Hugh Hefner: Abuser And Civil Rights Advocate (They Can Coexist)

Photo by Luke Ford -, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo by Luke Ford -, CC BY-SA 2.5,

So Hugh Hefner died huh?

The first thing I thought was “Well, he was ancient.” (Even when I was a kid, I thought he was ancient.) I always feel this strange sense of displacement whenever someone famous dies because I never know how I’m supposed to feel about the death of someone I didn’t know personally.

Hugh Hefner is a special case because he is so incredibly divisive.  

People either love him or hate him, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for middle ground. The grey area is very thin, but I do find this topic fascinating. What we’re finding in modern society is that it’s completely possible to think someone was deeply problematic but also recognize that they were important in some ways for the advancement of our community. That doesn’t mean we celebrate them; it just means we acknowledge them. There’s the modern concept of the “problematic fave” in our internet lexicon. And I do have many a problematic fave.  

Hefner isn’t a fave of mine, but I do believe that Hefner helped push our repressed society in the direction it needed to go by normalizing sex (sometimes at the expense of women … which is trash). I can’t imagine where we 'd be as a society without sex workers and pornography. But I wouldn’t want to exist in that pious world.  

Hefner was somewhat a visionary; on the downside, he pushed the paradigm of beauty as a tall, conventionally pretty, often white, blond woman with massive breasts, which is a whole different essay in itself. Many would agree (including myself) that the fact that Hefner kept getting older while the girls kept getting younger, gives the entire franchise an icky exploitative feeling.  

Then there’s the whole Playboy mansion issue which sounds like a house of horrors for the women who moved in. It’s apparent that in that case, Hefner was an exploitive abusive dirtbag who basically kept women as sex slaves and prisoners. Is it consensual if you limit the person’s contact with the outside world? It’s not something that should sit right with our society, ever, and yet here we are again.

But many recognize that Hefner’s contribution has importance simply because sex work is work and sex workers are people and Hefner normalized sex work.

But could Hefner have held his progressive values and not exploited women? Most certainly.  

Could the sexual revolution happen without the work of Hefner? Sure. And it would have looked much different. What Hefner’s work mostly did was appeal to the male gaze, both upper and lower class, and introduce sex into the mainstream conversation. But appealing to the male gaze isn't exactly “helping” women.

One thing I learned when researching this piece is that Hefner was definitely an advocate for civil rights, in a quiet way, through his magazine and his infamous Playboy Bunny Clubs. By hiring writer Alex Haley, Hefner published and promoted the views of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali — all icons who regularly pissed off the white establishment. And I was frankly wowed to learn that Hefner bought back franchises that turned away black patrons in the South. That was a bold move from someone who already wasn’t a darling in America’s eyes.

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But like all things, to gain the most accurate picture of who someone was we need to talk to those most deeply affected by this person’s actions. I reached out to sex workers I know because I think they can paint the most accurate picture of why Hefner was helpful or a hindrance or both. 

One person I spoke to said, “Hugh Hefner is not a problematic fave; he was extremely problematic. Even in the days that Hugh Hefner and Playboy had their heyday, there were women exploring sexuality without relation to men. There were women and people in liberal discourse and left discourse bringing forward some of the journalistic and cultural content that Playboy is somewhat known for being quite positive and forward in. I understand why there are a lot of people recognizing that Hefner and Playboy have some cultural significance, but here on the left in the feminist movement, it’s more important for us to highlight those more marginalized voices in that era and today’s era than it is to celebrate Playboy."

Another friend of mine said, “I’d say he’s set the standard for mediocre sociopaths to capitalize off the talents and works of others.  I hope his death makes people look in their own communities for similar sociopaths using others.”

And lastly, “I don’t hate him.  Again — and I didn’t read what’s her name’s book (editor: Holly Madison) — so maybe I don’t know, but from what I do know his relationships with sex workers were consensual. Even so, he obviously exploited women. The way men exploited me when I sold sex (and in a non-sex work setting but that’s another story) is in some ways similar to the way editors “exploit” me now as a freelance writer. And in some ways, it’s different. I don’t hate men like him — clients. But they don’t “love” women as they often claim. And the messages he promoted were just misogyny wrapped in “sex positivity.”

And there you have it. The only people whose opinions I’m interested in on this matter are sex workers. They’re the ones doing the heavy living out there, and if they say Hefner isn’t worth celebrating, I’m going to follow their lead. 

A person can be an exploitative abuser and still hold progressive values. 

These two things can coexist. And in this case, that's true. 


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