Sexuality surrounds us like a dangerous aura. The same reverence that is given to the spirit is not given to the flesh. We have had a sexual revolution, but the sexual revolution only has made sex more pervasive. It hasn’t granted the level of reverence and respect that it should have.—Gioconda Belli
There is absolutely no question that Playboy® was a major contributing factor in changing the landscape of American sexuality. The magazine’s participation in that movement wasn’t always welcome, either. Those of us who are old enough remember know feminist stalwart Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny in an attempt to discredit the magazine. Others have criticized the fact that, while the country was struggling with the matter of civil rights, Playboy diverted the attention of white men by shoving the sexual revolution in their face. In the magazine’s defense, their interviews with both Malcom X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were exemplary examples of Playboy’s continual contribution to contemporary issues conversation.
Yet, for all the talk, it was always the pictures that stood out. Sure, the articles were important and timely and informative, but without that famous gatefold, would anyone have bothered reading them? Probably not. Looking at the progression of styles and poses in the photography across the years is almost like a visual encyclopedia of America’s changing attitudes toward both sex and beauty. Hair styles, grooming choices, accessories, backgrounds, and changes in body types are all indicative of the effect Playboy has had on the sexual revolution.
Whether one liked the magazine or not, one of the things I’ve always admired about the magazine is that they didn’t back down in the face of criticism. At first, Hef was demonized for the nudity. People screamed, ranted and raved when Jennifer Jackson became the first black Playmate of the Month in 1965. Mouths frothed when Marina Baker, Miss March 1987, talked about being bisexual and even more when Stephanie Adams, June 2006, came out as the magazine’s first lesbian centerfold. Playboy didn’t back down or apologize.
What’s important to our current conversation, though, is without the pictures none of those women’s contributions would have been relevant or recognizable. They all would have just been one of the millions of women battling against a status quo that shut them out. Photography can do a lot about bringing attention to issues and creative, conceptual, nude imagery is critical to that effort because of its ability to direct our attention when other methods fail. Issues of equality, such as #freethenipple, still remain. Imagine a gatefold who’s had a mastectomy; that would be leadership that Playboy is uniquely positioned to provide.
What Mr. Flanders and others at Playboy seem to miss is the fact that “winning” the revolution is only the beginning. We need a magazine that takes us from the revolutionary aspects of photographic nudity to using that imagery to teach respect for sexuality, especially in the face of overwhelming amounts of porn. Who is better positioned to lead that movement toward reverence and respect than the magazine that helped get us to this position? Now is not the time to abandon nudity, Mr. Flanders. The work has just begun.