How Hugh Hefner Hijacked Men’s Brains

“Would Playboy sell so well if it didn't have naked women in it?”

That was a question included in FAQ section of Playboy magazine’s website about a decade ago. Their answer: “Probably not. We'll never know.”

Never came sooner than expected. In 2016 the print edition of Playboy tried an experiment: the magazine would still feature women in provocative poses, but they would no longer be fully nude. This year Playboy returned to publishing nudity. It turns out nobody was reading it just for the articles.

While the experiment was short-lived, it still came as a shock. If you were to travel back in time to mid-1970s—when Playboy reached its pinnacle of circulation at 5.6 million—and told people the magazine was forgoing nudity, the assumption would be that that the anti-pornography faction must have finally won. But just the opposite happened. As Scott Flanders, the company’s chief executive, said at the time, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

“Playboy is now a crusty relic in the world of on-demand, anything goes, anywhere-I-want, digital sexuality,” said William Struthers, a professor of psychology at Wheaton College and author of Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. “Nearly six decades ago it began cultivating an appetite for sexual images that has grown hungrier and now is ravenous across our culture. Interestingly, the culture now no longer has a taste for what Playboy has to offer.”

In a 2015 interview with TGC, Struthers said that Playboy magazine was the “first salvo whereby secularists began to strip-mine sexuality of its sacred nature,” and Playboy Enterprises Inc. became a victim of its own success.

“No longer are static nudes of women sufficient to be sexually arousing, Playboy magazine has been bypassed by the online pornographers,” Stuthers says. “Because they lack the overhead of a glossy magazine, online pornographers can afford to pay women less than Playboy would—and for increasingly risky sexual behaviors.”

“The aging magazine also has to compete in a culture where distributing one’s own naked body via cell-phone sexting is accepted as a form of flirting or foreplay,” he added.

How Hefner Won the Culture War

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, died yesterday at the age of 91. But his baleful influence and legacy will live for a long time to come.

Hefner didn’t invent pornography, of course. His unique contribution was to make smut (almost) respectable and to provide a veneer of gentility to the degradation of women.

Almost two deacades ago, in his indispensable essay “Hugh Hefner's Hollow Victory,” Read Mercer Schuchardt explained,

The photograph had been invented in 1839, and the word “pornographer” had entered the dictionary a mere 11 years later. Over the next 114 years, pornography was still very far from mainstream. The emerging soft porn carried the same stigma as the really dirty stuff, grainy black-and-white picture cards and stag reels made with old hookers and alcoholic johns. It was a vile business in an underground market. And because you had to show up to obtain it, participating in pornography meant publicly admitting that you were a pervert, even if only to a group of other perverts.

What pornography needed to be profitable on a mass scale was to be removed from the sexual ghetto and brought into the living room. It needed someone to adopt it, domesticate it, and teach it manners. As a mythmaker on the scale of Walt Disney, Hugh Hefner did for porn what Henry Higgins did for Eliza Doolittle.

Schuchardt goes on to explain how the magazine helped to reinforced Hefner’s “Playboy” view of sexuality:

First, it could be easily purchased or subscribed to—and thus enjoyed privately in the home. Second, it was positioned as a mass-market magazine—communicating in one stroke the idea that commercialized sex was acceptable in mainstream America. Third, it could attract advertisers for upscale products that had nothing to do with sex, except as an accessory to creating the ultimate bachelor's pad. Advertising was not merely a revenue stream for Playboy; by surrounding his pinups with sophisticated products, Hefner clothed the nudity in one more layer of legitimacy.

But static shots of “tasteful” nude women was the mere gateway drug to our culture’s eventual addiction to pornography. “As Playboy magazine tilled the minds of its viewers, the seeds of internet hardcore porn were sown,” Struthers said. “The ravaging of human sexuality is almost complete.”

Even Hefner foresaw this as the inevitable outcome. In 1999 Playboy’s founder admitted the trend of increasing access to pornography was irreversible. “Everything, including sexual imagery, is out there now,” Hefner told Salon.com. “And it’s kind of like Pandora’s box—you can’t close it anymore. . . . sex, and a great many other things which we attempted to keep hidden, are no longer hidden, because of the technology. It’s all out there now.”

How Pornography Hijacks the Brain

We now see the effects of having it “all out there now.” We can see how the constant exposure to pornography is not just eating away at our souls but is quite literally highjacking our brains.

In 2011, Struthers wrote an article for Christian Research Journal that explains the effects of porn on the male brain.

“Because the human brain is the biological anchor of our psychological experience, it is helpful to understand how it operates,” he wrote. “Knowing how it is wired together and where it is sensitive can help us understand why pornography affects people the way it does.”

Here’s a simplified explanation: Sexually explicit material triggers mirror neurons in the brain. These neurons, which are involved with the process for how to mimic a behavior, contain a motor system that correlates to the planning out of a behavior. In the case of pornography, this mirror neuron system triggers the arousal, which leads to sexual tension and a need for an outlet.

“The unfortunate reality is that when he acts out (often by masturbating), this leads to hormonal and neurological consequences, which are designed to bind him to the object he is focusing on,” Struthers wrote. “In God's plan, this would be his wife, but for many men it is an image on a screen. Pornography thus enslaves the viewer to an image, hijacking the biological response intended to bond a man to his wife and therefore inevitably loosening that bond.” (For more on this see “9 Things You Should Know About Pornography and the Brain.”)

Combine the strands of the internet as a distribution channel, Hugh Hefner’s mainstreaming of smut, and the neural addictiveness of explicit material and you have a rope that is strong enough to hold an entire people in bondage to sexual sin.

As Struthers told TGC in 2015, “The tectonic shifts that we have seen in our culture over the past decade with regards to sexual ethics, had small beginnings. Playboy was one of those small beginnings, but it is now in the process of being cannibalized by the commercial/industrial/recreational nature of sexuality that it helped to create.”

“We should not be surprised that we live in a culture that flails and grasps at increasingly bizarre sexual displays,” he added, “because in the absence of a sacred view of sexuality the carnal world of 'Playboy Sexuality’ destroys itself.”

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