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Carrie Pitzulo does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. Over the nearly 70 years since Hugh Hefner, who died recently at the age of 91, laid out the first issue of Playboy on his kitchen table, the magazine and his personal lifestyle embodied the ultimate expression of heterosexual male privilege and sexual freedom.

Because he was surrounded by young, beautiful women well into old age, celebrants saw in Hefner an almost heroic figure who challenged American sexual puritanism, fought for free speech and lived the ultimate straight male fantasy. Othersespecially many feminists, lambasted him for objectifying and exploiting women. I was given unprecedented access to the Playboy company archives in Chicagoand had the opportunity to speak with Hefner about his politics and philosophy.

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I also spoke to the editors and centerfold Playmates from the era. After years of research, I came to the conclusion that the sexual politics of Hefner and his magazine were much more complicated than most observers — for or against — have acknowledged. InHugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, was an ordinary man living an ordinary life. He had everything a middle-class man was supposed to want, including a wife and children.

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But Hefner felt constrained by the conservative post-World War II culture that pressured men like him into traditional domestic life. His vision was not of a mere magazine, but of a total lifestyle for himself. He fantasized about fun-filled days and sex-filled nights, freed from the obligations of marriage and fatherhood. His genius was in imagining that other men had the same dreams — even if he was the only one who would make that fantasy a reality.

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The first issue of Playboy, in Decemberfeatured nude Marilyn Monroe photographs, a cosmic stroke of luck for Hefner when he acquired them from the Baumgarth Company, who owned the rights to the prestardom Monroe photos. The magazine flew off the stands.

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Subsequently, it grew in popularity so quickly that Hefner had to skip an issue in in order to expand his production capacity. He wanted to make discussions of sex and nude pictorials respectable to bring them out of the proverbial gutter and onto the coffee tables of middle-class Americans. So he paired sexuality with the various other interests he imagined that a hip, urban man might desire — jazz music, highbrow fictionfashion, decorating and cooking tipsand by the s, progressive politics and cutting-edge interviews. Of course, it was the sex that most people associate with Playboy, in particular the Playmate centerfolds.

They argued that Hefner was a chauvinist who exploited young women for his own sexual and financial gain. They pointed to the nudes as evidence of the ways in which Playboy prioritized mostly white male heterosexual power and privilege. The Playmates, in this way, seem to say that women are only as valuable as as their sexual attractiveness to men. Those interpretations are not wrong, however, I would argue that they are incomplete. The Looking for playmate women offered many, often competing, messages. Hefner did not just promote hedonistic sex, but supported loving, committed relationships.

In the prominent letters-to-the-editor columns, Hefner and his staff held a constant dialogue with their millions of readers about social, sexual, and political issues. They offered advice regarding the personal questions that were submitted. Over and over, readers were told that mutual respect and dignity were crucial to mature, loving relationships.

Both men and women were steered away from infidelity. Men were told that they needed to take responsibility for unplanned pregnancies. Hefner created a formulaic look that stood apart from the existing sex magazines of the time, which tended to be degrading, cheap and shaming. In those brown bag publications, nude pictures were of nameless, thoroughly objectified women with vacant eyes — bodies to be consumed.

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Hefner portrayed the models as real human beings in recognizable settings, such as getting ready for work, and included biographical sketches and secondary photos that showed them in their daily lives. The women were college students, aspiring actresses or secretaries. In some cases, he even showed them, in accompanying photos, in their role as daughters — having Sunday dinner with their parents.

Rather than objectifying, Hefner consciously attempted to humanize the women who appeared in Playboy.

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Hefner told his readers that the Playmates were the types of women they might find at the office, on the subway or in the library. Through the s of Playboy, Hefner helped shift cultural conversations about appropriate feminine sexuality — for better and for worse. Certainly, there was sexism too. One can find much evidence of it in the s of Playboy, in the s and early s — including explicitly hostile, anti-women articles. They were the product of a very conservative time in which men and especially women were expected to uphold strict standards of sexual propriety. In those early years of Playboy, the centerfolds offered readers an expanded vision of female sexuality.

No doubt, it served the needs of the randy bachelor. But many readers — including women — appreciated the freer, more modern view of heterosexuality that Hefner promoted. Indeed, after the upheavals of the sincluding the sexual revolution and feminismthe commercialized sex offered in Playboy would have a different meaning. In the late 20th century, the centerfolds seemed like a throwback to a more sexist time.

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Plymouth Contemporary — Plymouth, Devon. Edition: Available editions United Kingdom. Carrie PitzuloColorado State University.

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Looking Back at the Most Important Women in Hugh Hefner's Life