Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

The 1970s pubic wars: who was it for?

By Prue Watson


Photo credit: Peterson, Jim, Playboy 50 Years, The Photographs,
(San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003), p.31

To modern eyes, this image may not seem controversial, but when Playboy magazine published thisimage of Liv Lindeland showing a wisp of pubic hair in their Miss January centrefold in 1971, it was viewed as radical because pubic hair had rarely been shown before.[1]

Hugh Hefner, owner of Playboy, published the image in retaliation to a picture that Bob Guccione presented of Ada Grootenboer in Penthouse magazine who too was exposing pubic hair. Penthouse was Playboy’s main competition. Guccione had launched Penthouse to take on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy because it was a lucrative market both in wealth and masculine status. ‘We’re going rabbit-hunting,’ claimed Bob Guccione when Penthouse magazine launched in the UK in 1965.[2]

Over the next four years, the battle over which tycoon was most powerful was fought over who would show pubic hair, and how much. It was dubbed the ‘pubic wars’. But in a period of sexual liberation and a fight for women’s liberation more specifically, was the ‘war’ for women or men?

At this time, the women’s liberation movement was concerned with how to represent sex as well as how to have it; they claimed to be ‘sex-positivists’.[3] Pornography, however, was divisive. Some women claimed pornography, and PR stunts like the pubic wars, anti-feminist, while others believed that feminism was about freedom and choice and, as a result, women were free to look at and be in pornography if they chose to.[4] Women were trying to claim their bodies back from patriarchal structures that had constrained them by doing things like growing their bodily hair, and some feminists believed that women should be free to expose pubic hair, even in pornography magazines.[5]

In The Female Eunuch, first published in 1970, Germaine Greer wrote about her disapproval of how women were encouraged to dislike their pubic hair so as to seem ‘sexless or infantile’.[6] And in the Joy of Sex, women were actively encouraged to stop removing pubic hair so that they could enjoy the natural body and its sexuality.[7] In images such as this one, Hefner was, he argued, shattering the sexual repression that had they had experienced before and was helping to free women from their bodies and domesticity.[8] So what was wrong with Lindeland being showcased like this?

Feminists claimed that the women in pornographic magazines more generally were being used as ornamental objects and were a commodity to sell both sexual liberation and their magazines.[9] Guccione himself said that he was ‘objectifying women in every body part save for her tonsils.’[10] For some factions of the feminist movement, such as the Women Against Pornography group which included activists such as Susan Brownmiller, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, this was a capitalist venture not actual liberation at all.[11] R.W. Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity – the cultural domination of one form of masculinity over other masculinities and women – may be useful here.[12] For the magazine owners’, was a pubic war a way of them maintaining a hegemonic position among men which in turn helped to perpetuate the subordination of women?

Guccione could see that Hefner was creating a new kind of masculinity that served him well: the suave gent who appreciated the finer things in life and someone who could also enjoy the thrills that sexual liberation brought. Both Hefner and Guccione enjoyed parties and a status among the wealthy and famous that helped cement this.[13]

Moreover, Penthouse’s sales grew by 10 times to 2.2 million from when it launched to September 1972 and it is argued that this growth was down to the pubic wars.[14] While this was still significantly lower than Playboy’s circulation, Hefner did not hold back; he could see how lucrative it was. Both magazines were showing more pubic hair and poses became raunchier. However, the war came to a close in 1975 when Playboy launched a cover showing a woman masturbating which caused outrage among its advertisers. With a $40 million ad revenue, Hefner decided to pull the plug and revert back to its ‘refined’ images and covers.[15] The pubic wars had however helped raise the profile of both men and their magazines, which further allowed them to build on and fulfil their hegemonic status and bank accounts. This had little to do with equality between men and women, and little to do with women’s agency.

Hefner was honest about the fact that he was not trying to achieve equality;[16] he openly told readers in his first issue that he enjoyed being with men more in a social and mental capacity. He wanted his girls to be faithful, affectionate, silent and clean.[17] It was an unapologetic double standard.

Yet, Guccione and Hefner claimed the pubic wars was a feminist act. They used women’s pubic hair to argue that they were helping women reclaim their body by re-feminising women’s hair. The hairy feminist was not supposed to be feminine, attractive or fun.[18] In this image of Lindeland, we see an ideal woman for 1971: long, well-kept hair, a thin body, clear skin, traditionally beautiful and bar her pubis, she’s hairless. For Hefner and Guccione, the pubic wars could help to belittle the women in the anti-pornography feminist movement who were trying to reclaim the body and continue to subordinate women in their magazines by objectifying them.

But what about Lindeland – as well as the many other women pictured during the ‘war’ – did she have choice and freedom or was she being oppressed? I’m not sure. I have found little evidence from her perspective about her involvement. While it is not without reason that she went into this with agency, it is telling that there is little about the pubic wars from her point of view, particularly since Hefner claimed this war was a feminist act.

What one may deduce is that both Hefner and Guccione felt as though they were in charge. It is striking that while women were trying to reclaim the body, Lindeland, alongside women in Playboy and Penthouse, were actually given little agency. Guccione said of pubic hair ‘Some girls have a … nice, well-shaped, well-defined pubis. Some girls have straggly hair and long hair. Sometimes I have to take scissors and cut it and shape it myself.’[19] In essence, it could be interpreted that female attractiveness implicitly and explicitly revolved around attracting men for men’s own benefit; pubic hair was just a tool. Women’s agency, and thus equality, didn’t matter to them. The pubic war was, after all, a man’s war.


[1] [1] Playboy: Entertainment For Men, January 1971, pp36-39.

[2] Tom Lamont, ‘Bob Guccione’s journey from birthday card to birthday suit’ The Guardian, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/24/pornography-penthouse-bob-guccione> [Accessed 10 February 2020] (para 1).

[3] Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs Women and The Rise of Raunch Culture, (London: Simon & Schuster UK, 2005) p.63.

[4] Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, pp.62-63.

[5] Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, pp.64-68.

[6] Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, (London: Harper Perennial, 2006) p.43.

[7] Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, The Last Taboo, Women and Body Hair, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) p.19.

[8] Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, p.58.

[9] iBid pp.41-2.

[10] Lamont, ‘Bob Guccione’s journey’ The Guardian, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/24/pornography-penthouse-bob-guccione> [Accessed 10 February 2020] (para 6).

[11] Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, p.60.

[12] Raewyn Connell, The Social Organisation of Masculinity, (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), pp.72-77.

[13]  Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, p.61.

[14] Patty Farmer, ‘Stiff Competition’, Playboy, (2019) <https://www.playboy.com/read/stiff-competition> [Accessed 10 February 2020] (para 10).

[15] Farmer, ‘Stiff Competition’ <https://www.playboy.com/read/stiff-competition> [Accessed 10 February 2020] (para 11).

[16] iBid pp.58-9.

[17] Anthony Haden-Guest, ‘Hugh Hefner: Inside ‘Playboy’ and the Race to Show More in America’s Magazines’ Rolling Stone Magazine, (1973), <https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/hugh-hefner-inside-playboy-and-the-race-to-show-more-in-americas-magazines-201936/ [Accessed 10 February 2020].

[18] Lesnik-Oberstein, The Last Taboo,p.3.

[19] Haden-Guest, ‘Inside Playboy’, <https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/hugh-hefner-inside-playboy-and-the-race-to-show-more-in-americas-magazines-201936/ [Accessed 10 February 2020].

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