On the day of my job interview at Playgirl, the current editor in chief had flipped through an issue, giving cursory descriptions of the photos in a tone that fell somewhere between jaded and annoyed. "Naked guy fixing a car, naked guy with tan lines from his thong in some kind of a jungle setting, TV stars we think are hot—freeze frame on Don Johnson's Johnson, nice! Black guy is the centerfold in some silky bedroom, guy on a leopard print couch, another guy on leopard print pillows—he's uncircumcised—and a threesome of two guys and a girl in a car wash."
I fixed a bored, nonchalant look on my face, which I hoped conveyed to her that I saw this kind of thing every day.
I was then asked to write the "boy copy" to accompany a naked pictorial of well-muscled man running naked on a sand dune. Naked Sand Dune Guy posed suggestively with a spear in his hand and, later, lounging on some pillows that looked like they came from Pier One Imports. My only way to connect with all of this was to look at the whole experience as a comedy writing job. But I figured there had to be some women out there who actually got turned on by the images in our magazine.
"Who exactly reads Playgirl, anyway?"
It was a question I got all the time during my time at Playgirl, where I eventually became editor in chief. I knew what it implied—that no straight woman in her right mind would actually volunteer to look at naked male genitalia. But the magazine, which has been a cultural icon since its inception in 1973, is not just for gay men. Some women like their beefcake, and others (like me) prefer the skinny rockstar look. But I was pretty sure that all of us, at some point, want to ogle naked men. Because I felt so certain that there was a female audience for Playgirl and because there was little demographic research made available to me, I began to seek these women out.
One of them was Sarah, a divorced single mother from the Midwest who had entered our "Win-a-Date with the Centerfold of the Century" contest. On a hot summer day, I picked her up at LaGuardia and she chattered non-stop all the way to her complimentary hotel in Manhattan about how excited she was that she was actually going to meet Jean-Michel. (Yes, that was really his name.) Petite, young, and attractive she wasn't the type I expected. But she and our hunk got a couples' massage, took a carriage ride through Central Park, and to my knowledge, stuck to the clause in their signed contracts agreeing not to have sexual intercourse.
Then there were the throngs of women the other editors and I met on a night out scouting for new talent at Hunkmania. I figured stuffing dollar bills into the G-strings of hunks with enough oil on their chests to keep us from fracking for at least a decade was the enterprise of bored suburban housewives, but these were hot young 20-somethings cheering and screaming for the guys. At the office, when I opened our Centerfolds' fanmail, the envelopes were addressed in girly, bubble handwriting. Along with glitter and confetti, out of these letters spilled all the dirty things these women wanted to do with our hunks.
And although the men in our magazine were never my cup of tea, it bothered me that people would repeat the old refrain that "men are visual" and women require an emotional connection in order for their panties to get wet. The idea that women ARE visual when it comes to sex makes people uncomfortable.
It's a lot safer to say that women prefer erotic fiction ("he put his hand on my pulsing sex") or the images found in a silly romantic comedy montage: couples holding hands, feeding each other strawberries, and taking long, luxurious bubble baths together. The idea that we want to be visually turned on, that we expect potential partners to be visually appealing (and not just good providers or charming jokesters) is, to many people, pretty threatening.