The Death of a Coward

We all have some memories that burn into us like a branding. It may seem random, but some moments leave an impression that will always imprint our minds. One of those for me happened at a slumber party one of the girls on my cheerleading squad hosted for us in high school. She was a better kid than me, what we would think of as the Goody Two-Shoes of the squad. She pleased everyone, never got into trouble, and was always smiling—which was a total yawn for me at the time. But, you go to these team-bonding things, and there I was in the Two-Shoes household with the squad. 

We ventured off into the basement as all teenagers do. I recall nothing about what we did there. All I remember is this branding moment. For some reason, we went into the storage room in the basement and against the wall was one of those metal muscle racks filled with Playboy magazines from floor to ceiling. I can’t remember the reactions of the other girls but I asked the question that only Captain Obvious could answer, Whose are these? This was all so outside of my reality of what a father would do that I totally would have believed the We’re holding them for a friend excuse. But Goody very matter-of-factly said they were her dad’s. I never wanted to look at her dad again. I suddenly felt reduced as a young woman.

The title Playboy says it all. It’s not for men. This dad is no real man, I thought.

And this mom, Mrs. Two Shoes—how was she going along with all this? Where was her dignity, I wondered. This open display was a public humiliation of his wife and children. And me.

What a boy does when his wife sins:

And yet that collection of magazines has nothing on what many so easily access in secret on the internet these days. I remember all the talk with the rise of Internet porn about Playboy being outdated and whether or not Hugh Hefner’s empire will survive. So it all seems kind of cliché now as everyone is talking about his recent death and the legacy he left behind.

Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo nails it in her excellent Public Discourse article, The Playboy Lifestyle and the Death of Complementarity. She opens sharing Hefner’s history before Playboy. A picture of virtue, at 27 he married his longtime sweetheart as a virgin who had saved himself for matrimony. Only this virtue all came crashing down when he discovers that his wife cheated on him before marriage. He describes, “I had literally saved myself for my wife, but after we had sex she told me that she’d had an affair …  My wife was more sexually experienced than I was. After that, I always felt in a sense that the other guy was in bed with us, too.”
This is the moment of integrity. Hefner did not get the reward he felt he deserved for his chastity. His reaction to this devastation of betrayal and unfaithfulness will reveal the man he really is. How does Hefner react when he doesn’t get what he wants? Well, we all know the answer: he becomes a coward who reduces women into soft bunnies, playthings that will be harmed by thousands of Lennies, only they already believe they are “living off the fatta’ the lan’.” All the Lennies buy into the dream; they can pet all the soft things they want with the right manners. And so a gentleman spin is put on vulgarity. In fact, Ben Domenech, writing for The Federalist, calls it “positively quaint” vulgarity, promoting a complementarity that the progressives of the sexual revolution deny.

This gentleman Playboy image that our culture likes to spin is all a mirage anyway, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.” Menchaca-Bagnulo gives us a snap shot of what many of us have already heard went on in the Playboy mansion:

According to Bunnies Carla and Melissa Howe, the mansion’s male visitors “were really pervy; all the girls were fighting to run away.” Hefner was no better than his visitors. Holly Madison claims life in the Playboy mansion was “a living hell,” where Hef forcefully offered her Quaaludes. Izabella St. James said that, while very few women actually wanted to have sex with Hefner, “in his eyes it was the only way we had of showing gratitude for all that he did for us.”

Perhaps most tellingly, Jennifer Saginor, whose father was Hugh Hefner’s doctor, recalls her experience of life at the Playboy Mansion through the eyes of a female child. At a Playboy Party at the age of six, she saw John Belushi and a Playboy Bunny having sex in a Jacuzzi, a kind of decadence that was commonplace at the mansion. “It was so bizarre. If I was not seeing other people having sex, I was seeing my father walking around naked. I would see naked girls around the pool and people openly having sex in the games room. There were just no boundaries.” Unsurprisingly, she drew seriously distorted lessons about masculinity and femininity from these experiences. “I started to identify more with the guys,” she says. “The men were always presented to me as the intelligent and powerful ones, so I wanted to be more like them.”

While some are championing a nostalgic so-called complementarity that Hefner promoted between the sexes, Menchaca-Bagnulo mortifies the spin:

In his Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II writes of the “mystery of complementarity” known most profoundly in the conjugal act, in which man and woman “become one flesh . . . to rediscover, so to speak, every time and in a special way the mystery of creation.” For John Paul II, sexual complementarity is a kind of union that draws the man out of himself, compelling him to leave behind his former life and to “cleave” to his wife as the principle of his new life. The man and the woman’s desire for each other leads to the conception of new life in the form of their children. According to John Paul II, man’s sexual discovery of woman is not one of use, but one of self-giving. This is precisely the kind of self-gift that devastated Hefner when his first wife was unfaithful to him—causing him the kind of pain that only a person, and not an object, can inflict on you.

The only alternative account of human sexuality, John Paul II claims, is one in which “one of the two persons exists only as the subject of the satisfaction of the sexual need, and the other becomes exclusively the object of this satisfaction.” This is the path that Hefner inevitably leads us down.

I just want to add that although Hefner did experience the pain of betrayal by the woman he loved, his chastity before marriage was never virtuous. His own description reveals this. He couldn’t take it that his wife was more sexually experienced than he was. He was supposed to be the one to dominate in the bedroom. But she was no bunny. And his reaction was to hyper-dominate with a sex empire of women at his beck and call. Playthings for boys. Because manhood wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. What does a man do when he discovers his wife’s sin?

How this Playboy image has affected the church:

So in the Two-Shoes home, full of smiles and Goody children, the father had a mass collection of Playboys in the basement that wasn’t difficult to discover. It wasn’t even a stash under the bed. I realized in that basement that all these Goody smiles were like Bunny ears. This is what they thought they were supposed to be: happy and docile with perfect report cards. 

Most churches would never endorse Hefner’s lifestyle. We are disgusted by the sexual revolution and the damage it has done. And yet, some echo this nostalgic brand of complementarity. Menchaca-Bagnulo turns to churches promoting the same view of complementarity as Hefner, which she calls an “intellectualization of domination and dehumanization.” I’ve seen this polished, Christianized version of complementarity with all its hyper-masculine teaching for men and “complementary” femininity taught as subordination. It’s all so one-dimensional and dangerous. 

Only the church is even more mannered than Hefner, so they produce more Georges than Lennies. Many Lennies in the church have been shot to protect its image, and yet they seem to resurrect again. The Georges share sermon after sermon, article after article, retelling the story of masculine bravado, encouraging men to step up into their authoritative position of so-called godly leadership. They are encouraged to play into this stereotypical role of what they call biblical manhood. Abuse is covered up because they believe these are exceptions that tarnish their image. Women are told to consider whether they are being submissive enough and whether they are fulfilling their husbands’ needs. These women have no voice. “They cannot speak, and so can make no demands or critiques, nor can they express their own desire.” And they call this hyper-masculinity “servant-leadership.” This is not biblical headship. This is not the filter that distinguishes manhood from womanhood. This is not complementarity. This is not leadership.

Menchaca-Bagnulo says that “many women run from churches screaming,” and I would add that they run from Christianity screaming too. They found the basement and they want nothing to do with it. 

Boys in their immaturity often exercise hyper-masculinity. Grown boys who never become men put manners on it. In the church we need to call it what it is. Hyper-authoritarianism and subordination is anti-complementarity, just as much as “the act of onanism carried out to mass-distributed pictures of reified women who are deprived of voice, action, and thought.” No one is authorized to look at women or treat them this way. No one is to submit to unbiblical teachings of sexuality.

And so Menchaca-Bagnulo concludes:

Though some on the right may view Hefner as a martini-drinking gentleman surrounded by beautiful women, it is better to think of him as a coward. Instead of viewing women as persons (who are capable of deeply hurting men), Hefner’s account of human sexuality made us symbols. Rather than dealing with the challenges of the vulnerability demanded by authentic eros, Hefner hides, and he teaches American men to hide. Without question, what he left in his magazine’s pages is a history of cowardice that is irreconcilable with any healthy philosophical or theological position on sexual complementarity or masculine strength.

Let his death be an eye-opener to us all: it’s time to clean out the basement.