Neither my fellow students nor our shop teacher thought there was anything odd about this. In fact, my teacher had given me the template to cut the the iconic bunny head. He had dozens to choose from, and I, like many of his students before me no doubt, had picked that one.
There were no girls in junior high wood shop class.
Like many boys of the 1970s, my childhood was punctuated by various pornographic discoveries. Pornography was more prevalent than ever before, but in an era before VCRS, it was still largely hidden away in XXX movie theaters, or stashed on the top shelf of your dad’s bedroom closet. For a boy, it was tantalizingly close, yet still far away, like some ancient Greek punishment that mocks you with with unattainable temptation. But unlike the doomed souls of Hades, for us there was a way.
In a scene repeated countless times around the nation, my initiation into the world of sexualized, naked women came via the dirty magazine an older boy dug up from underneath a large rock behind our apartment building in the Bronx. I was about 8 years old, maybe younger, and I stared in wonderment at those women’s nude bodies.
In the years that followed, similar occasions led me to cross paths with well worn, second tier nudey mags like Cheri, Oui, and Jugs. It’s something that stays with you.
In 1996, sitting in a movie theater watching Woody Harrleson portray Hustler Magazine founder Larry Flynt, I had flashbacks to old Hustler cartoons the film showed and discussed, and which I’d first ogled and pondered on the proverbial playground some two decades earlier.
“Oh yeah. Now I remember that Wizard of Oz send up. And the one about Jerry Falwell I’d forgotten about. That’s actually pretty funny.”
For a straight male in late 20th century America, as with all men of every place and era, there were certain signposts of manhood, thresholds you crossed for the first time, knowing that you were moving into something like adulthood. There were many, actually, and of course not everyone crossed all of them; each boy had his own hodge podge of man-making moments that he wanted to achieve, or felt pressured into pursuing.
The first time you drink in a bar (legally or otherwise). The first time you smoke a cigarette. The first time you get in a big boy fight where someone can get really hurt. The first time you pay for someone else’s meal in a restaurant. The first time you lay a bet at a horse track or a casino. The first time you see a concert with your friends. The first time you drive a car, or in New York, ride the subway alone. The first time you tell your parents No, and maybe even scrap with your dad. When you enter military. When you lose your virginity. When you purchase pornography for the first time.
I bought my first Playboy Magazine when I was 15 years.
In 1983 I was a sophomore at John F. Kennedy HS down the street. My friends and I would leave school during lunch period and amble over to 231st to buy food at local establishments: pizzerias, delis, etc. One day, I took some of that lunch money and walked into Bill’s Friendly Spot.
Bill’s was a type of establishment once commonplace in New York and other cities. It was called a candy store, but in reality it sold everything from egg creams to magazines. It was the precursor to the modern bodega. This particular candy store stood at the corner of W. 231st St. and Kingsbridge Ave. It was the same place my parents would occasionally take us to on Saturday nights to get the early release of the Sunday papers: the impossibly thick New York Times for my mom, and the Daily News for us kids because it had the best comics and a better sports section.
I don’t remember which month in 1983 it was when I mustered up the courage to walk into Bill’s and slip a copy of Playboy out of the rack that concealed all of the cover except the magazine’s title, although I suppose I could look it up easily enough since I still remember the playmate: Ruth Guerri.
She was from St. Louis and liked to ride horses. The true meaning of her riding crop was completely lost on me.
I don’t think it even occurred to the cashier to ask my age. He just took my money, slipped the magazine into a thin, brown paper bag, and handed it to me.
For the remainder of high school, purchasing Playboy with lunch money was a monthly ritual.
The magazine served my prurient interests, of course. But it also educated me a bit about sex, which I’m still grateful for. My parents weren’t going to do it (and I don’t blame them). I mean, how babies are made? Yeah, sure. They were forward thinking people, and they taught me all about that when my kid sister was born. By the time I was 6, I knew how the parts worked. I knew how to get, and more importantly, how not to get a woman pregnant.
But the nitty gritty of gettin’ down?
When I came of age, my mother made my father have a conversation with me. It went something like this.
Father, looking up from the television: “Is there anything you need to know?”
Son, standing in bedroom doorway after having been summoned: “Uh, no.”
Father: “Okay,” and with great relief, returns gaze to screen.
Like most kids of that era, I learned about sex from other guys who also knew nothing about sex. Playboy helped fill in the gaps. It taught me about things I’d never heard of, like clitorises, g-spots, and prostates. And it didn’t just joke about them; it actually explained them. I’m still grateful.
But of course there was also a more problematic side to Playboy. While the magazine certainly did not invent the objectification of women or the idealization of certain, rare female body types, it did contribute mightily to those things becoming pervasive throughout American culture in a way they never had before.
This was the dark side to Playboy’s advancement of a much needed and overdue sexual revolution in America. The magazine’s overt message was that sex didn’t have to be shameful or wrong; among consenting adults, even unmarried ones, it could be fun and guilt free. That was an exceptionally bold stance in 1953 when the magazine first launched. However, Playboy’s more subtle and insidious message was that sex was something for straight men, who should aspire to have it only with women who looked a certain way.
This is the conflicted legacy of Hugh Hefner, legendary pipe-smoking, pajama-wearing publisher, lothario, and founder of Playboy, who died today at the age of 91, probably in the arms of a busty, peroxide blonde six-and-a-half decades his junior. No one went from taboo-smashing smooth operator to super creepy grandfather faster than Hef.
In the end though, I’m happy that Playboy was there to help me grow up. And I’m even happier that I outgrew it.