In August 1965, the congress of the American Sociological Association was held in Chicago. Playboy’s Mansion was then located in Chicago, and Hugh Hefner invited twenty sociologists to the mansion. I was one of them.
When we arrived at the mansion, an assistant met us at the door and led us up the stairs to a very large, dimly lit room. There was a bar serving drinks, and at the other end of this huge room, a few people were gathered around what appeared to be an open trapdoor in the floor. I approached and saw that the hatch was directly above a swimming pool. If you were brave enough to do so, you could dive from the living room directly into the pool. There were several women in the pool who worked for Playboy Enterprises in one capacity or another.
Another interesting feature of this massive room was a glassed-in area just in front of the bar where about fifteen or twenty Playboy ladies dined. I noticed a middle-aged woman there and asked her if she worked for Playboy. She answered. “Yes. You could call me a chaperone to the rabbits who live in the mansion. My job is to help them organize their day and make sure they have everything they need.
I would add here that the word rabbits was used at that time for the women who worked in the Playboy Clubs which were springing up across the country. Today that word might be taken as a derogatory term, but it wasn’t seen that way by many in 1965. The chaperones and bunnies reminded me of a sorority house with a den mother. One of the sociologists, Jim Coleman, entered the dining room and began talking to several of the young women there. He explained to me later that he wanted to hear their version of how they felt about posing for the magazine or working in the Playboy Clubs. Did they find it demeaning, and what was their purpose in doing so? I was glad to see that a well-known sociologist like Jim Coleman was interested in the sexual sciences. We needed more good people in our area of expertise.
We had been there for at least an hour before Hefner made his grand entrance. He walked in wearing a shiny brown suit that was very well finished. (The tuxedo jacket must have arrived later.) He was of average height and rather thin. He seemed very intense. As soon as I could, I struck up a conversation with him. I wanted to see if he was aware of the fundamental research that had been done by sociologists on sexuality. I was pleasantly surprised. He seemed quite aware of my work and that of others, and his understanding of the particular societal approach of sociologists was even more impressive. In the few places where he was not fully informed, one of the two men standing next to him would step in and respond. He impressed me favorably even if I was a bit put off by the CEO image that he and his assistants presented. But, after all, that’s what he was. He ran the Playboy Enterprises and he was a multi-millionaire.
I hung out some more and talked to some of the women who lived there at the time, and learned more about their feelings about their role in Playboy Enterprises. They seemed certain that being part of Playboy Enterprises in any role would benefit their future careers. They thought it would further their acting, modeling, dancing, film or other goals. They indicated that they weren’t pressured into doing anything sexual in an attempt to get ahead. They seemed to be frank and open in what they were telling me. After spending a few hours there, I said goodbye, and Si Goode and I returned to the convention hotel. Goode was a brilliant sociologist who had written about family and also about love from a cross-cultural perspective, and I always enjoyed talking with him. We agreed that it had been a remarkable evening. We had been given insight into a type of sex-related business, and it broadened my understanding of the sex trade in America.
We talked about the highly successful Playboy clubs, where waitresses wore revealing bunny costumes that we were told were uncomfortably tight. This kind of club seemed to be part and parcel of our ambivalent sexual culture. These clubs offered a look but don’t touch approach, and it was very American. Our culture was still a long way from having a more relaxed view of sexuality, but at the same time, in 1965, barriers were starting to break down all over America, and at least some of our sexual ambivalence and anti-hedonism was being dismantled. .
If you had read Playboy, you would have seen that they support sex change in America. Their philosophy favored increasing the range of sexual behavior that Americans accepted as moral. They wanted homosexuality and a wider range of heterosexuality to be accepted, but even Playboy the writers had not yet conceptualized how to achieve the sexual pluralism they advocated. However, there was no doubt in my mind that American sexual behavior and attitudes were changing dramatically at this time, and I believed that sexual pluralism would be gradually popularized in our society by these changes.
Ira L. Reiss is a sociologist specializing in the study of human sexuality. He is the author of 14 books. Excerpt from An Insider’s View of Sexual Science Since Kinsey, published by Rowman & Littlefield.