Playboy And The Exhaustion of Pornography

Playboy And The Exhaustion of PornographyThe recent and earth-shaking announcement that Playboy Magazine, after more than a half century, will stop publishing nudity is perhaps the best illustration to the natural and inescapable consequence of pornography.

All but the most pious know at least some of the history behind Hugh Hefner’s journey to revolutionize sex and masculinity. Anyone with an Internet connection knows where that journey has led.  Generations of boys were ushered into the throws of puberty through its sultry pages. With each one warmly recounting the precise moment their juvenile worlds were forever changed.

For me, it was 1979 in the back room of an abandoned farmhouse in Yellow Creek Hollow Tennessee. Sitting on a shelf next to a half empty pouch of Red Man Chewing tobacco was the first Playboy I would ever open. Everything about her has now faded into the ether, but what remains vivid nearly four decades later is the shock, awe, and otherworldliness I experienced that day; a cosmic event teetering on despair and fascination; to put it in one word- exhilaration. I knew I possessed something forbidden and it thrilled me.

•♦•

Regardless of how one views the approach taken by Hefner, few can argue with the power and impact of his vision.  More than just pages of naked women, be it the rich architecture of the French boudoir or the allure of a sun drenched tropical beach, each aspect of every photo was intended to elevate the female form onto a pedestal of sophistication where Hefner felt it should be properly worshiped; luxurious beds instead of a sticky stripper poles. That’s because Hefner’s aim wasn’t just about carnal sex, he hoped to mold readers into the idealized view of what a man and that man’s worldview should be – one centerfold at a time. In the Editor’s Letter of the inaugural issue Hefner writes, “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and a hor d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quite discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex…” In a world that now includes Tinder and Blendr, such approaches to sex seem antiquated, innocent, and, as one writer recently lamented in the NY Times, sorely missed.

But what Hefner failed to predict is how quickly his sexual utopia would disintegrate. Within a few years, other magazines arrived, Penthouse perhaps the most recognizable of the copycats. But the Playboy bunny had established itself as the pinnacle of porn and if any was to cut in on it’s nearly 6 million subscribers they would have to do things differently.

How this occurred, most notably through the internet, speaks to the real danger of pornography and what ultimately led to Playboy’s unimaginable decision.

•♦•

There’s debate whether porn is addictive, like drugs or alcohol. Claiming that the latter have chemical attributes tangibly affecting our physiological makeups, which it’s believed porn doesn’t possess. But speaking as someone who’s experienced the dark side of pornography and had conversations with others who’ve walked that same dark road; I can say with absolute certainty that porn carries addictive qualities similar to cocaine or Jack Daniels.

Here’s how I know.

According to experts, a fundamental element of addiction is the addict’s attempts to regain that first ‘high’, the buzz that hooked them. Over time this generally requires the user to find a more powerful narcotic to generate the desired high. There’s a progressive march from something softer, typically the gateway drug marijuana, to harder more powerful substances. I’ve yet to meet a recovering drug addict who overnight went from milk and cookies to main-lining heroine. Just like working out, the more frequently we lift the more weight is needed to achieve results. Addiction is like climbing the stairs except the farther up we go the closer to bottom we get.

•♦•

For me, porn’s claws were dulled for many years by the fact that to get it required I go into a store and look another human shamefully in the face.  There were no porn dealers hiding in the shadows of my neighborhood that I could call on a beeper to meet me on a dark corner, nor did I possess the courage to have it mailed. My insecurity and fear kept my lust in check. But as with countless other things, the internet changed all of that.

The anonymity of the world wide web became as comfortable for me as a trusted, well supplied, cheap, and always on call dealer. Without the need to look another in the eye and risk being judged or embarrassed, I could follow those three w’s down any dark hole in total confidence no one else could ever know. Like chasing a demented white rabbit holding a computer mouse instead of a pocket watch. I could make as many trips to that buffet as my appetite would stand. But an odd thing began taking shape the more I satisfied my morbid appetite, I started experiencing what was thought only limited to addicts and alcoholics.

•♦•

My experience began with what most consider ‘soft porn’, a lone woman or guy on girl, little more than late night HBO by today’s standards.  But the more I consumed the less exhilaration I felt. Those same images and videos offered progressively less emotional and physical satisfaction. Eventually, drying paint held about the same appeal. I recognized more was needed to give me the rush and release I wanted. So I began expanding my search for what might reignite the fire.  In predictable fashion, girl on girl became my default and that did it for a short time, but as predictably that also grew mundane. Group, ethnic, age, and countless others each offered its own surprises for a time but eventually all ended the same and I faced the old problem again. As my animal appetite grew more ravenous and distorted, I reached an unforeseen impasse.

•♦•

Oddly, while in porn’s near daily grip I still felt shame at what I was doing. I knew it wasn’t right and went against virtually everything I knew to be respectable, but I always had the assurance that it could be much worse since I hadn’t yet ‘gone there’. Meaning I hadn’t clicked on those websites, images and videos I felt were reserved for the truly depraved (porn enthusiasts call these ‘fetishes’). I was like the addict who feels just good enough about herself because while she’s hooked on crack she isn’t like others hooked on meth. So long as I could stay out of those vile erotic cesspits I remained just above disgusting; I could still say ‘no’ to the darkest pornography. It was an ingenious display of rationalization. But like most addicts, time, circumstance, and the need for greater highs overpowered any remaining moral conscience within me and I eventually surrendered to my darkest passions.

I finally gave in, wilted and exhausted, and in doing so reached complete bottom.

•♦•

Playboy made their unprecedented decision when they recognized what I experienced all those many years ago, that pornography is utterly exhausting. Anything forbidden, at its most basic, is laced with shock and awe. Porn’s real hook is giving the viewer what he’s never seen before, and in many cases never imagined. Creating countless junkies of excitement and wonder. But that exhilaration becomes exhausting because it is never satisfying. Always and every time, more shock, wonder, and surprise – like harder drugs – becomes necessary to achieve the desired response. We become immune and what once was exciting quickly becomes boring.

Playboy birthed a monster and it grew into something hideous eventually turning and biting its master. It’s reader base developed an insatiable appetite demanding ever higher levels of dopamine, needing new and more forbidden places to get them where they wanted to go. The magazine found itself in a never imagined predicament. Remain relevant and succumb to the new sexual reality of anything and everything and thus abandon all the magazine was founded on – elegance, style, and a sophisticated worldview – or change directions. To do nothing would lead to extinction like so many others before it. The decision that has shocked the world, removing what it was most known for, has led many to ask, ‘Taking nudity out is going to leave what?”

Playboy suffered exhaustion trying to keep up because Hefner’s utopian world of sexual sophistication turned to ash by people with a camera and Wi-Fi connection who don’t care about mood music and Nietzsche. Playboy’s CEO put it this way, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable…”.

•♦•

I was exhausted. For many years I had fought this enemy. Yet with every keystroke and mouse click I gave up another piece of my soul. I was losing. I became disgusted with the person I was. I hated how my addiction affected my relationships with others and what it could mean as a father. How would I raise my son and daughter to properly navigate the waters of countless sexual temptations awaiting them when I was already drowning? How could I ever hope to have an honorable, loving, and healthy relationship with a woman when I poured all of my passion into pixels on a computer monitor?

The journey out of that abyss was long and difficult and didn’t happen alone. Recovery from porn addition is never a solo endeavor. As the years since have passed I’ve intentionally forgotten much that dark time. I’ve forgiven myself, been forgiven, and reflected on what’s to be learned out of it. However, the one thing that I must always remember, and what Playboy’s recent decision simply reinforces, is that for all of pornography’s empty promises, what it will ultimately leave us is exhausted.

Image Credit 

Receive Essays By Email

* indicates required