Why it’s not a victory that Playboy is dropping nude photos

John J. Thompson

It looks like the old line, “I only read it for the articles,” will finally be true when said of Playboy magazine.

Some 62 years since it first brought sexually provocative images of nude women onto newsstands, Playboy has become a victim of its own cultural engineering. With billions of pornographic images as close as everyone’s smartphone, why bother buying a copy of the world’s most famous girlie magazine? With sales in a free fall and its cultural cachet at an all-time low, Hugh Heffner and the boys are going legit.

Or are they?

I hope none of the moral crusaders of our day are encouraged by Playboy’s plans to dispense with nudity in its magazine in favor of a “PG-13” approach, alongside an increased emphasis on investigative journalism and in-depth interviews. Let’s be clear: Playboy is pulling the nudes because they are not needed, not because people don’t want them. Why waste the paper? What remains, however, is Playboy’s culture of objectification. And which is more dangerous: the picture of the naked woman, or the worldview that celebrates the dehumanization and secularization of sexuality? I’d suggest the latter, and that a cleaned-up, hipster version of Playboy, with vintage cocktail recipes and long-form fiction, is a far more insidious thing than a simple girlie mag.

I brought up the Playboy transition to Michael Bartel, founder and director of F.R.E.E. International, a nonprofit ministry that rescues women and girls from the sex trade. “It’s just marketing,” he said. “The problem with the Playboy mindset has never been primarily about the nudity. It’s about the objectification of women for the pleasure of men. It’s an act of exploitation. It breaks relationships. It reinforces fantasies and damages intimacy. So yes, it’s exploitive. It is a form of human trafficking.”

The mainstreaming of Playboy might serve as the final nail in the coffin of Christendom as it relates to sex.

In an era when old-fashioned is cool, I won’t be surprised to see Hefner and company playing up the historical cache of its famous bunny logo, as it attempts to recapture the high-life imagery of its roots. Heck, vinyl LPs are back, as is finely manicured male facial hair, so why not Playboy? The airbrushed, implanted, hyper-slick porn of its heyday doesn’t work in this new milieu, though. So, the women may be slightly covered up and more “natural looking,” but the underlying ethic will be the same. Follow every urge. Scratch every itch. Buy the cool stuff. Collect things (like women) and you will be happy. It’s the oldest lie in the book. It’s left us with several generations of sexually dysfunctional adults with cancerous body image problems and no understanding of true, empowering intimacy. We have completely disconnected sex from its author and purpose, which in turn allows us to disconnect the repercussions of our appetites from the victims of our appetites.

How sad that it is so difficult for human beings to artfully celebrate the true beauty of a woman created in the image of God. How tragic that the ideal of a man, also created in the image of God, has been reduced to Hef.

The mainstreaming of Playboy might serve as the final nail in the coffin of Christendom as it relates to sex. Moralizing will not bring about a Christian understanding of sexuality. Moments like these remind me that the Gospel has always been countercultural and radical. Maybe it’s time for an insurrection, for the people of God to artfully and humbly demonstrate ways to honor men, women and the beautiful, God-ordained mystery of sex and love.

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