Playboy magazine’s first Letter from the Editor, published in 1953, read like this: “If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex …”
If Playboy has accurately conceptualized one of the glaring ways internet pornography has cheapened sexual nudity, it has utterly failed at offering a solution and has attempted to commercialize one.I was not surprised when Playboy announced the company would be discontinuing the publication of nude photos in their printed magazine (something they’d already implemented on their web content). While on its surface it may seem like a surprising move, it’s one that falls in line with Playboy’s vision. Since its inception in the 1950s, it seems Hugh Hefner’s magazine has attempted two things—to push the boundaries of acceptable sexuality in America and to frame the illicit content as somehow gentlemanly. It was a vision that flew in the face of both the American notion of sexuality and culture at the time, and, perhaps for that reason, it is a vision that resonated deeply with the people who began to consume it.
“For a generation of American men, reading Playboy was a cultural rite, an illicit thrill consumed by flashlight,” Ravi Somaiya said in his piece on the changes at Playboy for the New York Times. The decision to forego nude images of women does not abandon the original vision for Playboy’s brand, and it’s possible that it in fact more accurately embodies what it set out to be.
“You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture,” said Scott Flanders, Playboy’s chief executive, of the decision. Cory Jones, Playboy’s chief content officer, added that the new content (which will be implemented in March 2016) will be “a little more accessible, a little more intimate.”
Make no mistake, when Jones’ new vision for Playboy magazine is implemented in March the content will be every bit as pornographic as it always has been. Its move away from nudity should not be conflated with a move away from sexuality; it is not. Adding a few pieces of clothing to the women who pose for Playboy is not easing away from a culture that routinely objectifies women for commercial gain. Though our culture has so thoroughly sexualized nudity that it’s difficult to imagine the concepts as separate entities, they do exist apart from one another. Women are frequently nude in ways that are not sexual and sexualized in manners other than nudity. Utilizing clothed women to pornographic ends is not a cultural win; it’s really not even culturally unique.
Playboy’s new product will be the same thing it has always been, and the only thing that separates it from every other seedy hole on the internet is its renewed attempt to parade as gentlemanly. And this attempt is only indicative of a supply and demand problem: Playboy peddles illicit sexual experiences, but the internet has made illicit sexual experiences about as accessible as running water. What better way to create perceived value than to market their content as a somehow more elite, holistic experience—superior to the ones many currently experience by the faint glow of the new iPhone6? In other words, Playboy is attempting to do with pornography what Perrier did with water.
This shouldn’t be surprising. In fact, Playboy executives have not even attempted to veil their attempts to re-market a dying brand. What is more shocking is the fact that, whether they intended to or not, Playboy executives have hit on a deeply needed, frequently ignored truth of sexuality. If you tilt your head and squint your eyes just enough, Cory Jones’ description of Playboy’s new content as “a little more intimate” looks a bit like what God intended for sexuality to be—personal, made exciting by its intimacy and the vulnerability of laying oneself bare before another. Sexual nudity was intended to be shared in the context of a relationship, in tandem with someone’s personhood. That is what makes it unique; that is what makes it valuable.
But if Playboy has accurately conceptualized one of the glaring ways internet pornography has cheapened sexual nudity, it has utterly failed at offering a solution. And, of course, they did not aim to offer a solution, they attempted to commercialize one. They seem to understand that intimacy is what makes nudity valuable, but if they know intimacy cannot be commercially distributed they’re okay with peddling a knock-off version. If they know a pornographic magazine cannot be existentially valuable they’re just fine with it being commercially viable.
“We enjoy…inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex …” Echoes of Heffner’s vision are still rattling around our cultural canyon 62 years later. Yes, the accessibility of pornography is a direct descendent of this vision, but there are others. Sexting, whose participants get their thrills not by the consumption of a stranger’s nude body, but of an acquaintance’s, mirrors Heffner’s vision. “Netflix and chill” which, astoundingly, does not really mean to “Netflix and chill”, is a 21st century version of a quiet discussion of Nietzsche, jazz, and sex. And though Heffner may have been one of the first to create a product that capitalizes on this vision, he is not the first one to have it. Perhaps every human being to exist outside the fall has been tempted by a sexual experience that misses the mark; one that brings its feet close to the fire of intimacy but veers stage right before it can truly encounter the sort of relationship intimacy requires.
Sexual nudity might seem uniquely luxurious outside of relationship. It might seem cultured and gentlemanly. But it cannot be anything more than that, and cultured pornography is still just pornography.
I don’t know if Playboy’s new marketing tactic will work; frankly, it’s somewhat inconsequential at this point. Whether or not Playboy continues to exist as a company, it will probably always exist as a brand. The dominoes it helped set in motion will continue to fall, and, really, maybe Playboy was only ever a domino in a long line of others anyway.