Biblical Sexuality, Playboy, and the Equality Act

A few weeks ago in a history course I am taking this semester, we were assigned to read an article titled “The Battle in Every Man’s Bed: ‘Playboy’ and the Fiery Feminists,” written by Carrie Pitzulo and featured in the Journal of the History of Sexuality. The argument of Pitzulo’s article could be summed up as follows: “Playboy‘s gender politics, while complex and contradictory, were much more woman friendly than previous historical accounts have acknowledged,” and the organization offered often-overlooked dialogue on women’s issues in the mid-to-late 20th century (pg. 260). In other words, what Ross Geller said about Playboy was actually true to an extent. In the episode of Friends titled “The One with the Joke,” Ross said to Phoebe, “they print jokes, interviews, hard-hitting journalism.” So, what many people took as a joke and didn’t think twice about, including myself, was actually true, and Playboy played in an integral role in the women’s movement in the second half of the 20th century.

My intention here is not to focus on the centerfolds, which clearly root in the objectification and dehumanization of women. Instead, it is worth taking time thinking through some of the ideas of Hugh Hefner and Playboy. The organization defended the lighter side of feminism of the day, liberal feminism, in contrast to the more radical side of the movement, militant feminism (and it feels as though the majority of what we hear today is militant feminism). Playboy was a strong voice in advocacy for abortion rights and more universal birth control availability. While the Bible clearly stands in opposition to abortion (Gen. 1; Ps. 51; Ps. 139), Playboy did articulate a stance in line with the biblical worldview of sexuality: “We believe that many distinctions, apart from the purely physical, do and should exist. . . This leads us to conclude that there should be distinct social roles for men and women.” Hefner was “totally opposed” to “a radicalism that supposedly called for an overthrow of heterosexual norms.” To expand on Playboy‘s position further, Pitzulo wrote about an editor from the company who said that the staff was not in agreement with the “militants” who advocated for many things that included, but were not limited to, “the elimination of all sex differences in clothing, education, home life, politics, and manners” (pg. 270).

While the orthodox Christian (lower case “o”!) certainly has many issues to take up with Playboy, this position does not seem to be one of them. The elimination of “all sex differences” contrasts the biblical doctrine of complementarianism. Complementarianism states that men and women were created with equal dignity yet for different purposes and roles. One example of this doctrine can be found in the church, where the role of pastor-elder is reserved for men (1 Tim. 3, Titus 1, 1 Pet. 5, and analysis of the Greek word presbuteros). This view is part of God’s vision for human flourishing. Morton Hunt, who wrote a controversial piece for Playboy on feminism in 1970, sums this position up, albeit without connection to Scripture or God, of course. Pitzulo quotes him as writing that gender difference “feels good, and is productive of well-being” and is “deeply gratifying to male and female alike.” He sounds like a theologian: “It is complementarity. . . that makes heterosexual love, both physical and emotional, so necessary and fulfilling” (pg. 276). Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians make me reject that this human love is “necessary,” but the rest of Hunt’s words holds true. While Playboy‘s feminist ideology as examined above advocates for equal yet distinct sexes, the feminist movement at large has largely ignored this position, particularly in the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the Equality Act.

The Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923 yet not the center of attention until the 1970s, states that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was never approved by three-fourths of state legislatures. Why is this amendment a problem? Well, it seeks to eliminate legal distinctions between men and women in a multitude of domains. The one most conservatives on this issue discuss first is the draft, to which women could then be subjected (conscription). There are several other distinctions eliminated, many of which have appeared in the Equality Act (H.R. 5), which has appeared in Congress in 2019. Given its prominence today as well as its contradiction to genuine feminism, it should be discussed by Christians as we seek to engage culture and defend biblical ideas. As Andrew Walker wrote, the bill “represents the most invasive threat to religious liberty ever proposed in America.” Walker’s next sentence said that if it passed, “its sweeping effects on religious liberty, free speech, and freedom of conscience would be both historic and also chilling.” His assertion is true because of the bill’s overreach into education, federal funding, and employment. The bill could get inside church, synagogue, and mosque doors and legally condemn orthodox practices and beliefs regarding gender and sexuality. Some areas are sex-segregated for good purposes, such as locker rooms, and it is questionable just how far the Equality Act would reach if implemented. Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, stated that “In the name of equality it would bully those who dare to dissent with the demands of the sexual revolution.” Emilie Kao, also quoted in this Baptist Press article, said that the bill would “empower government authorities to open every girl’s locker room and sports team to males who self-identify as female; pressure doctors to administer puberty-blocking hormones to children over the objections of their parents; and punish Americans who fail to engage in government-compelled speech.”

The Equality Act erases the femininity for which feminism has and infrequently still does push, based on the equality of men and women, who are distinct and made in the image of God. While Playboy certainly degrades the body and the image of God that resides within it, it is worthwhile to look at the position the organization advocated as it played a role in the women’s movement in the U.S. Knowing that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27), it is right and just for Christians to oppose the elimination of distinctions between men and women for the good of human flourishing and the glory of God.

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