Establishment man
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 July 2008)

It's 55 years since Hugh Hefner created a new mass-media image of sexuality. But even today, as a Dutch historian argues, "We are living in the Hefnerist era."

Hefner continues to enjoy the age he designed. At 82, he still plays a character from the pages of his own magazine. Long ago, he expressed gratitude to the developers of Viagra.

He and Playboy look dated, but still cast a shadow across the planet. On Monday, far away in India, an online news service reported on Hefner's domestic dispute, which in his case meant a quarrel among three live-in girlfriends. In England, the newspapers announced Hefner's plans to re-open a Playboy Club in London, where his first club closed in 1981 after a police raid over suspected infractions of gambling law. London's Daily Mirror recruited Michelle Johnstone, 50, mother-of-two, from Barkingside, Essex, to describe a bunny's life in the original club. She wore bunny ears and bunny tail, with toilet paper stuffed into her brassiere, her ladylike demeanour monitored at all times by the Bunny Mother. She dreams of returning, this time as Bunny Mother herself.

Beginning with the publication in 1953 of the first Playboy (with Marilyn Monroe as nude Playmate), Hefner built a business empire on an audacious approach to sex. It was the perfect moment for overturning taboos. In the courts, free speech was slowly extinguishing anti-obscenity laws. Boycotts against Hefner's magazines (or his imitators) never gathered much support from the public or the storekeepers.

Hefner liked to portray himself as a hero, much beset by enemies among the police and the politicians, but soon it became clear that his revolution had no effective opposition.

That's what we need now, in the view of Dylan van Rijsbergen. He's a historian and blogger, born in 1975, founder of a left-wing think tank that hopes to generate fresh social ideas. He sees himself as an anti-Hefner, pointing the way to a more humane view of sexuality. He speaks of the need for a Slow Sex movement -- an analogy with the Slow Food movement, whose war on industrialized food has expanded to dozens of countries since it was founded in Italy two decades ago. A Slow Sex movement would emphasize the qualities that Hefnerism ignores, focusing on sex as "elusive, exciting, intense, playful, authentic, dynamic and sublime." It would stretch sexuality "beyond the single moment of the male orgasm."

At Erasmus University Rotterdam last fall, Van Rijsbergen took part in a public meeting that discussed whether widespread pornography degenerates into erotic boredom and eventually smothers genuine desire. He wrote a kind of manifesto, Sexing the Handbag, that started with a description of a billboard in the Netherlands. It showed part of a female body, wearing nothing but a bra, with a little handbag covering the pubic area. The heading read, "Lesson 84: lead him into temptation." To Van Rijsbergen, the billboard suggested that the little bag and the vagina were interchangeable commodities standardized and ready for sale.

Behind this and millions of other images, Van Rijsbergen sees the dark genius of Hefner, whose corporation "made him incredibly rich and made sexuality incredibly boring." He casts Hefner as the Stalin of the sexual revolution, a man who suffocated us with his own narrow definitions of freedom and progress. Van Rijsbergen's essay has since been widely reproduced on the Web.

Unlike the feminists who seized on this subject a couple of decades ago (and then dropped it), Van Rijsbergen doesn't imagine that legislators, courts and police should bring the end of Hefnerism. In fact, he sees no value in restoring the old anti-obscenity laws. He wants instead to alter Hefner's heritage through literature and discussion: "Our task is to individualize and diversify the images of sexuality we see everyday."

In the 1960s, Hefner wrote a series of 25 articles, "The Playboy Philosophy," totalling 150,000 words. It pictured him as the fulcrum of change. The point was to prove that everything he did was not only legal but also progressive.

He won the argument, and the results are all around us. But what seemed to be a triumph of individualism was really the reverse. Pornography took sex from the private sphere and made it public: first the magazines, then the advertising, later popular music, then a multitude of impossible-to-ignore billboards and most recently the Internet. Eventually, this process stereotyped the image of sexuality as it exists in mass communications.

In the name of freedom, Hefner erected concrete barriers around the erotic imagination. And now, we may be watching the start of a new movement trying to batter them down. Who would have thought, half a century ago, that this one-time cultural guerilla would come to define the sexual establishment?

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