Since I was an adolescent, it’s become harder for teenage boys (and girls) to buy a Playboy magazine. The law says you have to be 18, and show identification to prove it, just as if you were buying cigarettes. That’s a shame. There’s a lot a young man can learn from Playboy - and not just about what girls look like without clothes on.
On a whim, I picked up a copy this week. To my delight, I found the magazine hasn’t changed since I was kid flush with the new freedom of my first driver’s license.
The cover of this month’s edition even jolted me with a pleasant shock of déjà vu. The model is a minor starlet with what looks like feathered hair, sporting an artfully torn T-shirt - both of which called to mind the late 80s. She looked like the girls who stole into my mind during math class. The girls I chased until they caught me.
The teen years are so pivotal. Not just when it comes to who and what you’ll be when you grow up, but also for how you’ll be. I have a nascent theory that much of one’s lifetime affect is solidified during that period. In my circle, it seems generally to be true that those who enjoyed a fruitful, playful and joyful adolescence tended to proceed to a happy adulthood. By contrast, those who, for whatever reason, had troubled or tortured times seem very often to have carried something burdensome forward.
I was fortunate to have not a wealthy, but a stable childhood. When I entered my teens, I sometimes got in minor trouble, and was consistently corrected and kindly forgiven. It was a good time generally, and with girls specifically. In some part, thanks to Playboy, I was a bit more comfortable talking to and flirting with them. As things progressed, I had an idea where their functional parts were, what to try, and how to ask for guidance on what they liked.
For me, Playboy represented something simultaneously stimulating and positively socializing. When you’re mainlining testosterone, it’s not a bad thing to have a guide to manhood that tells you certain things:
· It’s okay to want to look at naked women, and to want sex.
· If you want sex, you’d better be responsible about it (contraception & STD prevention).
· Women want sex too, and their pleasure is as important as yours.
· Some people are gay. Get over it.
· Good writing, fiction and non-, is interesting.
· Political issues are important in your life.
The June, 2009 edition of the magazine is remarkably, perhaps defiantly, similar to the issues I remember. Three nude pictorials. Party jokes. An interview with a Hollywood actor. 20 Questions with a sports agent. Some manly instruction on such things as how to build a bonfire. The Advisor details what’s what, with respect to sex, technology, fashion and social etiquette. The Forum offers its libertarian take on issues of the day. There’s an interesting short story, and a memoir by James Ellroy.
It’s a magazine that found and has been faithful to a reasonable philosophy on what a man should strive to be. Sure, its circulation has fallen since the 1970s peak. And its founder has drifted toward caricature in his twilight years. But the publication itself remains relevant – and valuable. A teenage boy could do much worse than to spend seven bucks on a monthly mentor that proclaims: “It’s good to be a man. Here’s how to be one.”
Some will object, naturally, that Playboy is sexist, is pornography, objectifies women, and is shallow and consumerist. I don’t buy it. Compared to what? Compared to what kids can find in 2.3 seconds online? Compared to the gynecological exam images you could find in skin mags, even when I was younger? Compared to Cosmopolitan, for God’s sake?
A teenage boy is an interesting creature, and not one who is often the object of much social sympathy. He’s struggling with learning at school, in the schoolyard, on playing fields, in the backseats of cars and at home. He’s consolidating messages from media, his friends, girls who like him and who don’t, and from his Mom and Dad (if he’s lucky enough to have them). He’s a boy building a man, piece by piece.
I’m sorry today’s teen male has a harder time getting his hands on Playboy than I did, and a harder time seeing its pages than accessing the context-free, soulless crap that is 21st century pornography. He could benefit from a worldview that says manhood is exciting, that sex is good but has rules, that a sophisticated man aims high and strives to be a gentleman.
A female guest was visiting this week, and saw my new Playboy on the counter. She thumbed through it, pausing here and there to look or read. She asked if I read the magazine when I was growing up. I said yes. Then she asked, if I had a teenage son, would I buy Playboy for him? I thought for a bit, then answered, with conviction: “Damn right I would.”
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