Content Warning: This piece discusses rape, sexual assault, physical abuse, and mentions murder and suicide.
For the past 10 weeks I watched the docuseries, "Secrets of Playboy" on A&E. As I settled into the stories, I got the sense that this is meant to be an exposé of both Hefner and the Playboy brand. The director speaks with people that knew Hefner, the women who worked at the Playboy mansion in various roles, and Hefner’s various girlfriends.
Let me say now: I believe the women who bravely came forward and shared stories of alleged instances of rape, sexual assault, coercion, drugging, and physical assaults. The women in the series explain and often corroborate each other’s stories. The women describe in detail the behaviors of and about Hefner, his associates, and friends – Mark Saginor, Bill Cosby, Jim Brown, and many more.
In addition to being an exposé, "Secrets of Playboy" is also an inadvertent excavation of what it means to be a woman that subscribes to patriarchy and seeks the power that women can gain from participation. It also exposes the lie that women who embed themselves in the patriarchal hierarchy will be embraced and safe from the harm of rape culture.
Many of the women featured in "Secrets of Playboy" were on the payroll at the time in which these alleged crimes occurred. Usually, their proximity to the brand wouldn’t cause a conflict for me – how else are we going to learn about the inner workings of business and misconduct if we don’t hear it from someone who worked there? But the longer I listened to their stories of sexual harassment, rapes, rape cover ups, bunnies being used as drug mules, instances of statutory rape, and overall exploitation of women, the more horrified I became at just how much some of these women were willing to accept, and actively assist in covering up, to keep their paycheck and the dream of being an executive at the company.
Former Bunny Mother, P.J. Masten – a “den mother of sorts” for the bunnies who worked in the Playboy clubs – and former Director of Playmate Promotions, Miki Garcia – who ensured playmates and bunnies were available to attend car shows, company parties, and other events that catered to men – let their anger and rage flow when speaking about the numerous young women that entered the Playboy fold only to be used, abused, and discarded.
Masten and Garcia, both ambitious young women in the 70s, worked their way up the Playboy ranks. They shared a dream of the professional power and access that could come from being an executive within the corporate structure. They envied women like Marilyn Grabowski, "Playboy" magazine’s West Coast photography editor and Christie Hefner, chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises. While Ms. Hefner has avoided accusations, Grabowski has been accused of coercing playmates into sexual situations with Hefner, an alleged requirement to secure the title of Playmate of the Year. Their success inspired Masten and Garcia, and perhaps their tactics seemed like a worthwhile trade for positions of power and authority within the company.
Masten and Garcia both talk about the sexual assaults they endured while working for Playboy. And they discuss how they were often privy to information on the rapes and abuse of other women, the subsequent cover ups of those crimes, and how they felt about it.
These women expose a systemic practice of abuse and exploitation of playmates, but directors fail to explore just how much of themselves they were willing to exploit to make it up the corporate ladder and why they made those decisions.
Yes, I understand that this is a series about the predatory men that were allowed to operate in plain sight and the women who fell victim to those tactics are not at fault. It also strikes me as odd that in one breath, an interviewee describes how difficult it was to take food to a woman who had been exploited and then in the very next breath the same interviewee talks about how ambitious she was to succeed in the company. These two things were happening simultaneously and it’s important to talk about why and how they were allowed to.
What becomes clear as women describe both their experience of exploitation, but also their desire to be successful in this exploitative organization is that we are all indoctrinated into patriarchy, misogyny, and rape culture. Within those structures we are taught to believe that our humanity is not as valuable as the whims and desires of men, whether those men have power or not. If they have power, your humanity, morals, and ethics, can be traded time and time again for a seat at the table. A place where maybe you might be a little safer than the women that have no seat.
This is particularly true when Jennifer Saginor, another woman featured in the docuseries, shares her stories. She spent her childhood in the mansion, along with her father, a close friend of Hefner. She describes her experiences in her book "Playground: A Childhood Lost Inside the Playboy Mansion." There’s a particularly horrific moment where Saginor shares the story of Paulina, a woman who came to the states from Europe with ambitions to become a model. “She was so sweet and had such a light in her spirit,” Saginor says. Saginor and Paulina became close friends.
They were both at a party and, according to Saginor, Paulina was high and wanted to get more drugs. Paulina found a man at the party and went to the bathroom with him to use drugs. After a while, Saginor goes looking for Paulina.
“I walked in on the bathroom and saw her laying down in a pool of blood,” Saginor says. I was scared and I didn’t know what to do so I started screaming for help.”
Security came in, picked up Paulina and told Saginor not to worry about it.
That was the last time Saginor ever saw Paulina. Months later, a man shows up at Saginor’s home with a photo of Paulina asking if she’d seen her. Instead of sharing the truth, Saginor protects the man who hurt Paulina, her father and Hefner. She lies and tells the man that perhaps he has the wrong house. Saginor justifies her lie all these years later by saying, “I was conditioned from such a young age to be loyal to the men, and so the last thing I am going to do is be honest with this man about what I saw happen to his daughter.”
After this revelation, the directors of the series immediately dive into Saginor’s recollection of being drugged and raped by another male "Playboy" associate.
This is a repetitive narrative structure used in "Secrets of Playboy." The directors never spend time asking the women how they managed to justify their participation for weeks, months, and years. They never question the women about why they thought it was ok to keep working there when they knew other women, and they themselves, were being horrifically mistreated. The directors never pushed back on stories of passive participation or ask subjects to grapple with why they were willing to be complicit in the degradation of the women around them.
The answer to all those questions is that we are all indoctrinated into patriarchy, misogyny, and rape culture. All these years later, many of the women featured seem to hold a waterfall of regret and rage, but I wonder if they recognize the betrayal of their own gender and how they were taught to betray themselves.
The story of "Playboy" and Hugh Hefner didn’t happen in a vacuum. Like other stories about predators – R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Larry Nasser, and so many more – there were many people who knew what was going on yet turned away, joined in, or tried to play both sides. The brand and Hefner got to thrive in our society despite what was happening over decades.
Now everyone is older and the things they saw and did are haunting them. Some genuinely seem to be trying to make things right, but unless society begins to have a real reckoning with rape culture, misogyny, and patriarchy, it’s only a matter of time before another predator emerges. The question is will there be more women there willing to shield them?