Are We Not Men?

Down the ladder from Playboy to Maxim

In a 1963 account of his visit to the Chicago Playboy mansion, Nelson Algren wrote, “However paradoxical it may appear, the young male who assumes early that physical relationships with women are part of life is more likely to develop respect toward women than is the young male who abstains from such relationships.” He meant it as no compliment to his host, adding that Playboy “does not sell sex. It sells a way out of sex.” I take his point now, but I hadn’t heard of, much less read, Nelson Algren when I was a young male, and it was precisely my dad’s Playboy magazines that helped me early on do a lot of assuming about my physical relationships with women.

Algren deserves credit for being perhaps the first person to walk right into the woo grotto and—figuratively, at least—yank down Hef’s pajama bottoms. His criticisms were the more damning for coming from just the sort of worldly tomcat Playboy sought to publish (and did), and the more bold for coming at a time when Hugh Hefner was a much tougher figure to take lightly than he is now. With the golden anniversary, in 2003, of Playboy’s founding, and with Hefner having just turned eighty (surrounded by a platoon of bottle-blonde girlfriends whose combined age, depending on troop strength, may or may not exceed his own), a lot of ink has recently been spilled on the man, the magazine, and the myth. Not much of it very flattering. Everyone from The Washington Post to The Weekly Standard has gotten in punches or, at best, backhanded praise. There’s been the predictable fun (Slate’s David Plotz hilariously referred to Hefner as “the human bellbottom,” a walking bit of retro kitsch for the nouveau swinger set), and also the obvious criticism that the Playboy lifestyle was a marketing sham, and the even more obvious observation that the magazine’s centerfolds have hardly represented la femme moyenne. In a New Yorker review of The Playmate Book: Six Decades of Centerfolds, Joan Acocella wrote that “there is one basic model. On top is the face of Shirley Temple; below is the body of Jayne Mansfield.” Which is a wonderful line, and also as cute and exaggerated as Acocella claims the women in question are. It’s the sort of remark that’s only true enough to satisfy those who need no convincing, proving that The New Yorker, too, knows how to meet reader expectation with a shrewd blend of verity and pretense.

But was there ever a time—at least in a long time—when we didn’t already know all this about Playboy? Even at thirteen I was aware that I was in the presence of the purest fantasy. (Having locked myself in a bathroom, I could hardly pretend otherwise.) Then again, I also fantasized about becoming a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, understanding full well that that was never going to happen, but that there would soon enough come a time when I’d have relationships with women, and that until that day, I could do worse than read Playboy. And yes, even then I read the magazine—a little. Specifically, the Playboy Advisor. I admit I was lured in only by the dirty talk, and skipped all the letters on stereophonics and the proper care and storage of leather loafers. But over time these exchanges left me with the distinct impression that love—or even just good sex—was often quite complicated, requiring of its participants an almost unnerving degree of trust and vulnerability, patience and negotiation, all of which could lead to unimaginable thrills or horrible disappointment. Or anything in between. It was here, in the Advisor, where Playboy willfully undercut the silken ease and bachelor suavity it projected elsewhere in the magazine. It was here where bodily matters went unairbrushed, where seduction proved beyond one’s skillful way with imported vodka, where men would not infrequently be scolded for treating their girlfriends or wives shabbily. (The cynical reading of this phenomenon has been that Playboy very astutely sows the seeds of male anxiety, the better to sell itself and its glossier fare as a necessary diversion—if not the solution. Which is true only to the extent that every magazine, from Martha Stewart Living to The New York Review of Books to the one you’re holding now, survives by suggesting that you need what it offers. Again, it’s true enough to convince those who need no convincing.)

From the archives:

"The Return of the Pig" (March 2001)
The revival of blatant sexism in American culture has many progressive thinkers flummoxed. By David Brooks

In the October 1973 Advisor, a man on the verge of marrying a small-breasted woman wonders if he can honestly go ahead with the nuptials, given his fears of desiring more-ample women. To which he gets, in part, this response:

It’s not a question of honesty; it’s a matter of maturity—yours, not hers. A marriage is more than the sum of its anatomical parts; success depends on qualities of love, respect and compatibility.

In the February 1976 Advisor, a woman writes in that her boyfriend, who’s miffed that he can’t bring her to orgasm (though he claims he’s successfully done so with every other lover), has tried to pressure her into a threesome with another woman as a remedy. The response reads in total:

Your partner has come up with a rather novel excuse for experimenting with a third party (necessity is the pimp of invention or the mother of deviation), but we doubt that a ménage à trois would be the answer to your problem. While a triangle might show him by direct comparison that all women are different, it might also double his failure rather than his fun. Since you are more familiar with your response than he is, do what you can to increase your pleasure. Patience is not something that can be measured or corrected with a stop watch: By making orgasm the goal of your lovemaking, you may have changed the event into an endurance contest with no winners. Love for the moment, not the finish. Sex is a mystery, but when it works, it reminds us of what Raymond Chandler said: The ideal mystery is one you would read if the end was missing.

Thirty years on, in March 2006, Playboy was still at it, offering this response to a writer who defended (on grounds of “intimacy or commitment issues”) another man’s reluctance to label his partner a girlfriend:

You may be correct about his issues, but he should work them out on his own time rather than wasting hers. Labels may be confining, but after three months “girlfriend” threatens no man.

(This last exchange can be found in Dear Playboy Advisor, a recent collection of zesty give-and-take from the column’s past ten years.)

Yes, however paradoxical it may appear, I developed a respect toward women in part by reading Playboy as a young male. What’s more, I developed an interest in women that went beyond the sum of their anatomical parts, and did so at first out of sheer boyish faith in that supposedly bogus Playboy lifestyle. During my countless sequestrations with the magazine, I took in not only the powdered limbs and bedroom eyes but also the general atmosphere of adult men engaging with adult women. There they’d be, nicely—if, in hindsight, absurdly—dressed men and women, together at a housewarming or a holiday party or a favored night spot. (Picture, on the guys, Dingo boots, LeRoy Neiman–hued vest suits, and a glimpse of woolly chest hair that hinted at unabashed back shrubbery. And on the women, strategic cuts of every unnatural fiber known to man, all of it somehow unnaturally fetching.) Or maybe a lone couple would be smoking Viceroys and picking out some unfinished furniture, or tickling the ivories during a relaxing evening for two. Or groups of couples would be skiing or having a clambake. (In a scene of homely domesticity, there’s even an October 1970 pictorial featuring the hirsute Elliott Gould—wearing nothing but a big black watchband—laughing, nuzzling, and smoking with Paula Prentiss in a dingy bubble bath, while an equally hairy Saint Bernard looks on.) Call me naive, even romantic, but I was quite moved by the notion that someday I would—or should—enjoy trading tales of whimsy around the fondue pot with female acquaintances as much as I was currently enjoying riding my bike and grab-assing with my buddies.

The typical Playboy guy—arm candy, sports car, Canadian Club, pinkie ring—may or may not have been an exponent of marriage (I knew some who were), and certainly his getup wasn’t complete without a cool splash of patriarchalism, but it’s just as certain that girlfriend didn’t threaten him. So when, at nineteen, and living in my very first apartment, I cleared out half my medicine cabinet and half my closet, and gave them over to the California blonde who’d just moved in with me, it felt as true to the life I’d seen and imagined as my red Camaro and my Brutini Le Sport shoes. This was no capitulation; this was part and parcel of the dream. She and I would get dressed up (in ensembles no less silly in hindsight) and go to classy restaurants. Or we’d cook in and watch a movie, and drink wine and grown-up cocktails. We went to clubs on Sunset, hit the slopes in northern Arizona, caught a striptease act in the French Quarter with another couple, and spent a night among friends hot-tubbing and sipping daiquiris in the Santa Cruz Mountains after a day of crabbing near Half Moon Bay. This was, it seemed to me, exactly what Playboy had espoused: finding a nifty chick and sharing the good life with her. Not that it was all good, of course (the Advisor had prepared me for that, too). We had our fights, fretted about school and work, nursed each other with less and less sympathy through various hangovers, moved into separate places, lived together again, got furious, got bored, and after five-plus years and a long, cold decline, gave it up. At the age of twenty-five, I felt like I’d been divorced but never married.

All in all, not a bad start.

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Jon Zobenica is an Atlantic senior editor.

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