Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Empire Was Built on the Abuse of Women

Behind the carefully polished veneer of Playboy, life for the women under Hugh Hefner’s rule looked like a typical scene on Pornhub: sexual slavery. This is his enduring legacy.

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Hugh Hefner and Cynthia Maddox, a Playboy cover girl, arrive in New York on a superjet from Chicago on Jan. 29, 1962. (Tullio Saba / Public Domain)

I am a feminist,” boasted Hugh Hefner, the iconic founder of Playboy.  But the first two episodes of a new the documentary series that premiered January 24 on A&E, Secrets of Playboy, showed what feminists always knew: Hefner was a vile misogynist. 

Feminism was never about presenting women as sex objects or, as Hefner and his magazine called them, “Playmates.” Nor would feminism ask “Bunnies,” dressed in hypersexualized costumes, to serve drinks to men in Playboy Clubs. And now, as many saw the other night on television, we have irrefutable proof that Hefner’s empire was built on the horrific abuse of women. 

The entire Playboy mystique, as one of Hefner’s ex-girlfriends, Holly Madison, stated on the show, “was all a lie.” Or as Jennifer Saginor, who grew up in the Playboy Mansion, said upon recalling dazed “girls” on the floor “like they’re animals,” this “wasn’t about empowerment of women. It was about the breaking down of a woman.”

To be sure, Hefner was a brilliant businessman. He was the first to mass market porn on an industrial level as fun, glitzy and respectable. With the launch of Playboy in 1953, Hefner transformed the shadowy peepshow into an entertainment juggernaut that attracted mainstream corporate advertisers. 

The American post-war economy was booming in the 1940s and 1950s. But how did one teach people, raised to save every penny during the Great Depression and World War Two, to suddenly spend like there’s no tomorrow? Soap operas and advertisers trained women. But it was Hefner’s Playboy that coached men of the up-and-coming white middle class on how to spend their new-found disposable income. 

The American post-war economy was booming in the 1940s and 1950s. Hefner’s Playboy coached men of the up-and-coming white middle class on how to spend their new-found disposable income. 

The consumerism promoted by Playboy played an important role in redefining what it meant to be a man. Instead of the classic Western image of rough, tough masculinity, the “playboy” was more like James Bond, suave and surrounded by expensive cars, flashy gadgets and especially barely-clothed fawning women. Hefner’s recipe for commodifying women’s sexuality while sexualizing commodities made him and Playboy a huge success. 

Playboy was the first popular lifestyle magazine for men, at a time when women could choose from a variety of newsstand offerings, such as Cosmopolitan and Ladies Home Journal. Of course, Playboy’s true message was that if you followed Hefner’s advice, you would not only live the good life, but also get the real prize: the woman in the centerfold. She was never too exotic, never too Hollywood, never too much out-of-reach; she was, as Hefner liked to call her, the ‘girl next door.’ 

Hefner was always concerned about image, especially his own. He insisted on developing a literary side of Playboy, so that men would think of themselves as buying an intellectual lifestyle magazine. The joke was, “I read it for the articles.” However, as one Playboy senior editor admitted, the centerfolds sold the periodical. Take them out and the “magazine would die like a dog.”

Hugh Hefner insisted on developing a literary side of Playboy, so that men would think of themselves as buying an intellectual lifestyle magazine. The joke was, “I read it for the articles.”

Hefner became the darling of high society and the media. He gave lavishly to progressive causes, enlivened fashionable parties, and interviewed on major talk shows. He was celebrated as the prophet of the “sexual revolution” that would free women from medieval prudishness. But it wasn’t luxury, sensuality or independence that Hefner was selling. He was only ever hawking old-fashioned misogyny. 

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Hugh Hefner after a tennis game at the Playboy Mansion in 1977. (RV1864 / Flickr)

Hefner’s Playboy Mansion has long been romanticized as a carnal Shangri-La. In reality, as we learned watching Secrets of Playboy, it was an imperial brothel where “King Hef” and his princeling cronies drugged and raped young women. Hefner fed “his girls” quaaludes—or “thigh openers,” as he liked to joke. He controlled their financial and social lives, imposed curfews and screamed if they violated his cult-like standards of dress and appearance; needless to say, plastic surgery was “compulsory.”

Hefner concealed cameras and microphones in all the rooms and throughout the grounds, collecting what Holly Madison called a “mountain of revenge porn.” She and the other women feared that if they disobeyed his command, left the mansion, or spoke to the press, Hefner would have no qualms about releasing those images. It was so bad, reported Madison in the show, that “I drank heavily every night…it was my way of coping.”

Hefner’s Playboy Mansion was an imperial brothel where “King Hef” and his princeling cronies drugged and raped young women.

Despite his carefully curated image as a lover of “girls,” Hefner actually treated women worse than the animals that freely roamed his estate. He forced Linda Marchiano, who was raped repeatedly in the making of Deep Throat, to engage in bestiality with a dog. 

From the very beginning of his empire, as one of the authors of this column discussed in her book, Hefner made clear that the firming-up of patriarchy was his goal, not establishing some feminist utopia. As evidence, consider the premiere issue of Playboy, which famously featured Marilyn Monroe on the cover. But she never consented to appear in the magazine. The pictures were taken several years before when Monroe, unknown and penniless, needed to make a car payment. But Hefner didn’t take no for an answer from any woman. For using the photos, he paid some company 10 times what she earned from posing, and gave her nothing. And he continued to hound Monroe even in death, insisting on being buried next to her—a woman who never consented to his advances in the first place. 

Hefner was no feminist. His actions clearly demonstrated a deep loathing towards women. His only goals were profit and self-pleasure at the expense of the “girls” he brutalized. In ‘academic-ese,’ we would say that Hefner inscribed his sadistic pleasures onto the bodies of young women, whom he claimed as his own property, to buy and sell as he pleased. In so doing, he denied them the one essential premise of feminism: their liberation from male sexual control.

“These chicks are our natural enemy,” Hefner once wrote about feminists in an internal memo. “We must destroy them before they destroy the Playboy way of life.”  He was right. And feminism must do exactly that—destroy the misogyny that Hefner lived. Behind the carefully polished veneer of Playboy, life for the women under Hefner’s rule looked like a typical scene on Pornhub: sexual slavery. This is his enduring legacy.

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About and

Gail Dines, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of sociology, and president of Culture Reframed. Her latest book, Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked Our Sexuality, has been translated into five languages.
Eric Silverman, Ph.D., is a former professor of anthropology and is also affiliated with the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.