Hulton Archive/Getty

Anti-puritan but blind to his male privilege, the Playboy mogul liberated men by demeaning women.

When Hugh Hefner launched Playboy in 1953, he could scarcely have imagined that one day he would be celebrated by conservatives and excoriated by radicals. Publishing even a soft-core sex magazine was a subversive act in the gray-flanneled world of the 1950s. Aside from its pushing the boundaries of free expression with nude photography, there was much else about the early Playboythat marked it as a progressive publication, most notably Hefner’s outspoken advocacy of civil rights for African-Americans. When Hefner started a line of Playboy Clubs in 1960, he made them fully integrated, with black members and employees, even in the Jim Crow South. Beyond that, Hefner was a lifelong advocate of progressive causes like abortion rights and marriage equality.

Yet when Hefner’s death was announced on Wednesday, there was a discordant note on both sides of the political spectrum. Ben Domenech, the publisher of the right-wing website The Federalist, found much to admire in Hefner for “celebrating the sexual complementarity that has bound men and women together since the dawn of time.” Conversely, the left-wing magazine Current Affairs highlighted Hefner’s “totalitarian control” of the women who lived in the Playboy mansion, calling him a “tyrant” and “an abusive creep.”

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