When feminism grew more fashionable in the 1970s, Hefner draped himself in civil liberties and funded organizations like the ACLU, including, early on, its Women’s Rights Project, while still taking care to distinguish the “good” feminists (who favored access to abortion and contraception) from the “bad” (who would make Hugh Hefner feel bad about his erection). He even took credit for teaching the women how to free themselves: “Playboy was there from the beginning, before feminists even had their voice, fighting for birth control and abortion rights.” But Hefner and the men who wanted to be like him could have learned a lot from the critiques of the feminists he dismissed, if they had cared to listen.
For many feminists, the problem with the midcentury sexual revolution wasn’t the no-strings-attached sex; it was that they were “free” to have sex on men’s terms — and, in the absence of social, economic and political power, this wasn’t exactly liberation. Another problem was that men, and not just women, have feelings, too, including when it comes to sex, something that Hefner’s world never broached. “Was the rejection of any link between sexual desire and emotional involvement really an expression of freedom — or merely another form of repression?” wrote feminist critic Ellen Willis in 1982. The “predatory disregard of women as people,” she added, was “an attitude that could only reinforce the conventionally feminine sexual reluctance, passivity and unresponsiveness that men found so frustrating.” If Hefner and Playboy had bothered portraying women as human — with desires and complications and messiness and weirdness — could their male readers have had better sex lives?