For better and for worse, the ‘Playboy Magazine’ of the ’70s helped shape the America of today

How coming into possession of a stack of vintage ‘Playboy’ issues caused one writer to consider the magazine’s impact on the modern world.

For better and for worse, the ‘Playboy Magazine’ of the ’70s helped shape the America of today

How coming into possession of a stack of vintage ‘Playboy’ issues caused one writer to consider the magazine’s impact on the modern world.

My brother showed up at my door last month with a stack of ‘70s-era Playboy magazines that he’d come across on the street outside my apartment. I find the history of popular magazines fascinating, so he correctly figured the Playboys would make a welcome addition to my personal library.

Though they may well have been infested with bed bugs, the old magazines proved almost charming. A gorgeous, cobalt-blue Colt 45 ad proclaimed, “Bottom’s up!” in upside down writing under an upside down beer glass, while ads for cigarettes and bell-bottoms, both equally seductive, graced every fourth page. The ratio of text to images favored the former, the weight of each magazine making me consider what the average human attention span in the US must have been before the internet. An in-depth interview with Jimmy Hoffa shortly before his disappearance made my jaw drop. (“You don’t wanna know,” he told the interviewer on-record — but with the recorder turned off — about how much money Richard Nixon got paid to get Hoffa out of prison, he claimed.)

Many of the issues’ articles were forward-thinking. A story about self-driving cars offered both quaint and surprisingly ambitious views of “the future,” describing work on an “automated guideway” in which self-driving cars would propel hundreds or thousands of commuters to work each day at 100 miles per hour — meanwhile depicting “future women” in outfits closely resembling Princess Leia’s (in)famous gold bikini. An interview about climate change seemed to defy chronology by echoing warnings we heard just yesterday regarding human population increases, declining resources, and even a defense of abortion rights. On the next page, an ad for the ACLU gives the Statue of Liberty a Hitler mustache. “It can’t happen here!” the ad reads. “Or can it?”

Everything that wasn’t charming or smartly prescient, however, horrified me. The magazine objectified women in ways I never imagined could have been socially acceptable — even as a woman who knows intimately what it’s like to be objectified. Stories referred to women as “dishes,” and the “Playboy’s Party Jokes” section included several featuring assault or rape.

Considering the magazine’s leadership at the time, none of this should have been surprising. Multiple women have accused Hugh Hefner, Playboy’s creator, of considerable misdeeds. Holly Madison, Girls Next Door star and author of Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny detailed Hefner’s abusive tendencies toward his many “girlfriends” in her book. And Linda Boreman — best known as Linda Lovelace, star of the first famous “mainstream” porn film Deep Throat — summed up Hefner’s casual bystander status to the mistreatment of women in her memoir, Ordeal, which covers years of harrowing abuse by her husband/manager, Chuck Traynor.

Hefner, according to Boreman’s book, was a fan of bestiality, and Traynor promised a live show starring Boreman and a canine — against Boreman’s will. “Hefner had no way of knowing I was there against my will, no way of realizing that I was Chuck’s prisoner,” she wrote in Ordeal. “I know I shouldn’t hold something like this against him, but it was being staged for his benefit — and he was a part of it all.”

His personal life aside, whether Hefner directly meant it or not, his magazine helped shape a culture of female sexual objectification. Its legacy has contributed to rape culture in ways that the 1970 issues makes so apparent they’re difficult to read.

Take “Just slip this into her drink,” the title of an article about “aphrodisiacs” in the August 1970 issue. In 1970, Bill Cosby allegedly slipped drugs into a beverage he gave to then aspiring actress Autumn Burns. They made Burns feel “woozy and not in control” in Cosby’s Las Vegas hotel room before he raped her, according to a 2015 statement made through Burns’s attorney, Gloria Allred. Chronologically, this marks the second assault allegation against Cosby. (Many of the dozens of allegations against Cosby adhered to similar narratives, and in April of this year, Cosby was found guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault.)

Cosby and the Playboy empire’s founder, Hugh Hefner, were friends — close enough that they’ve essentially shared court cases. After Chloe Goins alleged Cosby drugged and assaulted her at a Playboy mansion party in 2008, she filed a lawsuit against Hefner for “conspiring in the assault,” saying he’d known about Cosby’s behavior at the time and suggested she, then 17, have a drink with him. As Boreman put it, Hefner was indeed “a part of it all.”

“Just slip this into her drink…”, written by repeat Playboy contributor Frederic C. Appel, starts off sounding like straight journalism, explaining the discovery of the naturally occurring amino acid L-DOPA’s effect on sex drive and pointing out the history of mood-inducing plants — like the mandrake, which “was long widely believed to be an aphrodisiac because it often grows to resemble a human figure.” The straightforward, scientific and historical buildup of the piece is the sheep’s clothing part — the wolf comes later. It first appears subtly, in the phrase “having a woman,” a clear but then colloquially forgivable objectification. The article then goes on to suggest another candidate for a drug aphrodisiac, PCPA. “In short,” the piece’s author concludes, “PCPA is not a feasible drug with which to ply one’s inhibited girlfriend.”

The article’s points grow progressively troubling. A medical doctor is quoted suggesting the remedy for a “frigid” marriage is for “the wife to take off her clothes immediately” during arguments. (It’s important to keep in mind that medicine during the ’70s was heavily dominated by men, while the few women who entered the field faced rampant misogyny, as did female patients.) Ultimately unable to come up with a qualifying aphrodisiac, Appel ends by suggesting alcohol for “effectively…lowering the defenses without clobbering the central nervous system.” The idea of women having “defenses” that need to “lowered” is a dangerous way for men to be told to approach sex, but you hear it echoed across fraternities, dive bars, and dance parties today.

Playboy’s objectification of women was so insidious because it was embedded in otherwise relatively highbrow journalism. In that same Playboy issue, one of the last Janis Joplin profiles to have been written during her short lifetime both captures her complexities as a human and an artist, yet features the writer getting “treated to an arresting imprint of her panties” when she bends over to warm up for a set. (Joplin is not the only woman in the story whom the writer, John Bowers, enjoys watching bend over.)

The “feminist movement” was still nascent in 1970. States were just beginning to adopt rape shield laws, which limit how much courts can ask about rape survivors’ sexual histories during their rapists’ trials. That same decade, activists started campaigning to make spousal rape illegal. It only became criminal in all 50 states in 1993.

Listen to an interview with Jess Klein for more thoughts on the influence of 'Playboy Magazine' and the #MeToo movement on The Outline World Dispatch.

By 1970, Playboy had strongly advocated for abortion rights, publishing detailed letters from women who’d undergone traumatizing, illegal abortions. Hefner felt that he was promoting the idea of the “Playgirl” as an “equal to the Playboy,” Claire Potter, a history professor at The New School who specializes in gender, sexuality, and media, told me over the phone from Poland, where she’s teaching classes on the contemporary “politics of fiction and reality.” She said that, “[The Playgirl] was also smart and wanted sex without commitments like the Playboys, so Hefner thought he was promoting gender equality.”

Hefner’s goal was to promote a new cultural norm in which women had roles other than “homemaker.” This came with Playboy’s encouragement of “a thriving singles scene” and “sexual permissiveness,” wrote Elizabeth Fraterrigo, a Loyola University Chicago history professor who’s studied the publication extensively, in a 2010 Washington Post article about Playboy’s legacy.

By 1970, Hefner had also had “two really important encounters with feminists, said Claire Potter. In 1963, Gloria Steinem (not yet self-identified as a feminist) went undercover as a Playboy Bunny and exposed the poor working conditions and rampant sexual harassment that took place at Hefner’s Playboy Clubs in an article for Show Magazine. A few years later, Hefner appeared on The Dick Cavett Show with early feminist Susan Brownmiller, who would go on to write Against Our Will, a in-depth investigation into rape. As Hefner defended Playboy’s “gender-equal” vision, Brownmiller countered, “The day that you are willing to come out here with a cotton tail attached to your rear end...”

After that, Hefner felt that the feminists had “turned on him,” said Potter. “He was an ally, and they were identifying him as an enemy.” Magazines like Playboy also served as weapons in the fight against women’s agency. For example, Potter told me, as women started entering high-paying, blue-collar industries (like becoming electricians), male colleagues would harass and intimidate them by filling their lockers with Playboy centerfolds — one of many examples that clearly complicate Hefner’s “alliance” with women.

Still, Hefner’s engagement with 1970s feminists made them media stars, too. The fact that he participated in discussions with them at all, like on The Dick Cavett Show, “made feminism a serious contender in American culture that people had to pay attention to and take seriously,” according to Potter. Hefner and Playboy helped give feminists a platform from which the masses could hear their culture-changing ideas.

Playboy still does this. Sociologist and author Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals has published several pieces on Playboy.com, featuring sexually empowered feminists and cover the adult industry’s many complexities. “I do not think that ‘shouting into an echo chamber’ or only writing to like-minded, relative peers is the way to enact social change or contribute to a more inclusive world,” Dr. Tibbals told me over email. “So, rather than write for places one may expect, I opted to write for Playboy [...] as a way to ideally reach a broader audience.” [Disclosure: I have also had a piece published on Playboy.com.]

Playboy.com has covered the #MeToo movement — sometimes in a way that called to mind Hefner’s original, tone-deaf concept of the “Playgirl.” One article published in May 2018 stars a “rock and roll-era groupie” who holds dear her I’m-with-the-band days even in light of #MeToo — which is all well and good (much better than the alternative), but it can be read as if Playboy trying to change the subject. Another 2018 story suggests that women should pursue men “in the #MeToo era.” In other words, when men make “mistakes” (like sexually assaulting and harassing women), it’s on women to change their behavior to accommodate.

“Not unlike many other publications with a long history, Playboy today seems to be trying,” wrote Dr. Tibbals. As in, they’re “trying to evolve within the rapidly changing cultural landscape, trying to remain relevant within the context of front-facing media while also staying connected to an established readership…” She reminded me that the magazine published fiction by Margaret Atwood in 1991. Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale six years earlier, which Hulu revived with a series now so popular it prompted the streaming service to, in yet another example of a media company’s tone-deaf response to a cultural moment, make Handmaid-branded wine and then immediately cancel said Handmaid-branded wine due to the backlash.

The Handmaid’s Tale series has been used as satire in reaction to the current Trump era, a time in which Roe v. Wade is under threat and the president’s been granted impunity for admitting to sexually assaulting women on tape. Men like Donald Trump grew up with Playboy. He still brags about his 1990 cover when he gets the chance. “I was one of the few men in the history of Playboy to be on the cover,” Trump told The Washington Post, much to Hugh’s son, Cooper Hefner’s, chagrin (In that same piece, Cooper told the Post he finds the cover “a personal embarrassment”).

But the magazine today is very different than it was just 28 years ago. Dr. Tibbals cited the publication’s “thoughtful content that I certainly think pushes on the edges of their readership,” adding, “Playboy today might not be a radical publication in terms of social awareness, but sometimes the greatest change comes from gentle, slow, and/or small nuggets of information and nudges in thought. I think Playboy is working to those ends within the context of their readership.”

While Playboy may have crucially shaped cultural and gender norms in 1970, today it has the power to shift ideas about those norms. That power lies in having cultivated an audience base that maybe could use a “nudge.” Cooper, who now has creative control over the magazine, has the potential to carry on the better parts of his father’s legacy. He regularly discusses the realities of climate change on Twitter, and he decries the ideologies of Trump — once a regular at the Playboy mansion.

However, if you search “Bill Cosby” on Playboy.com, you’ll find only two articles referencing him at all. While the relative lack of coverage of Cosby’s rape allegations and guilty verdict is no endorsement of the August 1970 issue’s suggestion of “just slipping this into her drink,” it’s not a rallying cry against it, either. One nudge in thought at a time...