An Open Letter to Playboy From Black Women

When Sojourner Truth gave her 1858 speech, she was asked to bare her breasts in front of an audience at the request of mostly white men regarded as abolitionists, demanding that Sojourner prove she was a woman. There is a white male history of demanding that women assume positions of vulnerability and expose themselves to the male gaze.

The metaphorical baring of breasts, and of the soul, as toll for access is what we witness time and time again as women attempt to redefine Playboy from within. 

The cover of the Summer 2019 issue of Playboy.

We denounce Playboy’s wielding of women, and the offering-up of trans and lesbian women, and particularly survivors of patriarchal violence as consumables, thereby reducing them to tools for a floundering misogynist, gender-capitalist project. We are not a meal ticket. Cease the practice of oppression that Black feminist, Patricia Hill Collins describes as one “which manufactures consent via an atmosphere in which we lose our ability to question and thus collude in our own subordination.” Playboy highlighting the bodies, trauma, and history of Black women is not a free ticket to escape the responsibility of addressing and rectifying their own violence. In fact, this attempt to use interviews with Black leaders as ‘woke’ credits, is an evasion of their own responsibility to the many survivors of violence at the hands of Playboy (both literally and through their perpetuation and creation of rape culture).

We understand that the decline of the publication is imminent. Its efforts to preserve readership and acquire new audiences through trojan horse tactics that infiltrate and appropriate feminism in order to satiate the desires and fetishes of those who would see activists denigrated are strategy and not repair. This has been the practiced art of war when Playboy’s survival is threatened. It hijacks feminism as its life raft or practices its own pseudo-transformation by labeling its exploits as sex positive.

Many expressed fear when we informed them we were writing an open letter to Playboy, a supposed woman-friendly, trans friendly magazine. However we ask that mainstream and global women’s movements, queer and feminist leaders hone their critique and critical resistance to what is already the entrenched opportunistic history and present catastrophe that is Playboy.

Circulation of Playboy magazine has dropped to about 474,000 as of June 30 from 5.7 million on average in 1975, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. Supporters and sponsors of Playboy who are women, we implore you to understand that conflating the meaning of “freedom” with the rampant exploitation in Playboy is neither factually accurate nor politically expedient when it comes to stemming the tide of sexual violence against women and gender-fluid people specifically. We refuse to be tricked into the trap that presents Playboy as a progressive and sex positive establishment.

We are well aware that hundreds of famous persons have interviewed with or published work in Playboy without ever changing or challenging the institution. We are talking about a magazine that also recently published an article that was in direct opposition to #MeToo, titled “The #HeToo Movement Is Finally Here”. Less than a year ago, in October of 2018 on the heels of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, via #HeToo “men stood up and defiantly argued that attempting to rape a woman is a normal part of male culture in the United States. ‘We’ve all done it!’ they proclaimed. ‘I don’t know a single man who hasn’t!’ they exclaimed.” In fact, Hugh Hefner wrote in 1970: ‘”these chicks are our natural enemy,” ordering a hit piece in his magazine on feminists. “What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart. They are unalterably opposed to the romantic boy-girl society that Playboy promotes.”

There is power in shedding light on Playboy and placing accountability on Playboy, rather than flirting with this dangerous subject. It is a powerful white man who is the CEO of Playboy and a powerful financial investment firm. It is the wealthy and the white that benefit financially from these articles. Playboy buys interviews as an evasive maneuver. We are writing this letter to stop the sexual violence intervention movement from being bamboozled by Playboy. This letter is as much to the ones working boots on the ground in the anti-violence movement. Do not be taken in, for it is ourselves that we lose when we enter arenas meant to devour us and benefit off our backs.  This is not an attack on those who have interviewed past and present. Rather it is a plea that we not allow the publishing of our voice in Playboy to be a gold-standard. The bigger issue is our survival as an anti-violence movement. 

We are concerned about the pornification of social justice movements, and in particular feminist movements. We are concerned about the rape culture within a rape culture that shows up in our movements permeating even our most revolutionary spaces.  We denounce misogyny and sexism in all their forms. 

We know the ways #MeToo has made visible the narratives of survivors of sexual abuse, amplified the silent screams and given voice to survivors at the margins and the center alike.

We also know that where this letter lands in the world gives us great concern, grief, and the urge to protect ourselves, our sisters, and the legitimacy of this movement we stand on. 

What we ask, we do not expect, unless a host of people concerned with girls rise up with us, recognizing an opportunity missed in all the recent articles published by Playboy. 

First, we want Playboy denied all access to the embodied narratives of Black girls “pussies,” their sexual play or African-based dances. If Playboy continues to pursue these narratives from Black women who are already historically marginalized by Playboy, whether they have graced its pages spread-eagle at one time or have been strategically kept out of those pages, is not our concern. Mere representation is but a moment if it does not uproot marginalization and does not change the course and discourse around power. We ask that every person who makes the choice to play with Playboy understand the complexities of choices and, for the sake of survivors, situate these narratives within the collective experiences of a people who look to social justice movement builders as guides. 

Knowing fully that it would mean the end of Playboy culture, we ask that Playboy stop leaning heavily on women and stop banking on women of color, gender non-conforming and trans women. Become survivor-centered and interrogate and pose new alternatives to mainstream discourse and stereotypes about sexual violence in particular by foreclosing on traditional editorial exploits and repairing Playboy’s violence-creating history. Instead, have the bulk of any story arc unfold, told from the perspective of fiercely disruptive advocates and activists. 

Our purpose is to distinctly (re)member the bodies (beyond a single story, beyond any individualistic agenda) of all women that are too often forgotten, caught in the crosshairs of an omnipresent and exploitative racist, patriarchal, misogynistic gaze. We write this letter fully aware of the responsibility inherent in all our local and global feminist interventions as a remembering and reclamation of ourselves from tricksters. Flipping the script explicitly and with specificity and strategy which offers a way for Black women and girls to affix a sexualized and often deadly gaze back upon Playboy is our work.

What we would hope is the script that Gloria Steinem flipped when she went undercover into Playboy in 1963, be taken a step further. We hope that the levels of exposing this major entity entail more than sitting with the devil, but instead a call to think and act critically and proactively to prevent the generational and intergenerational ramifications of glamorizing that which aims to destroy our very lives–patriarchy, misogyny, sexism in all of the aggressive and incessant ways.                   

What we would hope is that the movement would wake up to what Audre Lorde warned so many decades ago: “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.”

We ask Playboy to name various individual and systemic harm-doers, and not make Black activists or feminists do the work for them. Too often, stories about survivors of sexual violence reduce their existence to a narrative of victimhood and blame, all while rendering the harm-doer a passive or completely absent participant in both the act of violation and subsequent pursuits of justice and accountability. Thus this letter is an intentional exercise in reasserting the humanity of survivors, giving them honest, unexploited, unbought, uncontrolled right to tell their own stories; resisting in a way that contemporary rape culture does not allow. 

Playboy, we don’t believe that you deserve the best parts of any of us. We don’t believe that you deserve our Black girl experiences and our dances as fodder for consumption by a readership which often has little to no regard for Black girls and are often the buyers of Black girls.

What we would hope is that there be an understanding that simply talking about sexual violence in Playboy is not subversive enough. These times require tactic and strategy. To discuss both our traumas and our liberative acts all in one place requires first and foremost a level of delicacy and care that can truly hold the intention in its practice, and secondly, a fierce and subversive approach that would turn the very sexist, misogynist tool and accessory to rape and sexual violence that Playboy is, to turn it not merely on its head, but to turn it inside out. We would hope that any of us who would sit down for an interview to be published in Playboy magazine, would turn its features inside out, expose it, expose the violences that Playboy perpetuates in its articles, interviews, and headlines. Expose its contribution to violence. 

As #MeToo goes, so does the movement. #MeToo is a necessary part of who we have become as an anti-violence movement which until recently received no recognition. What we charge, is that community stand with us, in calling in support for #MeToo and for the anti-rape movement, lest it be pulled apart by those who would undoubtedly benefit from its demise, sending survivors back into the shadows.

About

Black Women’s Blueprint envisions a world where women and girls of African descent are fully empowered and where gender, race and other disparities are erased. We work to place Black women and girls’ lives as well as their particular struggles squarely within the context of the larger racial justice concerns of Black communities and are committed to building movements where gender matters in broader social justice organizing so that all members of our communities gain social, political and economic equity. We engage in progressive research, historical documentation, policy advocacy and organizing steeped in the struggles of Black women within their diverse communities and within dominant culture.