In the digital age, Playboy has lost its relevance in the debate on gender equality
People used to joke that they bought Playboy magazine to read the articles. Now they may finally be telling the truth. The storied men's lifestyle magazine has announced its Playmates will no longer be photographed in the nude, though they will still be featured in provocative poses. To which people have immediately asked: what's the point, then?
The latest announcement is as much a commercial decision on Playboy's part as it is a disturbing reflection on the prevalence of pornography on the internet today.
From softcore to the most extreme and violent, porn is now readily available at the fingertip. Thanks to mobile computing devices like smartphones and tablets, you can watch it anywhere you want, and usually for free.
In such a social environment, Playboy, which prides itself on being tasteful, simply cannot compete. From its peak circulation of almost six million in the 1970s, it now prints only about 800,000 copies.
Besides its famous nubile Playmates, the magazine has also published in-depth interviews, investigative journalism and short stories. It looks set to continue and even expand this tradition.
Playboy helped turn sex as a taboo subject into a conversation topic fit for the dinner table, first in 1950s conservative America and then in many parts of the world. It also helped launch the sexual revolution, which in turn promoted its sales. But the consequences of that revolution are still being hotly debated. Many women certainly enjoy greater freedom and gender equality. But internet pornography has come to objectify and degrade women to an extent barely imaginable a decade or two ago. Even more disturbing is that children are being exposed to such materials at a younger and younger age.
Playboy helped start this debate. Its latest decision shows it is now largely irrelevant to the issues the debate has raised.