What does it mean for our collective sexual history and future when an iconic men’s magazine imagines that putting clothes on is the most radical thing it can do to remain relevant and stay in business? On Tuesday, Playboy announced that its magazine would stop publishing nude photographs of women next year in a move to speak to wider demographics and the millennial-generation consumer with PG-13 partial-nudes only. How can the same magazine that made pornography part of a national conversation allow its new corporate management to propose a sanitized, SFW, social-media-censorship-friendly commodity for men who, as the magazine’s CEO put it, live in cities and have jobs?
The truth is that Playboy has always been geared to white, middle-class professional men who live in cities and have jobs (and who can afford a subscription). Its focus on promoting high-end lifestyle products for heterosexual white men with a lot of disposable income allowed other pornographers such as Larry Flynt and Bob Guccione to argue that their more explicit aesthetics, in Hustler and Penthouse, spoke to the common man. Removing the well-placed feather boa, as well as the soft-focus lens, those other men’s magazines peeled back layers of class and taste assumptions to show that, despite Playboy’s comparative prudishness, they were all in the business of titillation for money.
Still, Playboy did appeal to a much broader audience than its advertising and brand identity suggested. Part of the magazine’s appeal was that it offered a space to envision a national, and even global, sexual politics, and to see ourselves sexually. Playboy was, during its early years, an important space to view sex as a matter of politics; the force of its critique was precisely in its coupling of the two. At a time when the sexual revolution was transforming the ways in which we could talk about and see sex in our media, Playboy published exceptional investigative journalism, interviews with luminary figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and quality fiction, all crucially interspersed with pornographic photography. It was as if the nude body was not a respite from its heavy-lifting articles on topics of the day but at home right alongside them. This strategy of blending the sexual and the political positioned Playboy firmly within a tradition of modern pornography as a form of speech and dissent. (Of course, as the saying went, no one read it for the articles!)
Part of the magazine’s political work was about race. Playboy’s first African American Playmates of the Month were Jennifer Jackson (March 1965), Jean Bell (October 1969) and Julie Woodson (April 1973). Hugh Hefner was both an innovator and follower in an age of increasing racial integration, when most sexual spaces and pornographic films kept female African American models and performers separate and unequal. Yet Playboy’s relatively slow move to capture racial diversity exposes how — at heart — it was always invested in a particular image of white womanhood for a privileged, white, heterosexual male fantasy. Even the somewhat diverse white women of the early years gave way to a purely Barbie-like image that seemed to belie Hefner’s own preferences.
In 2002, I interviewed Serria Tawan a few months after she appeared as Playmate of the Month. Tawan was proud to land such a prestigious opportunity in the modeling world and was confident that Playboy was a magazine in which women could be glamorous and sexual and not degraded. As only the 19th black model to appear as a Playmate, she was making history, too. But after the magazine was published, nothing happened. No one recognized her. No opportunities came knocking. The centerfold paid a hefty $25,000, but that was eaten up by rent in a few months. When invited to a celebration at the Playboy Mansion, she was asked to sit not with Hefner at his table but at a small overflow table off to the side.
Playboy finds itself now just as disposable as the beautiful women who have worked for it as models over the years. Noting its own falling star, Playboy believes that by “covering up,” the brand will regain some of its relevance in a society oversaturated with free hard-core porn. But I think it could have taken another route to revamp its image and consumer base. Rather than embrace self-censorship, it could have taken up the tradition of political dissent from which it emerges. It could have chosen to revolutionize pornography by prioritizing a new conversation about sex and politics in a world where access to sexual freedom is still not guaranteed. Playboy earns 40 percent of its revenue by licensing its brand in China, a nation that prohibits pornography and all forms of explicit sexual expression. Looking out for its survival, Playboy has traded the ideals that made it a cultural icon in the first place in order to sell the empty shell of its bunny-in-a-bow-tie logo.
To be fair, Playboy is facing the same issues that porn companies have faced for years. How do you make money in a landscape overflowing with free pornography? In the 1980s, when Playboy began to lose some its journalistic heft and quality, the magazine industry was already beginning to decline as print media gave way to cheap VHS tapes. By the end of the decade, the porn industry had gone from making 400 films a year to 10,000 tapes a year, at the same time that Playboy and other adult magazines lost subscriptions by the millions. Adult-industry experts lamented the porn glut and wondered how to stay alive. The most successful found ways to speak to new sexual tastes, new consumers and new cultures emerging in the 1990s and to take up new technological trends, from point-of-view recording to digital streaming to VR.
To reinvent itself today, Playboy might have looked toward the rising forces of the feminist and queer porn movement, whose DIY resourcefulness includes African American women not relegated to rare photo opportunities or sitting in the back of the Playboy Mansion but working behind the camera, like Shine Louise Houston. In courageously and creatively innovating what porn can be like — such as by featuring diverse bodies, using an artistic imagination that draws on fresh sources and prioritizing the performers’ pleasure and ethical care — Houston’s Pink and White Productions, or Tristan Taormino’s Smart Ass Productions, shows companies such as Playboy that they do not have to sacrifice sex to be sexy and that there is really value in the freedom to explore explicit sex and the nude body.
There is a generation of consumers who like their politics with their porn and will pay for it. Can companies such as Playboy take notice of the forces shaping porn consumption for millennials, or will they forfeit this important and once radical sexual culture to censorship and brand marketing? It seems it may be too late for Playboy to turn things around. Its time as cultural trailblazer is past, and those of us lamenting that fact can head to the local antique shop where they keep those old beloved magazines in a crate somewhere in the back.
But when checking out, don’t forget to ask for a brown paper bag.