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Perspective: Good riddance to Playboy mentality. It harmed a generation of women

Young women were told it was fun and empowering to be promiscuous. Now older, they’re speaking out about how that felt

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Publisher Hugh Hefner, second from left, poses in front of his new DC-9 jet with some unidentified women in February 1970.

Publisher Hugh Hefner, second from left, poses in front of his new DC-9 jet with some unidentified women in February 1970.

Associated Press

The prevailing cultural message as I grew up into a young woman was that having multiple sexual partners was fun and empowering. Not only that, promiscuity was my right as a woman, and practically an obligation, thanks to the hard work of feminists who came before me.

Mine was the generation raised on “Sex and the City” and the reality show “The Girls Next Door,” which was about the supposedly glamorous and carefree lives of the women living with Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion.

That model of sexuality has crumbled a great deal since “The Girls Next Door” went off the air in 2010, most recently because of a viral essay from a former Playboy columnist and the admissions of former stars who shed light on the dark sides of life in the mansion with the octogenarian Hefner. 

On their new tell-all podcast “Girls Next Level,” former Playboy bunnies Bridget Marquardt and Holly Madison got graphic about the experience of living with Hefner, who died in 2017 at the age of 89.

Madison said, “I just remember feeling so gross and so used.”

Marquardt agreed. “I feel like ‘icky’ is the best way to describe it because I just felt yuck all around, and I felt crazy lonely.”

Contrast this with how Madison and Marquardt portrayed their experiences at the time in the E! network series: a loving relationship with Hefner, who they considered both a friend and a father figure.

The series rarely delved into the physical relationship between the man and a gaggle of women young enough to be his granddaughters. The show’s producers knew that it was cringe-worthy to imagine the scenarios that were playing out behind closed doors and left that aspect largely off screen and unspoken.

But the reality is, these women weren’t treated as a friend or a daughter (or granddaughter) by either Hefner, or the show’s producers. They were merely pieces of meat, to be used and disposed of for the enjoyment of not just the “Playboy” mogul, but for a voyeuristic audience as well.  

It’s unimaginable now that this “free” sex could be one of the the end goals of the sexual revolution, which left women valued only for how they could be used physically. This realization is behind a new book by Louise Perry making waves among those reevaluating the sexual revolution. It’s called “The Case Against the Sexual Revolution.”

A friend of mine, a former Playboy columnist who writes under the pseudonym Bridget Phetasy, recently said that she was moved to tears by the dedication, which is “for the women who learned it the hard way.”

Phetasy wrote, “Unlike many other people who have read and reviewed Perry’s work, reading her book wouldn’t be some academic exercise in contemplating how liberal feminism has let women down. 

“I’m a case study for her thesis. A cautionary tale.” She went on to say, “I know regretting most of my sexual encounters is not something a sex-positive feminist who used to write a column for ‘Playboy’ is supposed to admit.” 

It’s indeed a difficult admission to make, and one that Phetasy should be applauded for making.

While the former Playboy Mansion residents are making headlines for dishing about their experiences, they aren’t clearly evaluating (at least not in public) what it was about their experiences that made them feel such revulsion. It wasn’t just that they were expected to be physical with an elderly man.

There was fault in the culture, and in the lies told to them. They had been told, just like I was, that it’s empowering and fun to live a life without boundaries with regard to the most intimate experience that a human being can have. They found out later how wrong this thinking was.

In her piece, Phetasy went on to offer advice for the next generation of women, including her new daughter:

“Don’t ignore that nagging gut instinct telling you ‘sexual liberation’ leaves you feeling unfulfilled. You can still be sex-positive and accept that for you, sex can’t be liberated from intimacy and a meaningful relationship.” 

This is a message that would lead to bankruptcy for the Playboy empire, but it’s one that those intimately involved in its operation over decades have come to realize and vocalize.

That bankruptcy isn’t just financial; it’s also the bankruptcy of its influence and power over American society and future generations of young men and women first forming their impressions of sexuality and intimacy. Good riddance to the Playboy mentality. There’s still some of its loathsome residue around, but thanks to people like Phetasy and Perry, our daughters and granddaughters will know to avoid it.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”