In the middle of a stagey interview, a graying Hugh Hefner once offered this observation, “Deep down, I’m just a guy like everyone else.” The point of his answer, intentionally or not, was two-fold. On the one hand, it alluded to the obvious fact that his magazine, whose sales reached 7 million per month in 1970, appealed effectively to the instincts of the ordinary man. On the other, it hinted that every American male should aspire to the marks of success that Hef enjoyed. That is, he presented himself as a role model of self-actualization, defiantly pursuing his own dream and perfecting his own brand, driven by a mission to replace polite hypocrisy with hard-edged sophistication. The man who launched Playboy in 1953 belonged to a different generation, but it’s hard to deny that his empire fueled the fantasies of male Boomers, both directly and indirectly. In some ways, minus the alcohol, the man that currently runs the United States is his most prominent apprentice.
Hefner’s death in 2017 touched off a round of reflection from all sides about his cultural significance. The subtext was the ambiguous legacy of the ’60s sexual revolution. Was it, as Hef himself ironically put it, “a male plot to get laid,” or instead a psychologically healthy movement of liberation for both sexes? In the era of internet porn and international trafficking, it all seems rather naive, almost irrelevant. For example, Gloria Steinem’s expose’ increased feminist disgust with exploitation but did not dispel the idea that a stint in Bunny ears might jump-start a career. Even so, while the free-wheeling atmosphere inside the Playboy mansion did not spawn the phenomenon of sexual predation–although it did give rise to yet more accusations against Bill Cosby–a sense of male entitlement still pervades many a frat party to this day. In the non-celebrity world that most people inhabit, however, fooling around continued mostly as before, with the important addition of more frequent divorce and safer abortion.
“Sexual revolution” or not, lack of gender equality turns out to be the real issue. Not that this should come as a surprise. In prior ages, the main risk of sexual experimentation was out-of-wedlock pregnancy, with the adverse consequences falling overwhelmingly on the woman. Despite the advent of “the pill,” nonmarital child-bearing is not declining; in fact, it is spreading across categories of race and class, particularly among those in their 20s. The reasons offered for this situation range from pressures on men as breadwinners to inadequate educational opportunities for women; often these work in combination to create single-parent households. While some social conservatives feel that stronger advocacy for “traditional values” would solve the problem, research suggests otherwise. The disadvantages of raising a child alone are obvious–not least for the child–but in the absence of a reliable partner to carry you over it, the marital threshold remains high. Perhaps this even helps explain the discovery that some Millennials are in a “sex recession,” increasingly opting for the sort of sex that does not involve any personal relationship at all. Now, there’s a solution.
But enough speculation about groups I know little about: women and the young. From the perspective of a Boomer who emphatically did not explore the new “freedom” offered him by the Sexual Revolution, I have a confession to make: Envy. But rather than trying to mentally photoshop myself into images from the Summer of Love, let me turn again to my complaint: the purported benefits of sexual liberation were never really equally shared. Moreover, young people, especially women, are not well served by a consumer-based attitude toward sex. The problem is that in our Brave New World of online social shopping and self-advertisement, everyone thinks they’re behind the curve. Sexual behavior is dominated by FOMO, but the gender gap in understanding is just as wide as ever. As my junior high gym teacher summed it up, back in the days of mandatory and binary sex.ed., “Women use sex to get love, men use love to get sex.” Mutatis mutandis, this is a lesson that each new generation must learn for itself.
So, we return to the profound wisdom of Hef: “One of the sad things, I think, about the younger generation, quite frankly, is they have less sense of yesterday. And if you don’t know who you were, you don’t really know who you are.” As a former history teacher, I have to say ‘amen’ to that. The job of sexual discovery has always been there. But don’t let anyone tell you they know the score.