With the unexpected news that Playboy will no longer publish naked pictures came an even more unexpected response—nostalgia.
Writing in a New York Times op-ed, framed through an anecdote lamenting how kids stumble onto their first exposure to sex on the Internet, author Jennifer Weiner reflects on the way Playboy once fed male sexual desire, but also shaped women’s perceptions of sex and themselves. Most men her age have a Playboy story, she writes, “But we ladies grew up with Playboy, too.”
For Weiner, that meant comparing her 12-year-old self to women who “lolled on white-sand beaches or posed, delicately splayed on gorgeously styled beds.” Playboy, she notes, “showed me what a pretty girl should look like—thin, white, young. More, it showed me what boys thought a pretty girl should look like.”
I thought at this point in the essay she might note that nowadays, she is at least grateful for a wider variety of naked women to inform this vision. Or maybe even that while today’s free, ubiquitous porn can be disturbing and gross, it can also, in its infinite varieties, teach us something about the many different ways we can approach sex and pleasure.
Instead, “What did a real feminist look like?” Weiner asks. “What did she do in bed?” She concludes that most women must have done what she did as a result of this conflicted notion of women as both violated and empowered by porn—“brokered a series of compromises.” She writes:
…shaving our legs (but only when people would see them), performing oral sex like porn stars but insisting on reciprocity (because Betty Friedan would have wanted it that way). We’d drink shots in short skirts, but we’d come up with a series of code words and signals so that our girlfriends could steer us safely home; we’d go teetering down the streets in our cutest, highest heels but clutching cellphones and a bristling fistful of keys as we walked; trying to have it all, do it all, be it all, sometimes without even figuring out which parts of it felt good or right or authentically pleasurable.
And through this lens, as the mother of a daughter who will soon be Googling sex too, she finds herself longing for a more innocent era:
And so, as I stand on the precipice of my older daughter’s adolescence, I say something I never thought I’d say: Come back, Playboy, and bring your innocently naked ladies with you. All is forgiven.
Hey—but not so fast. It seems like what Weiner is really saying here is that she’d rather her daughter feel bad about herself because of an image of naked women she can explain, versus one she can’t. And absolutely, from a parenting standpoint, Playboy is easier to take on than most of what is on the Internet.
But from a progressive standpoint, that couldn’t be less true. Porn will always have a complex legacy. The uneasy thrill has forever sauntered a fine line between voyeurism and exploitation, and for women it’s infinitely complicated—are we being worshipped or demeaned, getting fucked, or fucked over? And the same debate, needless to say, plagues casual sex.
The difference now is that there is, again, a conversation. Ironically, Playboy takes credit for it. In the New York Times announcement that the magazine would no longer run nudes, reporter Ravi Somaiya wrote that Playboy found itself overtaken by the changes it pioneered. “That battle has been fought and won,” CEO Scott Flanders told Somaiya. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”
But one wonders if the resulting state of porn is because of Playboy’s one-dimensional portrayal of sex, or in spite of it. Interestingly, Weiner’s essay appears to blame feminism for the conflicting impact of porn on women, and not porn itself. The essay prominently drops the question “what do feminists want?” in response to the conflicting porn ideologies of sex-positive feminists like Annie Sprinkle and Susie Bright with earlier thinkers such as Andrea Dworkin.
For one thing, feminism is a wide-ranging movement spanning centuries and comprised of a staggering variety of women. That it can’t “agree” on some issues, porn included, is not a limitation of feminism, it’s a reflection of the movement’s diversity and ever-evolving point of view.
Also, the undeniable fact: women watch porn! A recent study found that one in three women watches porn about once a week, according to the Independent, reporting on a survey from Marie Claire. According to photographer Amanda de Cadenet, whose documentary project looking at women and porn viewing habits found that they are “hugely underreported”:
“Using porn to cultivate one’s own sexual agency is very different from what we often hear: that women feel threatened by it or watch it reluctantly in order to please their partner, and that Millennials’ sex lives will be ruined by childhoods bombarded by online sexual images.”
I think a huge part of what has made women more open to porn and able to take pleasure in it is greater access to it and a greater variety. I too grew up in a pre-Internet era of sexual images, and I saw porn mags as a teenager. My college boyfriend’s dad had a subscription to Playboy, and his mom dutifully took it from the mailbox each month, unwrapped it, and placed it in a stack in the main bathroom—the one guests used—for everyone’s perusal.
Offended at the time at having to look at this incredibly fake, cornball image of female sexuality, I asked my boyfriend why they put it on such display, and he replied smugly that his family “wasn’t ashamed of the human body.” I scoffed. The only thing I learned from the airbrushed images in Playboy, was that in this world, women were not real and that sexy came in one incredibly narrow set of measurements. I would spend the next decade learning how not to compare myself to.
Pornography for women I knew was largely a one-sided conversation. You could either like it or hate it, but it there was virtually nothing you could do about it. And exploring it yourself often meant going through men to do so, or the odd joke purchase of Playgirl, which, with its soft dicks and strange beefcake poses, was more funny than titillating.
Porn today is still plenty problematic, but it’s at least astonishingly varied and often free. Its increasing democratization is a blessing, because what was once an edict issued from on high—men telling men and women what men want—has turned into an entity that has to consider a wider range of viewers, including women.
The end of Playboy’s nudes is, in fact, good news for the parent of a daughter. No, porn is probably not the first exposure to sex you want your daughter (or son) to have, but that’s what “the talk” is for. I have a daughter, and if she’s going to see sex on the Internet some day, I am least heartened that she might stumble upon at least some depiction of genuine female pleasure. That’s more than Playboy could ever offer.
Image via Playboy.