnerus’ new book “Cheap Sex.”
Viewing porn can definitely have consequences for real-life behavior. One interviewee Regnerus spoke to, a 24-year-old name Jonathan from Austin, Texas, said of porn use during relationships: “It’s just an unfulfilling cycle. It’s stressful … you become dissatisfied sexually with the person you’re with. How can you not?”
Another interviewee, 27-year-old Alyssa from Milwaukee, said, “I can see in myself the effect that watching porn has had on me.”
“I know,” she added, “that I feel a little bit sexier when I’m having sex like a porn star … porn sex is not, like I said, not romantic, and it’s not, like, it’s not slow. It’s not seductive, it’s much more about um, like the thrusting and the grunting than the touching and the sighing, you know. The gentle loving aspect is not hot.”
Regnerus’ data also shows a correlation (hardly shocking) between frequency of masturbation and porn viewing, suggested increase porn use spurs more frequent masturbation.
That’s unfortunate: “The Relationships in America survey data reveal that those who masturbated recently were less likely to be happy with life in general—and less happy with their current romantic relationship—than those who had not,” writes Regnerus.
There’s also evidence that porn use can become compulsive, perhaps even addictive. In other words, porn isn’t just viewed by men or women deciding it’d be fun—it’s people feeling driven to do so.
A 2010 report, “The Social Costs of Pornography,” by the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative research center in Princeton, New Jersey, found that “internet pornography does evoke in some users those behaviors that clinical and psychological literature calls ‘addiction,’ just as in the cases of addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and other substances. The addiction to pornography can even become ‘compulsive,’ meaning that it continues despite negative consequences to a person’s functioning in his or her work or relationships.”
Personal accounts bear this out as well. In 2016, Time reported on Alexander Rhodes, the nonreligious man behind a crudely named site and movement to encourage men to stop watching porn.
Rhodes, who first saw porn at 11, quickly began viewing porn with greater frequency. “By the time he was 14, he says, he was pleasuring himself to porn 10 times a day. ‘That’s not an exaggeration,’ he insists. ‘That, and play video games, was all I did,’” wrote Time’s Belinda Luscombe.
And once again, porn didn’t stay on the computer or in the fantasy world, but extended to Rhodes’ relationship with a girl, as Time reported:
In his late teens, when he got a girlfriend, things did not go well. ‘I really hurt her [emotionally],’ says Rhodes. ‘I thought it was normal to fantasize about porn while having sex with another person.’ If he stopped thinking about porn to focus on the girl, his body lost interest, he says.
Rhodes isn’t alone. Isaac Abel (a pen name) wrote in liberal website Salon in 2013 about the effects of his porn habits.
Like Rhodes, Abel started watching porn at a young age. He also started watching more and more extreme porn, including rape and cartoon porn. And it affected his real-life relationships:
I starting seeing a young woman regularly, and some confluence of alcohol, weed, no condom, and the trust, comfort, and affection I felt with her allowed me to start enjoying sex—to an extent. I wouldn’t acknowledge it, but the majority of nights I had ‘good sex’ I was intoxicated. And, what’s worse, I was fantasizing about porn during sex.
It was a dissociative, alienating, almost inhuman task to close my eyes while having sex with someone I really cared about and imagine having sex with someone else or recall a deviant video from the archives of my youth that I was ashamed of even then.
Is this really happiness?
In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2010, Hefner, who recounted he grew up in a home without “a lot of love or emotion,” said “the key to my life [was] the need to feel loved.”
Asked who had broken his heart, Hefner responded:
The first girl I married … I was very naïve. When she told me before we married that she’d had an affair while I was in the Army, it was probably the most devastating experience of my life. It doomed us from the start.
But I think it gave me permission to live the life I’ve lived.
And yet, even if Hefner was sincerely motivated in his work by “the need to feel loved,” he created a new world that championed lust over love.
The legacy of Playboy is men fantasizing about other women while they are with the women they actually love; it’s women preferring porn sex to romantic sex; it’s a surge in people having solo sex or masturbating; and it’s people struggling with addictive behavior.
None of that qualifies as the kind of dream anyone would swoon about.
But it’s what we’ve got. Thanks for nothing, Hef.