I like sex. OK, that’s a pretty banal statement. Most people do. So, let me put it another way. I have no problem with people having sex as much as they want to, with as many other people as they want to. I’m happy for consenting adults to do together whatever they please.

And, it’s not just that I like sex. It’s not just that I think people should be allowed to do whatever they please in the privacy of their own bedrooms. I also think we don’t talk in public about sex enough. Our sex education fails to equip people for the lives they are likely to lead. We turn it into a forbidden topic, and in doing so, we endanger our children and each other. There are many reasons the Netherlands has a fifth of our teenage pregnancy rate, and that the average person loses their virginity a year later than the average British person. But proper, informative sex education – including ‘cartoon masturbation on video, condom demos for 11 year olds and youth-club sex quizzes’ as well as in depth discussion of emotions and desires must surely have something to do with it?

I should specify: I like sex with women.

So, why would a 25 year old bloke who likes sex with women and who thinks we should be much less prudish object to the opening of a new Playboy ‘mansion’ in London?

Well, the obvious reason is that I object to the way that Playboy promotes the idea that men like me should see women as objects – not as people, but as bums, or as legs or as pairs of breasts. I don’t know what it’s like to walk down a street and feel as though half the people that you pass are assessing you based on how a particular part of your body looks. I’ve never felt like I’m being judged in that way. I don’t imagine it’s much fun. Playboy promotes an idea that women exist for the titillation of men, that women are sexual beings first, human beings second.

I object to this. It’s offensive and it’s degrading and men should stand in solidarity with women who stand up to it.

But there is another impact of the Playboy culture too. Playboy is the exact opposite of the Dutch sex education system. Both are, in a sense, explicit. But in the Netherlands, they teach an explicit truth. What Playboy teaches is a blatant lie. Playboy tells teenage boys (who are surely one of the main audiences for their magazines) that sex is something that happens in far away mansions with women who look little like most who they know – women who have undergone huge amounts of plastic surgery. It teaches that sex sits in a realm of millionaires and money. And by teaching boys that sex is something so alien, it alienates them from their real sexuality, and it ties desire for sex to a desire for wealth and a desire to have power over women. Just as Hugh Heffner’s empire creates the culture of the bunny girl, it helps create the culture of the playboy. And what that tells boys is that they ought to aspire to be rich and to treat women like objects. And because we as a society don’t properly help them to confront and understand their sexual desires, teenage boys are drawn to the lies of the Playboy culture, and all that is tied in with that.

And those teenage boys become young men. At that point, many join one of the two audiences for Playboy. The first is the audience for the clubs where, according to Reuters, a ‘single “Sazerac*” cocktail will set a member back a cool 2,000 pounds’. The second is the audience for the magazine, websites, and the various porn channels Heffner now apparently owns (and similar porn mags/websites).

That Playboy are opening a new ‘mansion’ in London for the first time in years should come as no surprise. The growing size of each of these audiences is, surely, a product of our times. We now have the most unequal society since Victoria was on the throne. The first group – men who can afford to spend £2000 on a cocktail – simply didn’t used to exist to this extent. There have always been richer people and poorer people, but not on this scale. And, as well documented in the now famous book ‘the Spirit Level’, this inequality makes us all more stressed. If you work as a banker, you will earn millions. But you will also know that you have a huge way to fall down the wealth ladder if you make only one or two mistakes. This is hugely stressful. If you go home and try to relax after work, your mind is likely to be left back at the office. And so to banish these worries people drink heavily, and take drugs. And, it seems, they go to escapist night clubs where they enact the fantasies created for them when they were teenage boys. What a sad, lonely life in a land of make believe.

The second audience too is very much a product of our times. As Shiv Malik and Ed Howker document in the excellent ‘Jilted Generation’, 29% of men under the age of 34 now live at home – they can’t afford to leave. Many more can’t settle down – they have to move regularly around the country in search of work in our increasingly ‘flexible’ labour market. The reason young people don’t ‘settle down’ in the way our parents did is pretty simple – we can’t.

More broadly, as the New Economics Foundation have studied in detail, happiness in Britain peaked in 1976. Since then, things have gone downhill for most people. We’ve become much less economically equal. The number and membership of community clubs or groups has dropped dramatically as we’ve worked longer hours and been increasingly severed from those around us: Mrs Thatcher smashed society. And now, a generation who were told we could do anything we put our minds to are being thrown onto the scrapheap of mass youth unemployment.

And one result of all of this seems to be that the dominant emotions in the lives of huge numbers of young men** are feelings of failure, and feelings of loneliness. And so they too – or many of them – revert to the escapist fantasies of wealth and sex created for them in their teenage years.

Our economic strategy as a nation is the same as it has been since Thatcher: rely on a small number of bankers to make fictitious millions, and hope that the wealth trickles down. This leaves huge amounts of pressure on the shoulders of both the bankers, and the unemployed/underemployed. Whilst increased ‘pornification’ is partly a product of the rise of the internet, surely it is also in part a response to the stress generated by this segregation of and loneliness in our communities?

And for both of these groups of men, it is ultimately damaging. Because the sexuality and the masculinity that Playboy tell us we ought to have are not the masculinities and the sexualities that I see in my friends. And the implicit message is that this is why our lives are not what they were cracked up to be – young men are unemployed and single not because of an economy that has left a generation lonely and jobless, but because they aren’t playboys – they aren’t ‘real’ men.

The most grotesque and the most offensive thing that Playboy does is objectify and oppress women. But it also oppresses men. It tells us that we ought to be Playboys. It exploits the failure of our parents and our teachers to encourage us to understand our sexuality, and ties this sexuality into the false dreams and false desires of our age. It ties an abstract desire to be rich to the much more sensual desire for sex. And then it tells men who have achieved neither that this is not because of an economic system which has failed us all. It is because of our failure to be Playboys. We all dream about sex. But Playboy takes those dreams, and makes them about power and money. And when we complain, they tell us that we are prudish. Well, I’m not prudish. I love sex. But I’m not a Playboy. So Hugh Heffner can fuck off, and take his mansion with him.

*Nope, I have no idea what that is either

** women clearly suffer from these problems too, but they don’t seem as likely to play out their frustrations and stress in the same set of ways

 

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.