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Why Playboy Is Saying Goodbye to Nude Photos (and why I have mixed feeling about that)

Last Updated: July 21, 2021

Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Coming Clean: Overcoming Lust Through Biblical Accountability and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

Playboy magazine’s editorial team has just announced they will no longer be featuring nudity.

I know what you’re thinking: “Um, what’s a magazine?”

Playboy just had its 62nd birthday this month. On October 1, 1953, the 27-year-old Hugh Hefner incorporated HMH Publishing Co., and just a couple months later, the first edition of Playboy magazine was published—with none other than the iconic Marylyn Monroe gracing its cover.

At the time, Hefner (“Hef”) didn’t even know whether his magazine would survive. But survive it did. The first issue sold out within weeks. Hef, 89, is now a self-made millionaire. The Playboy brand is now one of the most recognized in the world. Playboy Enterprises has spawned its own premium cable channel, whole network of pay-per-view channels, and a host of of websites. Its activist arm, the Playboy Foundation, has donated more than $20 million to fight censorship and promote research on human sexuality.

For many, this recent no-nudes move by Playboy seems out of step. In reality, it couldn’t make more business sense, and it’s hardly a win for those who support conservative sexual ethics.

The Mainstreaming of Pornography

A lot has changed in 62 years.

Pornography used to be a cultural taboo, an underground industry, but with Playboy came the first example of porn distributed through the main channels of American capitalism. And this was part of the commercial genius of Playboy. Hef created not just a pornographic magazine but a “lifestyle” magazine for upwardly mobile men. He created an identity for them—the image of the playboy. It was a magazine filled with articles about how to mix cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, how to set the mood with music, and how to engage a woman in quiet discussion about Picasso, philosophy, jazz, and, of course, sex. All of this pretense was placed alongside pictures of naked women. Thus the mainstreaming of adult media was born.

Today we live in a world where pornography is now largely accepted, especially by Millennials. According to a 2007 study among college students, 66.5% of young men and 48.7% of young women say viewing pornographic materials is an acceptable way to express one’s sexuality. Moreover, just as pornography has become normalized, so ordinary films, television, theater, music, and advertising have become more porn-like. Brian McNair of the Queensland University of Technology calls this “the pornographication of the mainstream.”

For all the jokes about “reading Playboy for the articles,” the magazine already boasts an impressive history of interviews from culture leaders: jazz legend Miles Davis, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., reclusive film director Stanley Kubrick, movie critics Siskel and Ebert, Apple founder Steve Jobs, and Beatles legend John Lennon. Award-winning writers have written for the magazine over the years, including children’s author Roald Dahl, James Bond‘s Ian Flemming, journalist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Fahrenheit 451‘s Ray Bradbury.

In other words, Playboy has always been a lifestyle magazine. Pornographic, yes, but the heart and soul of the magazine has always been to promote the life of the playboy—a life of sex, style, and pop intellectualism. The photos were, of course, what kept consumers coming back—which is what kept sponsors happy—but it was the magazine’s messaging and style that made it the bridge between pop culture and porn.

The Death of the Porno Mag

Playboy Enterprises CEO Scott Flanders says the political and sexual climate has dramatically changed in the last 62 years—and so has technology. “We are more free to express ourselves politically, sexually and culturally today, and that’s in large part thanks to Hef’s heroic mission to expand those freedoms,” Flander’s commented. Playboy has now been outdone by the changes it spearheaded—porn magazines are thing of the past. “That battle has been fought and won,” said Flanders. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

The new magazine will feature what they call more accessible and less airbrushed “PG-13” photos. It will have more a collectible look and feel, targeting urban young adult men. Sort of like Vice magazine, says Flanders, except “we’re going after the guy with a job.”

This recent move reflects the changing times. Way down from its peak subscriber base of 5.6 million in 1975, Playboy now has only 800,000. In some way, Playboy magazine is lucky its still around, since many nudity-filled “lads mags” have died in recent years—Nuts, Zoo Weekly, Gear, Front, and Loaded, to name a few.

It was only last year Playboy Enterprises decided to rebrand its website as a safe-for-work site and immediately saw explosive growth, averaging a 400% increase in monthly unique visitors and lowering the median age of its visitors from 47 to 30. Doing this allowed for greater sharability on social media, and so far this tactic has been working.

The magazine is now following suit in the hopes of resurrecting some of its former glory—and, of course, doing so in an age which might be very ripe for its messages.

Why This Isn’t a Moral Victory

It has been said that the real problem with pornography isn’t that it shows us too much sex, but that it doesn’t show us enough—enough of what real sex actually is. When you boil down the human person and sexual expression into a two-dimensional collection of pixels, this isn’t a celebration of sex. Instead, we are cheapening it. This is at the heart of why Judeo-Christian folks like me are opposed to porn—not because we hate sex but because we think its just too good be commercialized.

With these values in mind, what can we say about Playboy‘s changes? No doubt, having less crude and nude photos in the world is good for the human race, but there are several reasons why this isn’t exactly a victory for those with more conservative perspective.

1. This will only serve to boost the Playboy brand.

This rebranded image is, in some fashion, exactly what a “matured” Playboy would naturally look like in today’s sexualized culture. There’s no sense in trying to recreate the envelope-pushing magazine of yesteryear or trying to compete with hardcore video material available for free online. The porn industry, thanks in large part to Playboy, won the culture war already, and now they can bask in it.

Only time will tell how well Playboy‘s distribution will be impacted, but I think they have more than a fair shot at becoming the magazine they’ve always dreamed of being—a mainstream publication that promotes the playboy philosophy. As a progenitor of the Sexual Revolution, Playboy‘s brand has the benefit of more than half a century of nostalgia to buttress its business goals. Unlike the lads mags of our own day, Playboy Enterprises has always been more than just a juvenile fixation on prolonged adolescence and naked women. It is, at its heart, a consumer’s magazine—the naked girls are just one of the high priced commodities being sold to a class of lascivious, professional bachelors.

And like a good consumer’s magazine, if done well, it stands to make a lot of money.

2. This will inject Playboy content and messaging into an already pornographic youth culture.

The idea that Playboy would try to make itself more palatable to a younger crowd shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, but with this change, Playboy will likely be able to more easily market itself indirectly to underage consumers.

Now, this is nothing new for Playboy—the same magazine that featured the cartoon image of scantily-clad Marge Simpson on its cover back in 2009, the same business that had their mansion featured in the children’s movie Hop in 2011, and the same company that has placed its recognizable bunny-head logo on products attractive to children (Playmate Pink glitter cream and Bunny Pink lipstick are big hits with preteen girls).

3. This will serve as a clever cover for Playboy’s perverted past.

Saying Playboy has a perverse past is not to suggest its current plans are somehow innocent—far from it. Rather, as one might expect of a magazine that treats women like sexual trophies, Playboy‘s libido has taken its readers in very dark directions.

In the past, Playboy loved to eroticize the vulnerability of youth. In 1984, the U.S. Department of Justice funded a study examining the images of children in popular pornographic magazines. Over 3,000 child images, such as photos or cartoons, were found on the pages of Playboy, and 14% of these featured children in a happy or neutral sex scene with adults, implying incest or molestation. Most children portrayed were between six and eleven years of age. Moreover, more than 30% of Playboy images overall were found to be designed as “child magnets.”

This should hardly come as a surprise when we look back at what fueled Hefner’s creation of his magazine in the first place. Hef credits the work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s, which changed his whole perception of sex.

For anyone familiar with Dr. Kinsey’s work, he hardly needs (or deserves) introduction, but for those of us fortunate not to know, Kinsey’s influence on the field of sexology can hardly be overestimated. Kinsey’s work in the field of human sexuality was not only fraudulent but frightening. Up to 2,034 children were used in Kinsey’s experiments, though many are unaccounted for in the official research documents. Some children—even those documented in his books—were as young as 4 years old.

This was the deviant research that moved Hef to create a magazine that championed a new sexual ethic. He called himself “Kinsey’s Pamphleteer”—and indeed, that is exactly what he became.

4. Nudity isn’t the only way promote a misogynist message.

This new Maxim-for-professionals type of Playboy will hardly be a step in the right direction.

Psychologists from the University of Surrey and Middlesex University did an experiment where they took quotes about women from convicted rapists and then took quotes from men’s lifestyle magazines. They asked participants to label which ones came from sex offenders and which ones came from the men’s magazines, and most people could not distinguish the sources of the quotes. At best they were just guessing.

This is because the messaging of these kinds of magazines is clear, regardless how much nudity is present: women are objects to be used for the pleasure of men.

What Is a Playboy?

The move away from nudity in Playboy is, of course, a big shift in the identity of the magazine. But I will be saving my applause.

After all, what is a playboy? Before the word was associated with the brand, it was chiefly defined as a man who lives a life devoted primarily to the pursuit of pleasure. Regardless of how they do it—whether it is through nude centerfolds or pop intellectual drivel—the world doesn’t need more hedonist men. At least not more like Hef.

  • Comments on: Why Playboy Is Saying Goodbye to Nude Photos (and why I have mixed feeling about that)
    1. Frank Honess on

      FANTASTIC article Luke! We’re living in some scary days man. But all the more reason why millions of men need the help that Covenant Eyes and so many other ministries around the world. Purity is still (and will always be) something worth attaining and living for. Thanks again for your words.

      Reply
    2. Grant on

      Slight error in one of your descriptors, Luke. Gabrielle Garcia Marquez is primarily a novelist and short story writer, not merely a journalist. His works include ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude;’ he’s also one of the most accomplished authors in the style of Magical Realism. A small quibble, but I’m a former English major and had to point it out. Blessings on all of the work that you do – I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your writing and for your transparency about your own junk and how God has brought healing. Keep up the good work!

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Yes. I was going for brevity. Just as Ray Bradbury is known for far more than Fahrenheit 451 and Roald Dahl is known for far more than his children’s books, Marquez is more than just a journalist.

    3. Dan Wobschall on

      Well done Luke! As glad as I am to see the nude pictures disappear, it’s a very telling and clear signal that enemy has simply moved to a more sly weapon in technology. The fight for sexual purity and integrity goes on. Frank is right on. A scary time we are in for our children and society.

      Reply
    4. JeremiahP on

      Just like Maxim is still porn, Playboy will still be (as you eloquently put it) misogynist, lust-inducing in its very nature, and idolatry.

      Reply
    5. Jason Palmer on

      Thanks for the thoughts. Insightful and constructive.

      Reply
    6. Nate on

      Luke, your thoughts were very well articulated, and I appreciate the willingness to speak to an issue that is so current. It seems as if Playboy’s business sense has once again found a way to capitalize on the fallen mind of man, and is clearly being inspired by demonic wisdom. Just goes to show you that the devil is not so much concerned about getting people to be as evil as possible, but simply to keep them from taken up with the kingdom of God and loving Him with all of their hearts.

      I couldn’t agree more. No nudity for Playboy has very little to do with the effect that they are having on people’s hearts and minds.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Thanks for reading, Nate! Glad it was encouraging to you.

    7. 607 on

      Great article. Thanks!

      Reply
    8. Jennie Bishop on

      Great article, Luke. This is just a way to keep capturing and growing consumers. The pictures being deleted is only part of the effort that needs to be made—the whole magazine and mindset need to be outlawed.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Thanks, Jennie. Means a lot coming from you. :)

      • Richard on

        Be careful what you wish for. Christians tried to outlaw alcohol (the Prohibition Act) and we all know how that turned out.

    9. Sumeet Gulati on

      I also believe that it is a strategic move to differentiate itself from a hyper sexualized world while staying true to its commitment of depriving us men the real joy of sex.. Reading their press release that you shared from IPR newswire, they declare being committed to the core principals of sexual “expression”, which I consider as a non-expression. However, their diversification of product may indicate a change in their fallen approach to being subtle and attacking diverse areas of manhood further robbing us of our manliness. Expanding from how we see human relationships to how we perceive fatherhood, family, leadership etc. It may be beyond “sex” but still within sexuality. As a former porn addict I want to alert my fellow men to be watching out for the schemes of such businesses whose clothing may become more sheepish but inside remains a wolf waiting to plunder the man inside of us.

      Reply
    10. Brandon on

      Thanks so much for such a well researched, objective and culturally balanced article.

      Reply
    11. Aron on

      Thanks Luke for helping understand the reality behind playboys announcement. Please continue your good work.

      Reply
    12. Lianne on

      This article got me thinking how this new change can affect the future negatively. Usually any type of medium is in the business of persuading the person subjected to that magazine, video, ad, book, etc., what they should think is desirable. So if putting women in magazine that are not all nude but partly covered is saying that conservative is sexy, which is not only a tatic to draw in the younger crowd, allowing the parents to compromise because there is less nudity but this dangerous for women as well. Why because it’s going to cause the women that continue to do all nude photos be dehumanized even more and conservative women to be pursued when they might have been ignored, thereby promoting women who might be a wife, mother, or regular conservative women that they are also objects and soon it won’t matter if your fully clothed or not, your an object and you somehow like it. I don’t like this new change at all because eventually women will not be given a choice if they want or don’t want to be desirable.

      Reply
    13. Bob Starnes on

      Well, it’s like this, Luke… Sex is a beautiful thing, and apparently the church still delights in driving off into the ditch to the point of turning away millions of people every year… mostly young people. And that is because, being raised in a Lutheran minister’s home myself… yes I am a pastor’s kid… sex was so much avoided in any talk and or discussion EVER in my home, that it became a curiosity to me to the point of embarrassment in being so socially retarded. All the while, my hormones raged hard and hot from the age of 13, and that was without ANY help from pornography, magazines, television, or any talk of it from friends or relatives. You see… sex will out… even if you avoid it, and unfortunately, many Christian homes break up every year just because of the ignorance of the male and or female, sexually. That is, the unbelievably ignorant couples, knowing nothing about their own bodies and healthy, happy sexual homes, are easily vulnerable to the outside “heathen” household members who do know what’s going on, and more than willing to give your spouse a great time in bed, which she is so desperately hungry for. So, it’s out there. The sexual non Christian predators outnumber the Christians, and the inability of the church to do anything about it, or to adopt wholesome education for their own, has cost the church millions of members and led to tragically unhappy marriages in Christian homes. Yes, even the half of the Christian marriages that do NOT end up in divorce, just like the worldly marriages. Sigh. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is a time bomb.

      I know my own parents… the Lutheran minister and his good and dutiful wife… each complained to me in their retirement years about their sex life with the other spouse. Neither of them knew what they were doing in bed. This confession from my father a couple years before his death, and from my own mother in her eighties. What a tragedy, that such a magnificent gift from God was lost on them. And the subsequent better health, attitudes, and lifestyles that would have ensued better sex lives. My father was an overweight diabetic from sugar intake, was usually grumpy in the home… no sexual dopamine hormones rolling around in him… and died years before he should have because of a weak, unexercised heart and a high fat component which clogged his arteries.

      So go ahead. Avoid sex entirely in the church teaching. That’s why most of the women in churches are the size of cows and their husbands live in quiet desperation, wishing they could have married a supermodel. ‘Nuff said.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Hey Rob,

        I think you might be confusing me with other Christians you’ve met in the past. If you read my article you’ll see I don’t share their perspective.

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