Hugh Hefner is not the women’s liberation hero you’re making him out to be

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Playboy founder and publisher Hugh Hefner died last night at age 91. Hefner, of course, kickstarted the availability of softcore nude photos in men’s magazines, leaving many to credit him with playing a significant role in women’s sexual liberation movement during the ’60s, and ’70s.

Of course, that isn’t the whole story. Hefner made money off objectifying and cultivating impossible beauty standards for women, by delivering their nude bodies to homes and newsstands across the U.S. And while Hefner’s political stances generally leaned liberal, Playboy’s biggest selling point always rested with its treatment of women’s bodies: sexualized, degraded, and centered on the male gaze.

While sex workers should be supported, Hefner and other men controlled much of Playboy’s editorial content, including which models to shoot and how to depict women within the magazine. In other words, Hefner exploited women for personal gain, instead of letting women in on the process of how they’d want to be seen or celebrated.

Hefner’s problematic dealings with women don’t end at his Playboy career, either. Previously, model Chloe Goins filed a lawsuit against Hefner for conspiracy, after comedian Bill Cosby allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted her at a 2008 party at the Playboy Mansion. In the lawsuit, she claims Hefner “knew or should have known” that Cosby had a “propensity for intoxicating and or drugging young women and taking advantage of them sexually,” as previously alleged by various other women against the comedian. You could argue that he enabled men like Cosby to take advantage of young women at his Playboy Mansion parties.

He created a private playground for predators and conflated male desire with social freedom.

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Then there are the allegations made against Hefner in model Holly Madison’s book Down the Rabbit Hole. Madison alleges that Hefner pressured women staying at his mansion to join in on group sex, forced them to constantly keep up their physical appearance to his standards, and pitted women against one another in the mansion through emotional manipulation. She claims he even offered a quaalude to Madison while clubbing, joking that the pills are “thigh openers.” For that reason, some are calling Hefner predatory and abusive.

Hefner previously denied the allegations, of course, claiming that Madison had “chosen to rewrite history.”

“Over the course of my life, I’ve had more than my fair share of romantic relationships with wonderful women,” Hefner said, BuzzFeed reports. “Many moved on to live happy, healthy, and productive lives and I’m pleased to say remain dear friends today. Sadly, there are a few who have chosen to rewrite history in an attempt to stay in the spotlight. I guess, as the old saying goes: You can’t win ’em all!”

For feminists, though, Hefner’s legacy isn’t one to glorify. It’s a legacy that was built on taking advantage of women, whether through their bodies or otherwise, for personal and commercial gain. Instead of empowering women, he embraced misogynistic values and pushed out a magazine that treated women more like sex dolls than people.

Hefner was many things, but a feminist, he was not. Let’s stop acting like he was even close to one.

Ana Valens

Ana Valens

Ana Valens is a reporter specializing in online queer communities, marginalized identities, and adult content creation. She is Daily Dot's Trans/Sex columnist. Her work has appeared at Vice, Vox, Truthout, Bitch Media, Kill Screen, Rolling Stone, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and spends her free time developing queer adult games.