I worked for men like Hef, and their version of empowerment is anything but.
My boss was Hugh Hefner—well, sort of. During my early 20s, I worked multiple jobs where my role was to 1) serve patrons food and drinks and to 2) provide eye-candy for the male patrons. One job in particular demanded its female employees, like the promise on the cover of Playboy Magazine, provide “Entertainment for Men.”
At the time, I was attending college in the conservative corner of southwest Missouri—a geographic location known by locals as the “four-state-region” for its adjacency to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas: a magical land where billboards advertising adult videos snuggled alongside giant pro-life messages. Like many young women struggling with paying bills while attending university, I took up serving in addition to my job as newspaper editor and full-time enrollment.
The place was a local Hooters-inspired hangout—a sports-themed bar and restaurant where all the employees, save the cooks, were women. Two bartenders, seven servers, even the manager was female. You had to be young and cute to get the job; preferably, blond, preferably busty. But the only two real requirements were 1) that you be a woman and 2) that you wear the uniform while serving.
The uniform was basically the “sexy referee” outfit you see in every mall come Halloween: black booty shorts, white sneakers, and a black-and-white striped polyester zip-up (unzipped, of course) top. I thought I looked cute—and I did. I told myself that it was my body and my sexuality and there was nothing wrong with it. That I respected MYSELF so it didn’t matter whether or not anyone else did.
It was fun feeling sexy for a job and even more fun getting to work with a bunch of girls my age. Contrary to the stereotype about the catty nature of girl relationships, we had a party-girl sisterhood of sorts—cleaning and closing down the bar together and hitting up Denny’s afterword for cigarettes and gossip over eggs.
It was the Bible Belt and I, like most the girls there, had been raised in a religiously conservative home where sex was for marriage only and modesty a must. We were out on our own for the first time—smoking, drinking, and rejecting the strict sexual norms our parents and churches had pressed on us. I was going through my own personal (second?) feminist wave—one that emphasized individual freedom and choice. My sex-positivity at the time embraced and celebrated male heterosexual beauty standards.
And so did our boss—so much so that he invested in my coworkers’ appearance from his personal pockets. My boss, let’s call him JR, was an odd man. Severely overweight with a penchant for stinky cigars and cheap Canadian Whiskey, it was no secret that he had sexual relationships with much of his staff and they, in turn, were awarded everything from breast implants to new cars.
I was propositioned often. Always from older men. Local men, business men, men who fancied themselves important. Men who, like JR, smelled like stinky cigars and cheap booze. JR never propositioned me except for when I was brand new and he offered to buy me “bigger boobs” while I was serving him and his business buddies. It wasn’t unexpected—I and my A-cups had been waiting our turn for some time.
Nonetheless, I was upset and told him so. I had already earned the reputation of being “the put-together” (read: uptight) one. JR immediately apologized and never made an indecent proposal to me again. He actually treated me with a certain appreciation and respect that was quite nice.
That was the weird thing about him: He wasn’t outright mean or misogynistic, he was just slimy with money. Sometimes he was even likable. And everyone wanted to be around him—it wasn’t just women he bought, it was men too. Friendship.
Like I said, I had convinced myself that I could be, essentially, a paid sex object and an empowered woman at the same time. I knew my worth. But too often, my male patrons demonstrated they didn’t. Their almost constant flirtation and innuendo began to wear on me. Somewhere between “smile baby” and 10 percent tips, my belief about objectification began to change.
JR and his buddies, like Hugh Hefner, viewed women as play things—”Entertainment for Men.” In their world, women were fantasies: bunnies, sexy referees, whatever they wanted them to be. We weren’t selling sex; we were selling an idea about sex and power. An idea where men were consumers and women objects to consume. It wasn’t about sex and it never is: It’s about power and control and how sex and gender play into them.
Here is Hefner explaining why he called his women “bunnies”: “A girl,” he once said of women, “resembles a bunny.” “She is a young, healthy, simple girl—the girl next door. We are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman, the femme fatale, who wears elegant underwear, with lace, and she is sad, and somehow mentally filthy. The Playboy girl has no lace, no underwear, she is naked, well-washed with soap and water, and she is happy.”
By now, Hugh’s bizarre and abusive treatment of his bunnies has been well-documented. The fact that the women were expected/pressured to have sex with him and follow his strict set of rules (including a curfew and mandatory matching pajamas) is a Google search away.
So why are so many celebrating his legacy? Why the nostalgia for a man who made his millions on the backs of women turned into corseted sex objects? Because Hef, like my boss and his buddies, are seen as harmless, normal. Just red-blooded American men living the dream. Sure, they may be a little creepy or inappropriate at times, but they’re really just horny old men who enjoy a good time (wink, wink).
Working at that sports bar was a much-needed education for me. An education on the reality of the gendered power dynamics between men and women and the role sex and sexuality play. I never stopped owning my sexuality or respecting myself any less. What I did do is realize that I and my choices do not exist in a vacuum. That no matter how sexy or empowered I may feel, it doesn’t change the fact that men are looking down on me. Degrading me.
And that’s the fucked-up thing about all of this: What really burns my bacon is the fact that, at the end of the day, I and my sisters don’t get to determine our worth in this world. We’re damned if we do, dammed if we don’t. Wearing a short dress? Asking for it. Wearing a headscarf? Oppressed and in need of liberation.All the while men like JR and Hef recline in their silk robes wearing Cheshire-Cat grins. We roll out the red carpet for them, memorialize them, we even elect them President of the United States
I wasn’t there for my boss’ sleazy sexism 10 years ago and I sure as hell am not here for your Hugh Hefner sentimentality today.
Jessica Schreindl is a community organizer and freelance writer in Seattle, Washington. She is a contributing writer for Mic.com and has been published on Feministing.com. She graduated with her M.A. from Syracuse University where she studied film history and documentary filmmaking.