How Hugh Hefner Commercialized Sex

The Playboy founder—who died at the age of 91—peddled an American dream that was as much about money as desire.

Hugh Hefner with 'Playboy' models
Westcom / Starmax / AP

In 1953, Hugh Hefner was living out a stereotypical version of the American Dream. At the age of 27, he had a job (as a cartoonist and copywriter), a wife, and a baby daughter. As Elizabeth Fraterrigo notes in her 2009 book Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America, Hefner’s home life was so picture-perfect that it was photographed for a two-page story in the Chicago Daily News. In one image, Hefner sits on the floor of a tidy, modern living room holding baby Christie, while his wife, Millie, watches from the couch, holding a magazine.

By the end of that year, the scene of domestic contentment had been upended. In fact, it was a lie to begin with—Hefner hated his hardscrabble life as a hired creative, his wife had confessed before their wedding that she’d cheated on him, and Hefner, who had married at the age of 23, was increasingly fascinated with the subject of sex, following the publication of the first two Kinsey reports on human sexuality. In November 1953, Hefner took $8,000 he’d borrowed from banks and investors and published the first issue of Playboy, featuring unlicensed nude photos of Marilyn Monroe. The magazine sold out its 50,000-plus copies, and Hefner’s vision of a new kind of American dream entered the culture: one where nude women—wholesome, unthreatening, uncomplicated—were part and parcel with the trappings of a modern masculine lifestyle.

To say that Playboy was about more than naked women is a cliché, but it’s also true. Through his magazine, Hefner, who died Wednesday at the age of 91, offered an alternative ideal for men from the one he’d performed for the Daily News. After World War II, with America’s economy booming, Playboy proselytized the virtues of consumption—of clothes, travel, food, wine, and, most importantly, beautiful women. But the most important figure in the vision was Hefner himself, with his signature red-silk robe, his private jet, his legions of blondes, and his palatial mansion in Holmby Hills. What Playboy offered to readers went beyond smut; it signaled membership in a tribe of gentlemen hedonists across the globe. But the pleasure on display was cut through with consumerism, just as the sexual escapades were distinctively American in flavor. “Bacchanalia with Pepsi,” is how a Time feature on Hefner  in 1967 recorded the scene in his home. “Orgies with popcorn. … It is all so familiar and domestic.” Hefner was no Don Juan or Casanova, the story observed. He was “alive, American, modern, trustworthy, clean, respectful, and the country’s leading impresario of spectator sex.”

The success of Hefner’s American dream made Playboy one of the defining hallmarks of American culture in the ’60s and ’70s, contributing to a sexual revolution that challenged the idea that sex was for reproduction alone. By 1960, Playboy had more than a million readers; by 1972, at the magazine’s peak, it had 7 million. But Hefner’s defining role in American sexuality was that he took a private act and turned it into conspicuous consumption. Sex, in the Playboy lifestyle, was less about desire than about showing off. It was sanitized (Hefner wanted the centerfolds to exude clean-cut charm rather than exotic allure—women were photographed in barns and beaches, posing next to cars or lounging by the pool). It was demystified. And, above all, it was commodified.

Whether this led to any real sexual liberation is up for debate. Playboy, the 1967 Time feature argued, was actually fairly puritanical in its interpretation of human desire, steering clear of any hints of fetishism, or any explicitly suggestive poses. “None of the nudes ever looks as if she had just indulged in sex, or were about to,” the story observed. Katharine Whitehorn, the British newspaper columnist, told Time that the whole Playboy ideal was “a midwestern Methodist’s version of sin.” But it was symbolized most iconically by Hefner himself, who divorced Millie in 1959 and reinvented himself as the consummate seducer, installing legions of different women in his home like a priapic Pick ‘n Mix. He bragged about having slept with more than a thousand women, including the majority of his playmates. Later in life, after Playboy’s power and commercial success had long declined, Hefner fostered his notoriety as the living embodiment of horniness by appearing in pop-culture products like Sex and the City and The House Bunny, always with a different blonde on each arm.

Oddly, around 2005, Hefner’s commercialization of sexuality found a new audience: women. In the 1970s, both the growing force of the feminist movement and the emergence of hardcore pornography began to diminish Playboy’s power in the marketplace. In Fraterrigo’s book, she quotes a fired Playboy secretary, Shelly Schlicker, as voicing some of the frustrations women had with how they were perceived within the magazine “Hefner has made millions selling this air-brushed image of women to insecure men who are taught to want a playful pet rather than a person,” Schlicker said during a protest outside the Playboy offices. “But it won’t work. We will no longer sell ourselves in return for a pair of ears, a tail, and a condescending pat on the behind.”

But by 2005, women were increasingly adopting Hefner’s ideals as their own. As Ariel Levy argued in her book published that same year, Female Chauvinist Pigs, pornography and strip clubs had become the standard for a kind of outspoken sexual freedom that embraced raunch culture. Rather than protesting Playboy, women were buying bunny-branded T-shirts and bikinis at Target. The year before, Jenna Jameson had published her bestselling memoir, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, signifying porn’s infiltration into the cultural mainstream.

2005 was also the year in which The Girls Next Door debuted on E! Also known as The Girls of the Playboy Mansion, the reality show documented the lives of Hefner’s three primary girlfriends: Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. The show ran for six seasons until it was canceled in 2010, and its major demographic was women viewers. For five decades, Hefner and Playboy had proffered an idyll of masculine sophistication, available for purchase with the right jacket or cigar brand or Diners Club card (a longtime Playboy advertiser). But now the lifestyle being peddled was female. Holly, Bridget, and Kendra lived in a kind of perpetual sorority, enjoying pool parties on Sundays and shopping trips to Beverly Hills. They were given a $1,000 weekly clothing allowance and the use of Hefner’s account at an upscale beauty salon. Hefner leased expensive cars for his girlfriends to keep up appearances, but he refused to buy them cars outright in case it gave them too much independence. He did, however, pay for their plastic surgery.

The show was classic Hefner: highly profitable conformism disguised as sexual freedom. It also helped revive the flagging Playboy business. Hefner told The New York Times in 2010 that while the magazine used to carry the brand, now it was the brand that carried the magazine. “We have merchandise that we sell all over, like clothing,” he said. “We’re one of the main men’s upscale brands on the mainland of Red China, where the magazine is not yet permitted.” But the boom was short-lived. In 2015, Madison published a memoir in which she offered a more truthful depiction of her relationship with Hefner, detailing that sex with him was mandatory for the playmates, and unpleasant. Many of the women who lived with Hefner, she alleged, got involved with prostitution. Another former playmate, Izabella St. James, wrote a book that punctured the illusion of the Playboy Mansion itself, stating that it was dingy, falling into disrepair, and smelled like urine from Hefner’s incontinent dog.

The same year, Playboy announced it would no longer feature nudity in the magazine, a decision that’s since been reversed. My colleague Megan Garber wrote at the time that part of Playboy’s enduring appeal over the years had been its ability to present masculinity as something you could buy, rather than something inherent. “It understood that what it was selling was not actually sex, but a sense of self,” she wrote. “It took pornography—one of the longest-standing human art forms—out of the realm of the animalistic and into the realm of the aspirational.” But by 2015, Hefner, and his lifestyle, were as quaint and out of vogue as the mildewed grotto at the Playboy Mansion.

In 1972, the year Playboy was arguably at its financial and cultural zenith, the writer John Berger gave a series of 30-minute films about the aesthetics and ideologies entangled within images, from works of art to mass-produced magazines. “Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself,” Berger explained. “Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell.” Hefner, throughout his life, understood that what he was selling in Playboy wasn’t sex so much as the dream of sex. Not the act itself—messy, emotional, sometimes exquisite—but the promise of sex, implied by possession of the right luxury items, or the simple purchase of a magazine.