When Playgirl Magazine was in its heyday, certain men always loved to remind women of the supposed equality of the adult magazine business.
“Men have Playboy,” they’d point out, “but women have Playgirl.”
Upon hearing this statement, one might be tempted to utter in response, “Yes, women have Playgirl. And men have Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, Gallery, Oui, Leg Show, Cheri, Barely Legal, What a Pair (an actual title spotted on a newsstand), etc., etc.” While male readers could find a magazine to appeal to just about any given fetish or preference, female readers had–well–Playgirl.
Not that there was anything wrong with Playgirl. Honestly, it was a higher quality magazine than most. At it’s height, it had a circulation of 1.1 million copies a month – high for women’s adult magazines – and was an outlet for women to explore their sexuality and to embrace the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The publisher took the magazine to a very sophisticated arena (much more so than Cosmopolitan at the time) which included political articles covering issues like abortion and equal rights and featured influential figures of that time, all interspersed with sexy shots of nude men. It can’t be denied the magazine played a pivotal role in the sexual revolution for women.
In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal in 1976, Playgirl’s first editor, Marin Scott Milam, said the magazine had “the potential to be a voice for women of the ‘70s, much the way Cosmo was a magazine of the ‘60s.’ She also contended Playgirl should push the boundaries of female sexuality in ways that Cosmopolitan couldn’t by including more nudity and featuring bolder, more politically controversial material.
It is interesting to note, though, that starting in the 1970s several adult magazines “popped up” (cue a more feminine version of a Beavis and Butt-head laugh here) to serve women who enjoyed their entertainment mags with frank language, sex advice, feminist theory, and–of course–a little side of beefcake.
In his 2011 Ph.D. dissertation Consuming Liberation: Playgirl and the Strategic Rhetoric of Sex Magazines for Women 1972-1985, Chadwick Roberts of Bowling Green State University wrote, “(Women’s adult magazines) such as Playgirl, Viva, and Foxylady reveal essential differences between sex magazines for men and those for women, particularly how each type of publication addressed its readers through editorial content as well as advertising and marketing. Through the marketing of male centerfolds for women, women were asked to consider their sexual appetites for men’s bodies as equivalent to those of heterosexual men for women’s bodies. This project argues that sex magazines for women offered an evolving narrative of sexual liberation that was intrinsically wedded to, and in constant conversation with, the women’s movement.”
Among the most popular and long-lasting of these publications, Viva, debuted in 1973. Balancing erotic pictorials geared toward women with the writings of leading feminists such as Joyce Carol Oates and Simone de Beauvoir, Viva also featured interviews of notable women that included poet Maya Angelou and actress Anne Bancroft. Bet you thought you’d never see the words “poet Maya Angelou” and “women’s porn mag” in the same context, heh?
Even more surprising was the fact that, while overseen by female editors, Viva was the brainchild of none other than Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione.
“I produced a women’s magazine….called Viva which was very successful with the readership,” Guccione said in a television interview. “I learned as a result of that experience, as a result of working deeply with women, that I didn’t begin to know them, nor does any other man I know….Through that experience I learned to respect women more and more.”
Perhaps the most proudly and overtly feminist of these early titles was Foxylady, which debuted in 1975. The brainchild of editor and businesswoman Susan Lentini, this magazine featured hot male cover models and centerfolds, along with articles with titles like Are Women Medicine’s Guinea Pigs?, Science Fiction Steps on Women, Some Sisters Have Balls! (a sports feature) and The First Women’s Bank of New York.
“This is truly a nude era. Can it be possible that censorship of the nude male form should be the last inhibition to be shed in our sophisticated media?” Lentini wrote in the debut issue. “You have been culturally prepared for FOXYLADY by the other women’s magazines. You have the power to choose. FOXYLADY is another approach to attitudes that have evolved from this new consciousness. We will not dwell on subjects that have been discussed to the point of redundancy. We will promote a more contemporary social viewpoint as we celebrate the advantages of being a female in the ’70’s. The time has come to use your sexual politics to make yourself happy. . .and we will tell you how. There is more to FOXYLADY than erotic pictorials. We will provide an informative perspective in often-ignored areas of interest to women.”
Rounding out the 1970s were the woman-oriented adult mags Venus and Coq, about which little information exists—still, though, you gotta love those titles!
In 1981 came Female Fantasies, which despite featuring female cover models did boast a tag line that read, The Magazine for Men and Women; also living up to its name with features that included Fantasy Lovers and The New Gigolo. Also in the 1980s lesbian and queer-identified women finally got their first porno mag, in the form of On Our Backs. Featuring solo and couples pictorials, erotic fiction, essays about lesbian lifestyles, and ads touting everything from lesbian porn videos to burlesque shows to sex chat lines, On Our Backs featured queer women of all body types–plus cover models that ranged from XXX legend Nina Hartley to singer and plus-sized icon Beth Ditto.
In the 1990s our sisters overseas really came into their own, with the publication of For Women magazine in the UK. With a tagline that touted ‘The Magazine for the Sensual Woman,’ For Women promised “What They Don’t Show You In Cosmo! Over 150 Pages Of Hot Hunks! More Hunks Than You Can Handle.”
Also in the UK, Scarlet was a monthly women’s magazine launched in November 2004 with the tag line, “the new magazine for women who get it.” It’s goal was to empower women to lead healthier sex lives through “frank informative features that talk to the readers the way women talk to each other when men aren’t around.” Its erotic fiction section Cliterature attempted to promote safe sex through eroticizing condom use.
We at Scandalouswomen honor and acknowledge the grandmothers and forerunners of the women’s adult magazine market; those daring ladies (and consciousness raising men) who brought us more hunks than we can handle and elevated the conversation on women’s rights and female sexuality.
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