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Hugh Hefner used ‘revenge porn’ to manipulate women long before we even knew what it was


Girls Next Door / MTV

Hugh Hefner used ‘revenge porn’ to manipulate women long before we even knew what it was

Ex-Playboy Bunny Holly Madison recently opened up about her time in the infamous mansion, detailing how Hugh Hefner would photograph women without their permission and then use the images to blackmail them into staying.

The Playboy Mansion sounds even worse than we thought it was, and that’s saying a lot because we already had a fairly good idea of what went on there. A world built on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, life behind closed doors was far less glamorous than Hugh Hefner would have you believe and many ex-bunnies continue to be haunted by their troublesome pasts. Holly Madison amongst them, who has been very vocal about her experience in recent years.

Famed for her seven-year relationship with the late Playboy mogul, Madison was considered to be Hefner’s “main girlfriend” during that period – though he also dated many other women, including Kendra Wilkinson and Bridget Marquardt, at the same time. Initially believing that she actually was in love with him, Madison admits that it was “a very Stockholm syndrome type of thing” and she definitely feels differently about the relationship now.

“I just felt like I identified with him and he was complimenting me so much in the beginning,” she said during an interview on the Call Her Daddy podcast earlier this year. “I just started to, in my mind, blame all the other problems on the other women. Like, ‘Oh, this is a miserable situation, but if these other women weren’t here, it wouldn’t be like that.’” The compliments soon dried up though and Hefner became much more volatile towards Madison.

“He started lashing out at me more for really stupid things and I realised, like, I can’t be here. Like, this guy is an a**hole,” she continued. Recalling a time when she cut her hair in an attempt to differentiate herself from the multitude of other beautiful, blonde women living at Hugh’s bachelor pad, Holly said that Hefner took the change very badly. “I came back with short hair and he flipped out on me. He was screaming at me that it made me look old, hard, and cheap.”

Shocking as his reaction was, it wasn’t out of the ordinary, Marquardt noted. “Hef would be pretty abrasive in the way he said things to Holly. She came down with red lipstick on one time and he, like, flipped out and said he hated red lipstick on girls, [and that she] should take it off right away. Even though other people could wear red lipstick and it didn’t seem to bother him.”

Those are just surface-level examples though and there were much more sinister things happening behind the scenes. According to the now mum-of-two, Hefner would ply women with copious amounts of alcohol and drugs he called “thigh-openers” as a way to make them more compliant. The foul play didn’t stop there either. Apparently, Hefner was known to always have a disposable camera on him at parties and would regularly take photos of girls in an array of compromising positions. “These women were almost always intoxicated. I know I was – heavily intoxicated,” Madison noted on the Power: Hugh Hefner podcast.

Hefner would then get the photos developed, make copies and give them to everyone that was out that night – all without the women’s consent or knowledge. “They wouldn’t just be his regular girlfriends,” Madison explained. “They would be new girls who were joining him for a night for the first time, or women who had flown out from across the country to test for a centerfold in allegedly professional conditions. And they’d be invited out and oftentimes would be pressured, not necessarily directly by him. He’s constantly taking all these pictures, and he would make copies of all the pictures and hand them out to everyone who had gone out that night.

“So, if you were messed up and if you were in his bathtub with your top off and some other girl is doing some sexually explicit pose on you and he took a picture of that on his disposable camera, he’d make a copy and give it to everyone that night and put it in a scrapbook. I found out years later [that] he wanted to donate his scrapbooks to a public library,” she added.

It’s only after years of reflection that Madison is able to see the behaviour for what it really was though. “It’s kind of revenge porn before I even knew what revenge porn was,” she confessed. “It’s like, you’re taking these pictures. They’re not consensual because you’re so wasted. And the next morning you find out they’ve been given out to everybody who was out with you. I don’t know if he just assumed that was okay because all these women want to be in the magazine so bad. ‘They must be okay with getting naked, so I’m going to take pictures while they’re wasted and just hand those pictures out.’ That’s the kind of thing that can make you feel kind of stuck in a situation or overinvested… It’s one of those things that makes you feel a little more backed into a corner.”

Madison’s comments corroborate much of what was shown in a recent documentary that aired on American TV channel A&E at the start of this year. However, not everyone is always so happy to hear her speak out against the late Hefner though and the model says that she’s received plenty of hate for telling her story. “One thing that I always have to deal with [is] strangers’ misconceptions of me, or how that whole situation worked. There’s always people who get mad because I speak out.”

But they don’t just get mad; they blame her and try to shift culpability back onto Madison. “‘She knew what she was getting into.’ I can’t tell you how many people say that to me. I don’t know how they can form that opinion because they don’t know anything about the context of the time period or what people knew about his private life. I think it’s kind of a misogynistic thing. [There’s an assumption that] if there’s a situation that involves a woman and sex and you’re over the legal age of consent… then you’re completely responsible, and any negative about the situation is your fault from then on, and you should have known what you were getting into. But there was absolutely no way for me to have known all the nuances of the situation.”

Hefner would tell Madison all the things he thought she wanted to hear, and they worked because she started to believe that he really cared for her. In modern terms – he love-bombed her (when partners lavish someone in affection as a way to manipulate them). Madison is confident that Hefner’s treatment of women would “never be accepted today”… but unfortunately, revenge porn (for lack of a better phrase) is still a pertinent issue in modern society. Even on our humble shores.

Just last year thousands of people signed a petition calling to make the practice a criminal offence after a number of sexually explicit images and videos of women were shared online without their consent. “The impact of this type of insidious abuse cannot be underestimated,” Margaret Martin, former Director of Women’s Aid, told RTÉ back in 2019. Stressing that “our language matters around this issue”, she also proposed that the phrase “revenge porn” be retired as it feeds into the culture of victim-blaming (particularly when it comes to women). “It’s not revenge, it’s not porn,” she pointed out. “It is abuse and this type of abuse is one of the deepest betrayals of trust by a boyfriend or ex.”

Authorities responded accordingly last year and the Department of Justice has put a new system in place to help combat image and video-based sexual abuse. Victims of this type of abuse can now report that their content has been shared without their consent by way of an online hotline. New laws have also been introduced to safeguard victims and if convicted of sharing images without consent, a person could face jail time. Introduced on February 10 2021, the new act – known as Coco’s Law or the Harassment, Harmful Communications, and Related Offences Act – makes it a criminal offence to share intimate content without consent.