If the Pill separated marriage from procreation, Hugh Hefner and the pornography industry he spawned helped to separate marriage into its component parts—the physiological from the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.
Hefner, who died last week at the age of 91, has been eulogized in various ways—mostly bad—by those on the left and right. His pajama-clad sliminess did not age well. Feminist author Jessica Valenti wrote, "Hugh Hefner is rightly remembered for rebelling against right-wing moralism before most people, but please don't forget he treated women like garbage to do it." And Ross Douthat described Hefner as “a pornographer and chauvinist who got rich on masturbation, consumerism, and the exploitation of women.”
While there are those who have extolled his business sense and his intellectual aspirations—getting writers like James Baldwin and other luminaries to write for Playboy—his legacy is one of normalizing smut.
Just how normalized has smut become?
Thanks to Hugh Hefner and his legacy on the Internet, some respectable marriage counselors and even academics recommend porn as a way of creating a happier marriage. Take, for example, Northwestern Professor Eli Finkel in his new book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. Finkel suggests that we expect too much from our spouses and it may be time to dial things back a little:
We Americans increasingly look to our spouse to be our best friend and close confidant, to provide sizzling sex, to help us grow as individuals—the list goes on. At the same time, we spend less time with friends, parents and siblings and we are less engaged in organized civic activities outside the home.
How can we ease this growing stress on marriage? In addition to spending more time with our spouses and trying to think about them more charitably, Finkel offers ways to, ahem, relieve sexual expectations that may go unmet. You could experiment with consensual non-monogamy, he suggests, or you could try some porn: "One spouse’s disappointment with the other’s lack of desire is likely to be much more acute if he or she has no other outlet for orgasm. Masturbation won’t quell the feelings of rejection, but it can make the sexual deprivation more bearable."
Finkel goes on to note with some excitement that we are “on the cusp of a pornography revolution.” Thanks to virtual reality porn and “sexbots,” pornography will be more immersive and place a “staggering range of pornographic options… within reach.”
It would be naïve to suggest that there was once a time when spouses fulfilled all of each other’s needs. And Finkel is right that there were once fewer needs that spouses were supposed to fulfill. At one point, marriage was more about survival. Later, it was about love and belonging. But today, we want a husband or wife who will help us become better versions of ourselves.
While doing so, the question is whether we can or should lower our expectations for the other parts of coupling. Should we assume that a spouse can help us develop emotionally if we have lost a physical connection to them?
Finkel suggests that marriage is like a mountain with physiological needs on the bottom and “self-actualization” needs on the top. Sexual intimacy falls somewhere in the middle. The “higher altitudes” require more of our time and energy. (Who knows how much energy the achievement of self-actualization needs?) But if marriage is, in fact, a mountain, then removing the needs that are lower down will actually cause the rest of the structure to crumble.
For Hugh Hefner, of course, creating strong marriages was never the goal. He had three marriages (all of them consensually non-monogamous, we assume). But his ultimate goal was to tempt men’s baser needs. And the effects are clear: a half-century of widely available pornography did not create (at least if Finkel and his colleagues are to be believed) more happy marriages but more needy ones.
Meanwhile, as Mark Regnerus argues in his new book, Cheap Sex, the pervasiveness and diversity of pornography has left some men, at least, less likely to get into relationships with real people and less likely to pursue marriage at all. Hefner was never without a coterie of scantily clad women, but the life he made possible for other men—both married and single—seems characterized by a lot of loneliness.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a columnist for the New York Post. Her most recent book is The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.