Hugh Hefner and the Feminist Sex Wars

In this post, Beverly Yuen Thompson looks at the significance of Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy Magazine, in light of his recent passing. He introduced and marketed a magazine of nude women, literary articles, and interviews with cultural icons to the American mainstream man. The feminist movement responded to Playboy, and pornography in general, in what came to be called “the sex wars,” arguing many different sides on women, sexuality, and representation.  

On September 27, 2017, Hugh Hefner, creator of Playboy Magazine, died in his Playboy Mansion, near Beverly Hills, California, at age 91.

Playboy Empire

Hugh Hefner
In the post-WWII 1950s, Hugh Hefner detoured from the traditional life in which he was raised. His parents were strict Methodists. He joined the army, married the woman he lost his virginity to, had two children, and worked as a journalist. But, he wondered, is this all there is? He asked his conservative bookkeeper father for a loan to start a men’s magazine and explained his vision—not just nude women, it would have literary essays and interviews with cultural icons, but his father turned him down as a bad investment. However, his mother took him aside, and said she would loan him $1,000 from the money she had made as a worker during the war (when women were recruited to replace male workers, i.e. Rosie the Riveter). With $8,000 total collected from various places, Hefner was able to publish the first edition of his magazine in 1953, at age twenty-seven, and it sold 52,000 copies. In 1959, he and his first wife divorced and he began his life as the playboy that he promoted in his magazine.

Hefner did not invent the nudie magazine, but was a successful marketer, selling a conspicuous consumption lifestyle of the conceived of playboy image based on the male ego—Hefner’s ego—hosting parting with exciting people in fancy apartments, dressed in the right clothes, and surrounded by many beautiful objects, including women who appeared straight from the 1930s films on which Hefner grew up. Women’s bodies became an object that he could package and sell for his profit, while not adequately compensating their labor or humanity.

At the magazine’s peak, it sold 7 million copies. The backlash of the 1980s and the rise of widespread pornography lead to a decline for the Playboy Magazine, which always tried to distinguish itself by including writing by contemporary authors, interviews with notable historical figures, and artfully done nude photographs of women.

Gloria Steinem, Undercover Bunny

In 1963, journalist Gloria Steinem went undercover for Show Magazine for which she applied to become a bunny in the New York Playboy Club and wrote about the process in a two-piece expose series. She used her grandmother’s name Marie Ochs and went through the process of being sized up by women managers who would decide if she had the right body, appearance, and docile personality to make it as a drink-and-food server in the club for the lunch and dinner crowds of men, and occasionally, their girlfriends and wives. The ad promised women $300 a week and an entry into a glamorous lifestyle. However, the reality was more one of unfair labor practices, sexual harassment, and low pay. Steinem went on to become a leader in the 1970s feminist movement and challenged the sexism inherent in how women were treated in all levels of their work and personal lives—including such objectification of women’s bodies in media. This journalist stunt would be a landmark occasion in her career as a journalist and a feminist activist….

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Kate Millett and Second Wave Feminism

In this post, Beverly Yuen Thompson looks at the significance of the recently deceased author Kate Millett’s impact on second wave feminism with her popular book, Sexual Politics (1970), Millett popularized the concept of patriarchy by using a personal understanding of everyday gender relations and literary representation.

On September 6, 2017, feminist author Kate Millett passed away at age 82 while on a celebratory birthday trip in Paris, away from their New York City home, with her wife, Sophie Keir. Millett was most-known for her PhD dissertation, which was later published as the popular book Sexual Politics. This book became a center-stone for the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s. In it, she critiqued the patriarchal representations in the literary works of authors such as Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, and D. H. Lawrence, as well as the imbalance of power in everyday mixed-gender interactions.

Popularizing ‘Patriarchy’

Her book popularized the concept of patriarchy, which is a system of institutional and social power that is passed down through men, systems where men or their interests routinely hold power, or a social order based on male lines of family descent. Millett argued that interactions between men and women, especially those around family relations, were inherently patriarchal, and benefitted men’s power in the household over women. Such inequalities are present in a couple’s interactions, from men earning more money, to women burdened with the majority of the child and house care. More equal relationships could be found if women were partners with each other, as lovers and comrades.

Sexuality represented another division in the feminist movement, popularized by the slogan “feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.” Millett published her book Sita in 1977, which was a personal memoir about a female lover and her exploration of her own sexuality. Her writing also explored her own mental health issues, such as her book The Loony-Bin Trip in 1990, which dealt with her bipolar diagnosis. This book also shows how institutional discrimination has historically been used in labeling women mentally ill, especially those who fought for their independence and equality….

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Confessions of a Secret Emo Kid

Chester Bennington, lead singer of the band Linkin Park, took his life last week. In this essay, Nathan Palmer reflects on the social pressure he felt to hide his feelings (and love for Linkin Park) and how he came to embrace being an “emo kid.”

I had to read the headline three times before my brain could make sense of it. It knocked the wind out of me when it finally registered. Chester Bennington was gone. He took his own life.

When my emotions flooded in and took over, I did what I had done so many times before; I put my headphones on and listened to Linkin Park. Chester and his bandmates composed songs that remain the soundtrack to my feelings. Chester’s lyrics of pain and trauma had always carried weight, but now they were haunting.

I have been a Linkin Park fan since their debut album, but I’m ashamed to admit that I kept my fandom secret. In 2000 when their first album came out, the band was part of the rap/rock hybrid genre called “Nu Metal” which included cheesy acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. I liked almost all of these Nu Metal artists, but the entire genre quickly fell out of favor. Nu Metal became a guilty pleasure that I kept between me and my iPod.

Linkin Park’s sound evolved, and as their Nu Metal peers faded away, they continued to make great music (their One More Light was the number one album on the Billboard 200 last month). Despite their popularity, or perhaps because of it, critics mocked Linkin Park for most of their career. Online and amongst the people I hung out with in my youth, being a fan of Linkin Park wasn’t cool. Linkin Park fans were thought to be “emo kids" who moped around with black hair and finger nails blaming everyone other than themselves for how awful they perpetually felt. “Cheer up emo kid” memes tied to the band (like this one) were used to smack down anyone who dared to give voice to their feelings. As soon as I learned of the grief Linkin Park fans faced, I kept my love of the band a secret.

I’m a Two Faced Man

I have (at least) two selves; the one that I am on the inside and the one that I show other people. When I was a little kid I, for the most part, said what I thought, felt what I felt, and did what I wanted to do. As I grew up and began to care about what others thought of me, I learned that there were parts of my self that I would be ridiculed, ostracized, or punished for expressing. If I wanted to fit in, be popular, impress people, or just be left alone, I had to craft a public persona that conformed to my friends and family’s expectations.

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Trump’s Locker Room Talk: Proving Masculinity Through Objectification

In this essay Amanda Fehlbaum uses Quinn’s concept of girl-watching to analyze Donald Trump’s vulgar remarks about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent.

If you have been paying attention to the 2016 presidential election, you have likely seen or heard the leaked 2005 “Access Hollywood” footage of Donald Trump and Billy Bush making lewd and vulgar remarks about women. Trump was on the program because he taped a cameo appearance on the daytime soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” For the majority of the video, Trump and Bush are on a bus and they are not visible; however, their comments are recorded because both were wearing microphones that were recording at the time.

According to a transcript from The New York Times, Trump talks about how he tried to sleep with “Access Hollywood” host Nancy O’Dell, and then denigrates her appearance. Bush points out the actress Arianne Zucker with whom Trump shared his scene on “Days of Our Lives.” Bush says to Trump “your girl’s hot” and notes, “The Donald has scored!” At one point, Trump describes kissing women without their consent and grabbing women by their genitals.

After Bush and Trump exit the bus, Bush encourages Zucker to give “a little hug for the Donald” and “a little hug for the Bushy.” She gives both hugs. Bush mentions that it is difficult to walk next to a man like Trump and later asks Zucker to choose whether she would rather go on a date with himself or Trump. She declines to choose and says she would take both of them.

The airing of the leaked footage has had an impact on all involved. Both O’Dell and Zucker responded by releasing statements condemning the comments and the objectification of women. Bush issued a statement, writing that he was embarrassed and ashamed and, while there is no excuse, he “was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along.” He was fired from “The Today Show.” Trump issued a statement video in which he said, “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it, it was wrong, and I apologize.” He encouraged viewers to live “in the real world” and see the tape as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues.” The comments also had an impact on the public at large. After Trump and Bush’s comments were leaked, thousands of women shared their sexual assault stories on Twitter….

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“I Can’t Walk In These Shoes”: How Culture Manifests in the Material World

In this piece, Nathan Palmer asks us to consider how the non-material aspects of our culture can be seen in the material objects of our culture.

“Can you drop me off at the front door, I can’t walk in these shoes?” my wife asked on the way to a recent wedding ceremony. As we sipped drinks during the reception that followed, my wife told me she was cold. I offered her my suit jacket, draped it over her shoulders, and wrapped my arm around her. At the end of the night, I offered to pick her up at the door so she could avoid the walk and the cold outside.

This routine, which my wife and I have enacted many times, is mundane. However, by “seeing the familiar as strange” and critically thinking about the mundanity of our daily lives, we can uncover the influences that society has on our individual lives. Believe it or not, this mundane routine can help us see how the non-material aspects of culture manifest themselves inside the material objects of our culture.

The Two Sides of Culture

Every culture contains material and non-material elements. The ideas, beliefs, values, ideologies, and rituals are the central non-material elements of culture. These are the aspects of culture that clearly live inside our minds. Material culture, on the other hand, exists outside of our heads. This would include, the clothing, foods, tools, and every other object common to the people of a particular culture.

Non-Material Cultural Aspects of Gender Performance

An ideology central to many cultures contends that men and women are distinct and separate categories (Blair-Loy 2003). From this mindset, the differences between men and women lead to differences in how each behaves. Masculinity is a collection of personal characteristics and behaviors that our culture teaches us to associate with males. Likewise, femininity consists of the characteristics and behaviors we assign to and expect of females. As we’ve talked on this site before, both the distinction between males and females and the corresponding expectations about masculinity and femininity are social constructions. They are not inevitable facts of nature, but stories our culture teaches us (Ridgeway 2011).

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Sex is a Social Construction, Even if the Olympics Pretends it’s Not

What is your biological sex? That may seem like an easy question to answer, but it’s not. In our day-to-day lives, we often look at a person’s gender and assume their biological sex is inline with our cultural expectations (i.e. feminine people are females, masculine people are males). However, as the transgender community makes clear, the outward presentation of your gender is a matter separate from your genitalia.

Even if you could see a person’s genitals, you couldn’t identify them as male or female. Genitals may be an important part of how society defines our biological sex, but so too are our chromosomes, hormones, reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics [1]. There are many people who have genitals that society associates with males or females, but one or more of their other sex attributes do not comply with our social expectations. Today, we call these people intersex.

I’m guessing that some of you reading this think I’m being fancy here or that I am overcomplicating something that is dead simple. However, while many of us may find sex to be easy to define in our daily lives, defining sex scientifically is far harder if not impossible (Hood-Williams 1995). The inability of science to distinguish males from females may be a non-issue for most of us, but for olympic athletes it can be a major problem.

Sex Verification & The Olympics

Before athletes are allowed to participate in the women’s Olympic competitions, they are required to go through a sex verification process. The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) has established what it calls hyperandrogenism regulations which limit the amount of testosterone a female athlete can have in their body. Testosterone is a naturally occurring hormone that both males and females have in their bodies, but typically females have lower levels of testosterone than males. In addition to testosterone tests, women can be forced to provide blood and urine samples or have MRI scans of their bodies (Simpson et al. 1993). These examinations leave many athletes feeling humiliated and that their privacy has been violated….

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Coercive Control and Intimate Partner Violence

Just before ringing in 2016, the United Kingdom announced that new legislation would make coercive, or controlling, abuse in domestic relationships a criminal act, carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The legislation reflects what feminist advocates have been claiming for decades – that intimate partner violence (IPV) is not limited to physical or sexual abuse. Additionally, IPV includes a wide range of non-physical but highly influential behaviors that enable one intimate partner to control the other, and keep the victimized partner ensnared in an abusive relationship. Here, David Mayeda discusses Evan Stark’s concept of coercive control to illustrate how widespread gender norms in society contribute to men’s control over women in intimate relationships.

When people hear the words “domestic violence” or “intimate partner violence” (IPV), the first images that come to mind are typically those involving physical violence between intimate partners. However in 2007, Evan Stark published Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, a book which illuminates how violence in intimate relationships is sustained largely by acts of control, which do not always carry physical violence. Stark’s work has also been influential in showcasing how coercive control is shaped by society’s gendered expectations of men and women….

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Matching Men: Tinder & The Presentation of Masculinity

On Tinder, you are given very basic information and have to make a decision to swipe left (reject) or swipe right (accept) the person on your phone screen. In this essay, Amanda Fehlbaum investigates how men perform their masculinity on this notorious dating app.

Last weekend, I went on a date. I did not meet this person while browsing at the grocery store or partying at the club. My friends did not set me up on a blind date, nor was he a friend of friends. I did not even connect with this man on a dating site like Match or eHarmony. We connected on Tinder.

Tinder is described in the Apple App Store as “a fun way to discover new and interesting people nearby,” noting that over 10 billion matches have been made using the app. The way it works is this: You sign up using your Facebook profile and your Tinder profile is populated with some photos, your name, age, location. You have the option of including where you went to school and your occupation as well as the option to write a 500 character-length description about yourself.

You are then presented with the photo, name, age, and information of people within a set radius of your location. Because the app is covertly linked to your Facebook, you can also see if you have any friends in common with that person. You do not get to filter matches beyond sex, age, and location. In other words, you see every person who fits just those three criteria….

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“Glamping” & The Gendering of Outdoor Recreation

Glamping (glamorous + camping) is one of the trendiest new outdoor activities. In this essay Ami Stearns argues that glamping is an attempt to overcome the stereotype that camping is manly and in the process Stearns asks us to consider why we gender any activity in the first place.

What do grilling hot dogs on a stick, pooping in the woods, gathering sticks for a fire, and working for hours to set up a sagging tent have in common? Camping! While it’s true that both males and females go camping, this is an activity that, in our culture, particularly embodies masculinity. Camping brings to mind the rugged outdoors and the sense of manly survivalism seen in movies like The Revenant (do NOT watch that movie without a big, warm blanket and a copious amount of beef jerky).

Gendering Outdoor Recreation

Outdoor life is typically associated with men, while indoor activities are considered the domain of women. For example, women tend to bicycle indoors while men ride “real” bicycles outdoors more often. Women are still doing most of the indoor chores while men work outside mowing lawns and carrying the trashcans out to the curb. Fishing, hunting, and camping are typically related to men’s activities more often than they are related to women’s activities. Many behaviors, like camping, are gendered, whether we are aware of it or not.

Keep in mind I’m not saying that women don’t camp or don’t enjoy camping. I am arguing that in our culture, we stereotype camping and other outdoorsy activities as more masculine than feminine. In terms of gendering an activity, it is much easier to create new, alternative versions of a masculine activity (like shaving) than to convince women to completely “inhabit” a masculine behavior. Plus, any good Marxist would state that alternative versions of products (like his and hers body wash) are merely marketing gimmicks to double the consumer pool. With all these things in mind, I give you the trendy concept of glamping. Glamping is the word that occurs after mashing-up glamour and camping. It calls to mind Victorian safaris and elegant getaways. Glamping is luxurious (some glampsites come with butler and chef) and “authentic, effortless, and inspiring.”

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Bun in a New Oven: Our Social Bodies in the Age of Uterus Transplants

The Cleveland Clinic recently performed the first uterus transplant in the United States, giving a woman the opportunity to become pregnant. In this piece, Amanda Fehlbaum reflects on how such an organ transplant is not just biological, it is social, too.

We tend to think of reproduction as a biological concept. In school, we learn about how egg and sperm meet and offspring result after a certain gestation period. Reproduction, however, is deeply culturally constructed and not nearly as simple as it appears. Technological advancements make the situation even more complex and demonstrate how childbearing is far from just biological.

Take, for example, news that surgeons at The Cleveland Clinic have performed the first uterus transplant in the United States. An unnamed 26 year-old woman, born without a uterus, received a uterus from a deceased donor after a nine-hour surgery on February 24, 2016. She will have to wait a year before trying to become pregnant through in vitro fertilization. After one or two pregnancies, the uterus will either be removed so that the woman can stop taking medication to prevent organ rejection or allowed to be rejected and wither away. 

Social Bodies

There is a propensity in our society to see the body as a biological object rather than something that must be understood within a social, cultural, and historical context. Women’s bodies in particular have a wide variety of norms, taboos, and expectations placed upon them, as seen in a previous Sociology in Focus piece. In fact, women’s bodies are largely tied to their reproductive abilities and some women, like the 26 year-old, yearn to experience pregnancy.

In a piece from The New York Times about uterus transplants, the 26 year-old woman notes that she had always assumed that she would have children. She was devastated to learn at age 16 that she had ovaries, but no uterus, due to Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome. She wondered if anyone would want to marry her if she could not bear children. Ultimately, she did marry and adopted two children; however, she still wanted the experience of pregnancy:

“I crave that experience. I want the morning sickness, the backaches, the feet swelling. I want to feel the baby move. That is something I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember,” she said.

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