News that Playboy magazine will stop publishing nude photos filled me with nostalgia for the days when I looked forward to sneaking wide-eyed glimpses inside its pages. I haven’t looked at Playboy in a very long time, but I have a sweet memory of Hugh Hefner’s magazine.
In the 1960s, when I was 10 years old, my next door buddy and I found some old boards in the garage, helped ourselves to my father’s hammer and saw, and spent an afternoon behind my parents’ Cambridge home cobbling together a small building, complete with an entrance shrouded by a paint-stained tarp. The shaky Clubhouse, as we called it, leaned slightly to one side, but we were proud to call it our own. It was just big enough to accommodate two small boys sitting with heads bent and knees pulled up to their chests. Inside, we hid a modest — but thrilling — pile of Playboys and a flashlight by which to look at them.
'Thank you, Hugh Hefner!' I might have said, had I known or cared about the man who brought us that stolen glance into what felt like a forbidden, exotic world.
A particular photo spread left an impression: a series of naked women covered entirely in body paint. Titillating, but artful even to our young eyes. “Thank you, Hugh Hefner!” I might have said, had I known or cared about the man who brought us that stolen glance into what felt like a forbidden, exotic world.
Our secret wasn’t much of one, it turned out. My father was wise to our game, because I had taken most of the magazines from his study. He was one of many men who insisted that they bought Playboy for the articles. And while I’m sure he appreciated the pictures, too, it is true that the magazine was also worth reading. In those days, it featured stories by Margaret Atwood and interviews with Miles Davis, Vladimir Nabokov and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.
When my father asked why I was so interested in his Playboys, I felt slightly embarrassed. While I don't remember what I told him, I know for sure that I didn’t say, “because of the articles.” I do recall that conversation leading to one of the first of many big and exciting talks with him about the facts of life.
Less comfortable was the chat my friend’s mother initiated with us about our stash. “What do you think it is like for these women to be photographed nude?” she asked, by way of preface to her larger point. We just wanted to look at the pictures. We were hardly ready for a talk about the moral implications of an industry that objectifies women.
Our consciences piqued, we nevertheless resumed our mission, which, on that day, was to expand our collection. We had tried to buy the latest edition of Playboy, but the local drugstore wouldn’t sell it to us. We asked my friend’s mother if she would write us a note of permission, but she declined. So we wrote it ourselves. “Please allow the bearers of this note to buy Playboy.” We forged what we thought looked like a grown-up signature, and we felt pretty good about the word “bearer,” with its impressive, adult air. Alas, it didn’t fool the pharmacist, so our only haul that day was candy.
All these years later, what strikes me about our little adventure is how safe it was. My friend and I had peeked into an adult world, and the adults in our lives had let us do it. We thought it was all about looking at naked women, but those pictures led to important conversations with our parents (and the local pharmacist). All of it guided us, even protected us, while letting us push at the boundaries that defined our world.
What also strikes me is how relatively tame -- by today’s standards — our viewing was. And this is what makes me sad about the forces that prompted Playboy’s decision to stop publishing nudes. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free,” Scott Flanders, Playboy’s CEO, told The New York Times. “And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”
We thought it was all about looking at naked women, but those pictures led to important conversations... All of it guided us, even protected us, while letting us push at the boundaries that defined our world.
Flanders is right, of course. So where do kids who want to pursue their curiosity about bodies, nudity and sexuality go? I’ve looked at what’s a click away, as Flanders puts it. I find it at once brutal and boring, a reduction of sex to an almost industrial act, with nothing left to the imagination. Today’s porn seems a world away from those imaginative, kooky, sexy pictures of women adorned with body paint.
I have a young son, and, when the time comes, I want him to have the freedom to build his own secret clubhouse in which to explore what he will. It just scares me to think of him doing so in the world of online sex. How do I protect him from it? I am sorry that there is no longer a place in our sex-saturated culture for a magazine like Playboy to make that exploration exciting and safe.
I’m disappointed for him, and 10-year-old me is disappointed, too.