The Sexual Revolution Turns Against Its Own

Hugh Hefner once declared that the audience for his magazine was men “between the ages of 18 to 80.” I think it’s fair to say that men from 18 to 80 were shocked and perhaps a little saddened at the report that Playboy will stop printing fully nude photos of women, opting instead for slightly clothed “pin-up” style photos.

In other news, McDonald’s will stop selling hamburgers.

For those looking for wider cultural or philosophical significance, please note that this is first and foremost a business story and has little to do with the specifics of Playboy or the business of publishing an explicit men’s magazine. It’s about the general collapse of print media.

Playboy didn’t make this decision because it was Hefner’s new esthetic vision, or because they were responding to some kind of social pressure. They did it because they are desperately floundering around for ways to keep making money.

Playboy faces the same challenges as every “legacy media” institution, from the New York Times on down. Everyone has gotten used to getting their information online, instantly and for free. The Internet has toppled the barriers to entry, and those of us who try to make a living as “content providers” face a flood of competition from unpaid amateurs—some of whom, I must admit, are not so amateurish. At the same time, Internet advertising or subscription services have never managed to replace print ads as a source of revenue. So it’s no surprise that Playboy‘s circulation has shrunk from a peak of 5.6 million 40 years ago to 800,000 today. The real takeaway from this article, in many ways, is that Playboy has become less of a publishing business and more of a merchandising business that “makes most of its money from licensing its ubiquitous brand and logo across the world.”

And maybe that is its real future: using the publication as a loss leader for a range of Playboy-branded products and businesses. So maybe it doesn’t make sense to try to salvage it as a profitable publishing enterprise.

By not publishing nude photos, Playboy clearly hopes to make itself “safe for work,” and to move on to the regular magazine racks alongside the other “lad magazines,” and then presumably compete on the quality of its articles. That’s going to be an uphill climb. I can’t say I’ve read the magazine in a long time, but even in my era—some 20 years ago—the articles were never good enough to make it worth buying the magazine just for them. I’ve heard from those who have read it more recently that Playboy‘s editorial direction shifted left in recent years, following the iron law in which established institutions always move left over time, unless someone in a position of authority is actively fighting the trend. But becoming a partisan mouthpiece for the left, particularly in this era of neo-Puritan political correctness, is hardly a good plan for reaching a wider audience.

But even if it can produce more compelling articles, has Playboy realized that nobody is doing very well selling those, either? I mean, you can survive and do fairly well, but you have to be very flexible and very lean. It doesn’t tend to support big organizations that are expensive to run—which includes a lot of the traditional print publications built on the old business model.

Here’s a much better suggestion.

But the point of the New York Times report is that naked pictures aren’t bringing in the readers, either. And that leads us to the big problem specific to Playboy: the consequences of a Pyrrhic victory. Playboy set out to break through the Puritanical religious restrictions on sex—and now finds itself left behind in the dust. Hugh Hefner made a revolution, only to be pushed out of power and into oblivion by people more radical than him. It’s not exactly the first time this has happened.

I disagree with conservatives who say that Hefner and Playboy destroyed the idea of the special value of sex. In fact, he relied on it. The ideal Playboy bunny was not a slut. She was the “girl next door,” the kind of young woman who was respectable and even wholesome, but also sexually exciting. And the magazine was oriented toward a sophisticated man, for whom sexual adventure is part of an appreciation of the finer things in life. (Or at least that was the idea, even if Hefner was less sophisticated than he thought he was.) This is what differentiated Playboy from cruder imitations, and what differentiates it from a lot of what is online for free today.

I have described that old approach as “wholesome sexuality”: the idea that sex is a natural part of a normal life, not the manifestation of some seedy underbelly of existence. That concept is a real challenge to the Puritanical religious views that Hugh Hefner was rebelling against. But I don’t think he ever fully understood that, certainly not in his later personal life, with its gaudy affectation of having multiple blonde bimbo girlfriends.

And wholesome sexuality is what is going to be lost. If Playboy won’t publish nude women, it abandons the field to the creatures from the seedy underbelly.

My direct personal stake in this is as the father of two young boys. It’s still a few years off, but at some point they will be teenagers, and they will naturally want to discover what naked women look like. I wouldn’t mind them finding out from the pages (even if they are Web pages) of a publication like Playboy. So there is a value in having that brand out there, and having it serve as the rite of passage for young men learning about sexuality.

I am less thrilled at the prospect they will find out from the seedier corners of the Web. And my worry is that those corners are going to be all that’s left.

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