The legacy of Hugh Hefner is complicated

A pioneer of sexual revolution and fighter against prejudices or just a successful businessman and probably a sleazy old man. There are som divided views on a late Hugh Hefner. In your opinion, how did he and his Playboy magazine affect America’s society, culture? Read few comments.

Hugh Hefner (1926-2017). Credit:

Ruth McClelland-NugentAssociate Professor of History, Department of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy, Deputy Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, Augusta University

Hefner’s legacy is complicated. It’s not well known, but he was a strong supporter of the movement for black civil rights in the United States. His Playboy Clubs were among the first majority-white venues to hire black comedians to perform, and when his franchisees tried to make black club members enter via a back entrance, he bought back the franchises. He put up $25,000 in reward money (a lot in 1964!) to help Dick Gregory, a black comedian, investigate the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. He was also an advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians, and made a point of publishing pictures of a transgender model after she’d been outed and blacklisted in the modeling world.  He advocated for more open discussions of sexuality, including discussing difficult matters like AIDs and other sexually transmitted infections.

At the same time, he made a lot of money by exploiting women. His call for a sexual revolution was one that was to be on men’s terms only. Women who were older or less conventionally attractive were invisible in his world, where women were valued solely for their erotic attractions. Women’s sexual desires and needs were of little interest to him. One of the major points of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s (the “second wave” of feminism) was to find a place for women in the sexual revolution, and to affirm that women of all ages, shapes, and sizes are indeed sexual beings with needs and desires– a direct response to the objectification encouraged by Hefner.

Hefner was also notorious for the exploitation of women in his Playboy Clubs. In 1963, Gloria Steinem went undercover and was hired as one of the “Bunnies” at a Playboy Club. The resulting piece of reporting, “A Bunny’s Tale,” is still an impressive work of journalism. And it revealed the lousy conditions the bunnies worked under– subject to intimate physical examination upon hire, expected to sleep with Playboy executives, never earning what they were promised because the club charged them for so many things. There’s a story about it.

At his mansion, all female visitors were photographed and “ranked” by Hugh, with or without their consent. He was accused of abetting Bill Cosby in committing rape at the mansion. And some of his former “girlfriends” have painted him as a controlling, patronizing, borderline abusive man, although the way he presented himself to the world was as an advocate of freedom.

All of that rather complicates the picture of presenting him as having either a good or bad influence in society. He was certainly a successful businessman with a gift for creating a brand—but he was also terrible to his female employees. He encouraged a more honest and open discussion of sexuality–but only within the limits of appealing to male sexuality, while erasing any woman who wants to be more than an object. He was very serious about supporting black civil rights at a time when few white people would do so, and advocated for equal treatment for gay, lesbian, and transgender people–all while treating the women in his life very unequally. And he continued to promote a frank discussion of sexuality at an older age—but only for men, as he continued until his death to surround himself with very young “girlfriends,” continuing to make older women invisible in the conversation.

Eric Anderson, Professor of masculinity, Sexuality and Sport, University of Winchester

Huge Hefner helped bring natural human desires from the shadows into the light. He was monumental in this capacity, and he paved the way for Larry Flynt, the publisher of Penthouse, who helped secure pornography as a right. America still struggles with shame over sex on the one hand, while glorifying violence on the other. But there can be no doubt that people, and particularly men, enjoy their porn. I hope for a future with a whole lot more sex and a whole let less violence.

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