Was the late Hugh Hefner a friend or a scourge of feminism?
The honest answer is: Both.
Journalist Jessica Valenti admitted as much on Thursday morning in a (long-form) tweet that managed to encapsulate the ambivalent truth in 159 pithy characters: "Hugh Hefner is rightly remembered for rebelling against right wing moralism before most people, but please don't forget he treated women like garbage to do it."
And there you have it: By mainstreaming pornography in Playboy magazine, and valorizing the pursuit of (male, heterosexual) hedonistic pleasure with his highly publicized playboy lifestyle, Hefner made a singularly important contribution to the overthrow of received norms of sexual morals that made modern (post-1960s) feminism possible. But he also accomplished this overthrow by exploiting women, reducing them to sex objects for use (and sometimes abuse) in the satisfaction of the insatiable (and now unconstrained) male libido.
But can we have one without the other?
The sexual revolution was about many things, but it was first and foremost about liberation — from the received norms and constraints that treated sex as something shameful unless it took place within the bounds of matrimony (or at least pre-matrimony), but also from established gender roles in courtship, marriage, and childrearing. It was only once those norms and constraints had been loosened that a second and distinct set of demands began to be made: for equality between now more sexually liberated men and women.
With the founding of Playboy in 1953, Hefner did a lot to tear down those traditional norms and constraints, and it's unclear how far the wave of feminism that began to crest a decade later would have advanced without that preceding work of sexual liberation. In this respect, Hefner deserves some credit for preparing the way for what came to be called "women's lib" (but which was really an effort to establish parity between the sexes across a range of social practices).
And that's where the ambivalence comes in.
Thanks to the sexual revolution, men and women enjoy a much wider range of sexual pleasures and experiences than they once did, and without the shame, guilt, and risks that once tended to stalk the lives of those who chose to seek out such pleasures and experiences. But of course there's no guarantee that once people are freed from received constraints they'll treat each other with equal respect. In fact they often don't. (For a brutal account of especially bad post-sexual-revolution male behavior, one could do worse than reading Valenti's own scalding memoir, Sex Object.)
Feminism is therefore an absolutely crucial ideological complement to sexual liberation — not only in its fight for women's public equality (in hiring, salaries, benefits, and so forth) but also in teaching men who've been liberated from traditional sexual constraints how they are expected to behave in private. It seeks to impose new constraints, ones based on norms of equality and consent, to replace those that once hemmed in the sexual desires of men and women alike.
Has it worked? It depends on where you look.
On the positive side of the ledger, lots of men in the country's socio-cultural elite consider themselves to be feminists, and they strive to treat their girlfriends, wives, and partners with equal respect — in part because that is precisely what their girlfriends, wives, and partners expect and demand.
On the negative side, Hefner's work of sexual liberation has advanced far beyond what anyone could have anticipated 63 years ago. The internet has made every conceivable variety of pornography freely available to anyone with a smartphone or laptop, most of it tailored to the fantasy lives of men. Meanwhile, in the real world, sexual assault and other forms of sexual coercion remain real and serious problems — especially on college campuses, where an abundance of hormones, alcohol, and personal freedom far too often (and predictably) combine to produce reckless and hurtful behavior.
In response, feminists insist on … more feminism, in the form of consciousness-raising seminars and the imposition of bureaucratic rules regulating interactions between the sexes, along with institutions (Title IX offices) to enforce conformity to the new norms.
For some, this will work. But what about those men who like the sexually liberated world but bridle against the constraints of the new egalitarian moralism?
What if they like their freedom but have no use for equality?
The rise of just such a misogynistic, or at least anti-feminist, outlook probably played a real and significant role in driving support for Donald Trump in his contest with Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. (Among his alt-right supporters, this is undeniably the case.) The question is whether this is the last gasp of a dying resistance to feminism — or just the beginning of a rear-guard act of defiance against any norm (old or new) that would stand in the way of the satisfaction of male sexual desire?
Or put somewhat differently: Can the sons of Hugh Hefner be tamed? The truth is that we don't yet know.