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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Opening Salvo

All Played Out

The Unsavory Legacy of Porn

by James M. Kushiner

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 29

When part of your body doesn't function quite the way it is supposed to, you often seek medical advice. For me, it was my hands; carpal-tunnel was suspected (and later confirmed). As my taxicab driver pulled over to drop me off at the doctor's office in downtown Chicago, he said, "Here you go—I know this building; it's the Playboy building."

Well, not exactly. Originally built in 1926, the 29-story American Furniture Mart on Lake Shore Drive was home to Playboy Enterprises from 1988 to 2012. Prior to that, the real "Playboy Building" was the 37-story Palmolive Building on North Michigan Avenue, where Playboy magazine was headquartered from 1964 to 1988. During those years, the top of that building boasted 9-foot illuminated letters spelling out P-L-A-Y-B-O-Y.

Situated along Chicago's "Magnificent Mile," the Playboy Building was the perfect icon of the Sixties, signaling the triumph of the Playboy philosophy, as pornography moved up the social ladder from the back alley to cultural elite acceptability. Sophisticated and mature women were supposed to think it just fine to dine at the Playboy Club with their husbands and be served by scantily clad "Playboy Bunnies," or to bring Playboy into the house from their mailboxes for their husbands to "read" after a hard day at the office.

My taxi driver, an immigrant from East Africa, informed me that Playboy showed "naked people," to which I commented, "I do not like Playboy; they are bad people." He responded, "Yes, bad people."

Hugh Hefner, Playboy's founder, has much in common with the cast of sexual revolutionaries presented by Miriam Grossman in "A Brief History of Sex Ed: How We Reached Today's Madness" (page 35). This cast, beginning with Alfred Kinsey, Hefner's inspiration, "thought that restricting sex to husband and wife was unnatural and destructive. They weren't fighting disease, they were fighting ancient taboos; they were fighting biblical morality." Grossman sees modern sex education as beginning in a social movement—which the sexual revolution surely was, and Playboy was its flagship.

A Sordid History

The Playboy Building, the Playboy Club, and mainstream Playboy television shows (Playboy's Penthouse, 1959–1961, and Playboy After Dark, 1969–1970) portray Hefner as a socially acceptable pornographer in the 1960s. And his goal was to help society get over its "hang-ups" about various forms of sexual expression.

In one episode, Hefner interviewed film director Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate. ­Hefner noted how the United States lagged "far behind" Europe in accepting nudity, having only a few years earlier accepted the bikini on public beaches. Tate was obviously stoned during the interview, and when asked how she felt about doing nude scenes, she said it was all "beautiful" as long as the scene was "authentic and natural." But if "contrived," it was "vulgar."

In 1977 Polanski arranged to do a private photo shoot of a topless 13-year-old girl, whom he also plied with drugs and raped. He was later arrested and prosecuted for committing a sex crime with a minor, but although convicted, he managed to flee the United States before sentencing.

Also in 1977, Paul Snider, at the time a 26-year-old nightclub operator and pimp from Vancouver, Canada, met a beautiful high-school student, Dorothy Stratten, who was working in a Dairy Queen at the time to help her single mother pay the bills. Snider seduced Stratten, whom he saw as marketable, and in 1978 sent nude photos of her to Hefner, who invited her to the Playboy Mansion. She became Playmate of the Year in 1980. Snider married Stratten in 1979, the same year he founded a male strip club called the Chippendales, inspired by Hefner's Bunnies.

In 1980 Tonight Show host Johnny Carson displayed a Playboy magazine and introduced Stratten to his audience toward the end of the show, ­saving "the dessert for last," as he put it. That year, Stratten began an affair with film director Peter Bogdanovich and separated from Snider. In August 1980, she was raped and murdered by Snider, who then committed suicide.

In 1985, following publication of Bogdanovich's book The Killing of the Unicorn, in which the director implicated Hefner in Dorothy Stratten's death, Hefner suffered a stroke. After recovering, he in turn accused Bogdanovich of contributing to Stratten's death, as well as of having an affair with her 16-year-old sister, which turned out to be true.

Hefner supported abortion on demand and the sexual revolution in general. As a supporter and perpetuator of Kinseyan sexual ideology, he and Playboy have contributed to its legacy, which includes 55 million victims of abortion, millions of STD infections, countless victims of the pornography industry, and all the psychological and physical maladies associated with those things (for example, the increase in breast cancer, which has been clearly linked to abortion.)

Hefner's pal Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland in 2009 for extradition back to the United States to be sentenced for his 1977 crime, though the extradition never went through. Defending Polanski and calling for his release were prominent film directors, including Woody Allen, himself accused of sexually molesting his own step-daughter. Frederic Mitterand, the French minister of Culture and Communication, was vocally supportive of Polanski; in a book published in 2005, Mitterand mentioned using boy prostitutes himself in Thailand. And so it goes, more chapters in the sexual revolution's sordid ­history.

Facing the Truth

Playboy Enterprises eventually left Chicago and is now headquartered in Beverly Hills, close by LA's "adult film" industry belt. This past January, 2,000 porn industry leaders gathered in Hollywood for their annual conference. Technology is changing fast, said Douglas Richter, co-owner of a web consulting firm. "We already have 3-D televisions," he said. "Holographic display is not that far off; however, I think virtual reality where users create their own fantasy scenarios is coming sooner." (Perhaps "Google glasses" will be used for porn?)

I don't miss the Playboy Building with its 9-foot sign looking down on Michigan Avenue. As I passed by the various doctor's offices at the other former "Playboy Building," now busy with people coming to find out why their bodies aren't working properly and what can be done to heal them, I kept wondering what will it take for our cultural leaders to admit that the sexual revolution didn't work. The destruction of "ancient taboos and biblical morality" has led to disaster: broken homes, fatherless children (like Dorothy Stratten), abortion, venereal diseases, and sexual addictions—would any society flourish by promoting the underlying causes of such afflictions?

Our body politic is dysfunctional, but few are willing to admit that we have gone astray, let alone to seek the necessary remedies. An East African taxi driver can see that "bad people" were involved, but our cultural elites can only lionize Hefner and company as they affirm the sexual revolution, denying its destructive power. Salvo seeks to set the record straight for those willing to pursue the truth. 

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