In E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Maurice, a tale of forbidden love in 20th century England, Maurice Hall is constantly reminded by his Cambridge professor of Greek, “Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.”
“This aspect of Greek morals is an extraordinary one, into which, for the sake of our equanimity, it is unprofitable to pry too closely.”
The professor, of course, was referring to homosexuality, which from the 4th century on was the peccatum non nominandum inter Christianos, the sin not even to be mentioned among Christians. Such sentiments may no longer be fashionable, but the language in any case points to a time when sex was generally regarded with suspicion and contempt.
A few brave French novelists of the 17th and 18th centuries tried to make it respectable by assaulting the very idea of moral restraint and public virtue — read “Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded” by the Marquis de Sade to get a flavour of what I mean — most in polite society, including in the arts, restricted the carnal from public consumption. Sex was a private affair.
We know the sexual revolution ended that but 1953 was really the year that sex came out of the bedroom. Whether it was simply impeccable timing or just the mood of the country, when the first edition of Playboy and its centrefold feature of a naked Marilyn Monroe debuted, Hugh Hefner shocked the system and started a revolution. It was controversial at the time but the culture would never be the same.
Much like the French libertines of the 17th and 18th centuries, Hefner wanted to liberate sexuality from moral and public restraints. The magazine was to publish pictures of the world’s most stunning and beautiful women alongside in-depth journalism exploring the issues of the day.
Hefner of course was not an idealist: “If we are able to give the American male a few extra laughs and a little diversion from the Atomic age, we’ll feel we’ve justified our existence,” he wrote in the issue’s editorial. But that didn’t stop him from romanticizing libertinism:
“We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonography, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”
Hefner may not have started the sexual revolution but his magazine did undoubtedly play an important part. In the 1960s, public mores on promiscuity and the bare body started to crack and in the 1970s, censorship laws prohibiting hardcore pornographic films were abolished.
At its height, Playboy was selling nearly 7 million copies per month. Today, its worldwide circulation is less than 800,000. The internet changed everything.
“You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture,” said Scott Flanders, CEO of Playboy Enterprises.
“The political and sexual climate of 1953, the year Hugh Hefner introduced Playboy to the world, bears almost no resemblance to today.”
But this is really the point that many in the media and the blogosphere are missing. Old 1960s feminist bruisers like Gloria Steinem reacted predictably while others, like famous Playboy Bunny Jaki Nett, expressed concern that the magazine has seen its last days.
The discussion we ought to be having is whether or not this decision points to a deeper but popular cultural trend on the cusp of taking off.
In our culture, sex is everywhere. I mean this in the sense that it is no longer shocking. Writers and pop stars who still believe there are barriers to sex that must be overcome, in all frankness, inhabit minds that refuse to let go of 1968. It’s a bygone era.
Such curmudgeons, particularly in their hardline feminist form, are worthy targets of satire and mockery, however, a return to a more private and intimate culture is worth giving some thought.
I’m not advocating that we become boring, far from it, rather, that a romantic culture has its own appeal, its own merits. Such a culture, most fundamentally, is based on patience, understanding and restraint. It understands the harmful consequences of a mind fixated on selfish pursuits and immediate gratification.
We stop respecting each other in this arrangement; seeing in one another and in our relationships only that which satisfies our immediate desires. Commitment as a common value and common aspiration is torn asunder.
Love and an honest heart have a certain unbought privilege in a romantic culture. Moreover, where nothing is covered, where everything is seen and desires, passions and satisfaction encounter no restraints, where nothing is left to the imagination, the appeal of sexiness in the abstract sense of the word is lost.
The impact of Playboy’s decision will of course be negligible, but at the very least it compels us to ask some important questions. We don’t need to push sex back into the bedroom, but a little push back wouldn’t hurt.