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Playboy’s June issue features a 3D centerfold – complete with the requisite geeky 3D spectacles. This latest gimmick, just a few months after their Marge Simpson feature, speaks to desperate times for the magazine. Hollywood certainly got a boost from Avatar’s 3D experience, but Playboy’s circulation has plummeted from more than 3 million in 2006 to about 1.5 million today, and is never going to be a favorite with the younger porn crowd. Playboy’s trademark soft-focus images, even in 3D, of women wearing coy smiles and little else, are no match for the industrial strength porn that is now all over the internet. Boys and men brought up in the internet age have very different tastes than their fathers, whose own access to porn was limited by the amount they could pilfer from their fathers or older brothers. Today, access is unlimited anytime anyplace, from computer screens to cellphones, and this cheap, anonymous accessibility has sent demand soaring.
When Playboy first came out in 1953, many thought that Hefner was on his way to prison and the magazine was destined to die a quick death. Instead, Hefner became a media celebrity and Playboy was such a success that it helped to lay the foundation for a multi-billion dollar porn industry. What made it a success was the willingness of companies to advertise in Playboy. While skittish at first about placing their ads in a porn magazine, within a few years of publication Playboy was seen as a perfect environment by corporations to advertise products aimed at the upwardly mobile middle-class male. Flush with ad dollars, Playboy seemed untouchable in the 1950s and 60s as it built an international empire.
In 1969 a full page ad appeared in the New York Times featuring a bunny in the crosshairs of a rifle. The caption read “we’re going rabbit hunting.” This was an ad for Penthouse magazine, which would hit the newsstands later that year. The next few years saw Playboy and Penthouse battle it out to see which one could be the best selling porn magazine in this country. Their theater of war was the female body, with each trying to produce the more sexually explicit magazine. In August 1971, Penthouse carried its first full-frontal centerfold and in January 1972 Playboy did the same.
The real winner of this conflict was a strip club owner from Ohio. Always the savvy businessman, Larry Flynt saw that the Playboy and Penthouse war had pushed the envelope on what was considered acceptable mainstream porn imagers, and Hustler was born in 1974. Known for its explicit imagery, its tasteless humor and its overt contempt for women, Hustler set a new standard for the porn industry that ultimately helped open up the hardcore market. By the time the internet hit, these three magazines had laid the economic, legal and cultural groundwork for the images that now make up much of the mainstream porn industry.
What is out there today may shock many not familiar with porn websites. As boys and men click around today’s popular sites they are assaulted by images of body-punishing sex that pushes women’s bodies to their limit. Gone are the coy smiles and in their place are women saying they love it and begging for more. But if you look carefully, some are grimacing, others crying and many look uncomfortable as their body is penetrated, pummeled and pounded by any number of men as they call her a whore or a slut. This is available to anyone who can turn on a computer.
Called Gonzo by the industry, it is not your father’s Playboy. It is cruel and brutal and it creates a taste for harder and harder porn. One Gonzo producer told Adult Video News that “One of the things about today’s porn and the extreme market, the gonzo market, so many fans want to see much more extreme stuff that I’m always trying to figure out ways to do something different.” This is a real problem for the industry because it has done just about everything you can do to a woman’s body. When I interviewed producers at the Adult Entertainment Expo held every year in Las Vegas, they told me that this was an industry fast running out of ideas. This particular producer’s latest movie showed a woman being anally penetrated as she lay in a coffin.
In this world, Playboy seems rather quaint in its sexism. It is a throwback to a bygone era when men had their porn delivered in brown paper envelopes. Playboy helped pave the way for today’s porn and during the process, made itself obsolete.
GAIL DINES is a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Wheelock College and chair of American Studies. A nationally known lecturer and author, she is a founding member of Stop Porn Culture. Her new book, Pornland: How Pornography Has Hijacked out Sexuality, will be published in July by Beacon Press. She can be contacted at email@example.com