Hugh Hefner, who died last week, has been heralded as the “leader” of the sexual revolution by friend, foe and a legion of headline writers and pundits alike. But the real credit belongs elsewhere. Women put the revolution in the sexual revolution. And it’s not over.
Hefner was an accidental revolutionary, albeit one who enthusiastically and profitably embraced the title. He did have a feel for the zeitgeist of Cold War America and true entrepreneurial acumen, but mostly, he had the luck of good timing.
In 1960, Hefner opened the first Playboy Club. Another milestone that year would do far more to usher in the sexual revolution: the first birth control pill went on the market.
Efforts to control fertility are as old as civilization itself. The Pill, however, was the first form of contraception in world history that was exclusively controlled by a woman. Convenient, affordable, and always on, the pill required neither the consent, participation or knowledge of a woman’s partner.Before the Pill, nine out of 10 people viewed a person who chose not to marry as “sick,” “neurotic” or “immoral” and believed premarital sex was wrong. Some states outlawed birth control — even for married couples. Sex out of wedlock was extremely risky for
Before the Pill, nine out of 10 people viewed a person who chose not to marry as “sick,” “neurotic” or “immoral” and believed premarital sex was wrong. Some states outlawed birth control — even for married couples. Sex out of wedlock was extremely risky for women, because accidental pregnancy imposed heavy costs on them. Single women who found themselves pregnant were offered the respectable “choice” of a shotgun wedding or giving their child up for adoption. Abortion was illegal and extremely dangerous. A child born to a single woman went through life with a birth certificate stamped “illegitimate.”After the introduction of the Pill, the speed of change demonstrates just how much cultural coercion had kept women in their sexual place:
After the introduction of the Pill, the speed of change demonstrates just how much cultural coercion had kept women in their sexual place:Within five years, 6 million American women were using the Pill.
When laws blocked women from obtaining contraception, Planned Parenthood and other reproductive-rights advocates challenged them in court, overturning the bans and gaining constitutional protection of the right to control one’s own body. These intertwined medical, educational, economic and legal innovations were fueled by and, in turn, fed a mass women’s movement.
What made the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s an enduring social transformation was the change in women’s identity and behavior. Feminists revived dormant ideas about gender equality and won over majority popular opinion to the principle that women have a right to control their own bodies. By the time girls born during the sexual revolution came of age, only 2 in 10 would be virgins at marriage.
The Pill, not Playboy, made it all possible. (After all, the double standard had facilitated men’s sexual adventurism passably well for decades before Playboy appeared on the newsstands.) But for women’s determination to control their own destiny while fully embracing their sexuality, Hefner would be going down in history as little more than a footnote.
What then is Hefner’s legacy?
Despite Hefner’s claims to be a cultural liberator of men and women alike, Playboy models and bunnies were paid to be objects of men’s desire, not full subjects in their own right. (Playboy’s female writers on the other hand, I can attest, were treated with equality and respect.) Playboy’s ideal of beauty was unattainable for most women. Hefner’s lifestyle, especially in his later years, was at best icky.
Still, Hefner deserves credit for launching a frontal assault against the soul-crushing repression of the 1950s, and more profoundly, the puritanical mores undergirding it. Hefner understood that sexual freedom is an intrinsic component of human freedom and human rights. He embraced his role as evangelist for sexual liberty with the zeal of a convert; he was the child of strict, emotionally distant, conservative Methodists and a descendant of the Puritan governor of Plymouth Colony. Asked by the New York Times 25 years ago what he was most proud of, Hefner answered, “That I changed attitudes toward sex. That nice people can live together now. That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex.”
It was a worthy battle, and one that continues.
Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has ruled that an employer’s religious beliefs take precedence over women’s rights to control their own bodies.
Alabama Republicans have nominated a U.S. Senate candidate who said that “homosexual conduct” should be illegal.
Vice President Mike Pence refuses to dine alone with a woman other than his wife.
The Trump administration has been hard at work undermining equal-pay protections and reproductive health services, antidiscrimination protections for LGBT Americans, and trying to expel transgender troops from the armed services.
The enemy of American values of tolerance, equality and freedom is a politically resurgent religious right against, which Hefner fought passionately — and imperfectly — his whole life.
Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and the author of “Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America.” Twitter: @nancylcohen
This commentary appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Oct. 2, 2017.