Terra incognita: how Western patriarchy dovetails with religious extremism

From Playboy's Hugh Hefner to Wahhabism.

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died on September 27 at the age of 91.   (photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died on September 27 at the age of 91.
(photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)
He was the “leader of the sexual revolution,” headlines claimed when Hugh Hefner passed away in late September. He “lifted the lid on repressed 1950s culture,” ABC news says. The platitudes and supercilious laudatory stories about this “revolutionary” are endless. Less common are the critical accounts, but they exist. “Hefner damaged countless women’s lives,” says Salon.com. “Darker impulses” and “hedonistic fun,” says The New York Times. “Good riddance to an abusive creep,” says an article at Currentaffairs.org.
We are used to the usual photos of the Playboy founder, always showing a smiling elderly white man with a group of blond white women a third or a quarter of his age. For many Westerners this conjures up “sexual liberation.”
One author writes of seeing a “Hefner woman: minimally dressed, playful and libidinous.” The half naked unnamed woman reminded the author of “how many young women like her are not just comfortable in their sexuality, but reveling in it and acutely aware of deploying their power.” According to this telling, women who had the chance to be one of Hefner’s “girlfriends” were greatly appreciative. Kendra Wilkinson told US Magazine “so many women, thousands of woman, are so appreciative of Hef and they’re so happy that Hef gave them their chance.”
What was this chance? The power relationship depicted in actual accounts of Hefner’s life seem a bit different.
One former resident of the Playboy mansion accused another of having anal sex for a paycheck. In 2016 Holly Madison told reporters about her life at the mansion.
“He [Hefner] knew roughly four things about each girl, her name, her age, where she was from and how well she behaved and followed the rules.” He didn’t celebrate birthday parties of the 20-year-olds, The Daily Mail writes.
“How else could he stay in control of seven women? He needed to somehow maintain the upper hand.”
Why is this considered a “sexual revolution”? The same relationships that the Playboy mansion glamorized differ little from the type of patriarchy idolized in places like Saudi Arabia and their wahhabist form of religious extremism. For instance Muhammad bin-Laden, the father of Osama bin-Laden, allegedly had 54 children with 20 or more wives. When we see photos of these Saudi men with their young and nameless wives, how does that reality greatly differ from the “sexual revolution” that supposedly took place in the US, as illustrated by a 90-year-old man with seven women in their 20s? What is the difference between a culture that pays women to take their clothes off and values them for being very young and nude and a culture that keeps women inside and values them by the amount of clothes they wear and how hidden they are? In each mentality women are seen as primarily objects, traded in when they become old, existing for men to enjoy.
The Western treatment of women at its extreme is often remarkably similar to the treatment of women found among the religious extremists. At both ends of the spectrum women are reduced to objects, either hidden in black, their sexuality covered up, or expected to be always doting on men, paraded around for photos, used for pleasure and tossed away. Both degrade women and at their core consist of the idea that the role of women is to worship men.
It’s unclear why the replacing of one male-centered patriarchy with another is considered a “revolution.”
What is revolutionary about an elderly man with a half-dozen girlfriends, enjoying group sex and “rewarding” them with allowances and punishing them when they “break the rules”? Those who think the Western extreme model is different than the model of some religious radicals in the Middle East claim that the women have choice in the West. Their “choice” to cater to the sexual whims of elderly men and worship men is what makes them “sexually liberated.” But there is also choice in Saudi Arabia.
According to Gulf News a teenage girl agreed to marry a 90-year-old man to help her family, which lived in a straw hut in Yemen. “I agreed to marry an old man because I felt really sorry about the painful living conditions of my family,” Shareefa Ali Shuwai told the paper. The groom had promised the family money.
What is the difference between wealthy elderly Saudi men who prey on poor women from rural areas and the values worshiped in the porn industry that emerged from the “sexual revolution”? We call it “empowerment” because we need to feel good and moral about it.
Many women who choose to don that all-covering niqab describe its many supposed benefits, according to an article at The Telegraph. The Huffington Post also describes how it “empowers” women in the “power, grace and beauty” of the “ninja-like” garb. One woman told BBC, “it empowers me because when I talk I believe I have a voice, I’m my own person,” because people listen rather than judging what she looks like.
What happened at the Playboy mansion was not a sexual revolution, it was a repackaging of male patriarchy, much like Stalinism replaced the Czarist police state with another police state. Whether the people running to worship men and pose nude, or don the niqab, have choice and feel empowered is not the key question. People choose both for a variety of reasons. In both cases, whether religious extremism or extreme secularism in the West, the same patriarchies and chauvinism exist.
The key question is whether our values lead us to value women individually and equally.
When women are nameless, when the only person named in a photo showing seven women and one man is the man, it is not a “revolution” but a counter-revolution.
The very statement that “this man was so amazing because he gave thousands of women a chance” admits that the power structure is such that thousands of women need to beg this man for a chance, who hands out success like little presents, conferring favors at his whim based on whether a woman looks good or not, is young or not, blond or not. That’s not a rebellion against a “repressed” culture, that is a repression of women’s rights, expecting women to beg at the table, rather than sit at it.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.