Ronald Reagan’s War on 'Playboy'

Ronald Reagan’s War on 'Playboy'
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Why you should care

Because politics sometimes makes for strange bedfellows, even at the Playboy Mansion.

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In speeches, U.S. President Ronald Reagan often referred to pornography as a “form of pollution” and pledged to his conservative supporters that he would work to clean up such “hazardous-waste sites” (and that was a good decade before the internet). During the 1960s and ’70s, Reagan argued, America appeared to “lose her religious and moral bearings, to forget that faith and values are what made us good and great.”

And so in 1985, the president announced that he was convening a special commission to investigate the “public problem” of pornography. One of the primary targets of that investigation proved to be the man who more than any other had catalyzed the sexual revolution in America during the decades it had been losing its “moral bearings” — Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner. The resulting political holy war would lead to stranger bedfellows than even Hefner’s famous circular bed at the Playboy Mansion had ever seen, as prominent feminists lined up alongside their frequent enemies in the Reagan administration to make the case against adult magazine publishers like Hefner.

Hefner accused the commission of “sexual McCarthyism.”

During the early 1980s, the religious fundamentalists in the Reagan administration gained a surprising ally in their growing war on smut. “In an unusual alliance, feminists have joined conservative intellectuals to make a case for a ban,” The New York Times wrote regarding the unorthodox partners trying to curtail pornography. Many prominent feminists, including Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, argued that pornography denigrates and subordinates women and leads to acts of sexual violence. “Pornography is the theory and rape is the practice,” as feminist writer Robin Morgan once put it.

The formation of a special federal panel to study the effects of pornography led by U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese was announced on May 20, 1985. According to Meese, pornography had become pervasive, and the panel was tasked to learn about its effects and to make recommendations to the Justice Department about containing its spread. “With the advent of cable television and video recorders,” Meese argued, “pornography now is available at home to almost anyone, regardless of age, at the mere touch of a button.”

The 11-member Meese Commission, as it became known, quickly set about touching every button it could find. The panelists embarked on what Time magazine labeled a “surrealist mystery tour of sexual perversity.” They watched dozens of pornographic videos, perused hundreds of magazines, listened to recorded dial-a-porn conversations and took field trips to sex shops. They also heard around 300 hours of testimony from more than 200 witnesses, everyone from FBI agents to former prostitutes to victims of sexual abuse.

But the Meese Commission did more than passively gather evidence. Early in 1986, it sent 23 letters to retailers across America, informing them that they had been accused of being involved in the sale or distribution of pornography and telling them that a “failure to respond will necessarily be accepted as an indication of no objection.” The tactic worked: The Southland Corp., the parent company of 7-Eleven convenience stores, announced it would stop selling Playboy, Penthouse and similar adult magazines in its 7,500 outlets. Other retailers, including the Rite Aid drugstore chain, followed suit.

Hugh Hefner was no stranger to criticism from politicians, feminists and religious leaders, but the Meese Commission’s actions represented a different category of threat, and so Hefner sprang into action. Throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, Hefner had often found himself on his back foot, trying to defend Playboy against the feminists and fellow liberals who claimed it objectified women, but with the Meese Commission’s assault, as Steven Watts, author of Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, tells OZY, Hefner “moved on to more comfortable ground as being a kind of liberator who was being assaulted by the forces of reaction within the Reagan administration.”

With the conflict, says Watts, Hefner emerged as a “happy warrior,” and he took up his pen to defend Playboy. Hefner accused the commission of “sexual McCarthyism” and of “putting on a circus show of misinformation and innuendo.” Playboy also filed a lawsuit, claiming the Meese Commission’s letters to retailers created a prior restraint on free speech in violation of the First Amendment, and a federal judge agreed.

In July 1986, Meese called a press conference to announce the release of the commission’s final report. To the amusement of many in attendance, Meese stood in the Great Hall of the Justice Department before the 12-foot Spirit of Justice statue that depicts Lady Justice with one bare breast. Among other things, the nearly 2,000-page report claimed that nonviolent sexual material harmed society, although it did not list Playboy or Penthouse among the 4,500 titles it claimed were pornographic. And Meese made it clear that the Justice Department was “not going to engage in any censorship that violates the First Amendment.”

Hefner and Playboy had won the battle, and the war was over, at least for now.

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