The Biggest Names in Sex

Playboy's list of the most important people in sex from the past 55 years—and, no, Hef isn't No. 1—reminds the author why we still need America's smartest smut. And not just for the articles.

01.13.09 6:10 AM ET

This month, on the occasion of its 55th anniversary, Playboy published a list of the 55 most important people in sex from the past 55 years. Number three on the list is the magazine’s founder, Hugh Hefner. Number eight is Timothy Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web. Both men irrevocably changed the modern experience of sex, one intentionally and meticulously, the other inadvertently and chaotically. The half-century between the two marks a profound cultural shift that has for all intents and purposes doomed Hefner’s magazine—even as Playboy, or an updated version of it, has become more necessary than ever.

Without a single black person on the list, it makes no recognition of the influence that African-American sexual culture has had on American society at large.

Reading the Playboy list, what quickly jumps out is that sex is as much a cultural force as a private act. The entries touch on science, cinema, music, politics, fashion, literature, law, and business. Senior editor Chip Rowe looked for those people who have had the most influence on sexual culture, for better or worse. (Full disclosure: I have written for Playboy for years and am friends with Chip.) “There’s really no arguing with the top 25,” he says. That’s not exactly true. Many people have argued with number six, Monica Lewinsky, who is included on the grounds that if not for her, Al Gore would have won the 2000 election. But most of the top tier have indeed irrefutably shaped sex culture in profound ways, and it’s fun to trace lineages among them: From Marilyn Monroe to Madonna; from Helen Gurley Brown to Erica Jong.

There are serious entries to chew over as well: Estelle Griswold, whose arrest for distributing birth control led to the Supreme Court declaration of a right to privacy in the bedroom; Catherine MacKinnon, whose theorizing lies at the heart of sexual-harassment law.

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Rowe acknowledges that the closer you get to number 55, the more you’re in a gray area, where almost any person could have been swapped out for someone who ended up ranked between 56 and 100. He’s been flooded with complaints about overlooked sex stars, and says that most of them were considered and simply didn’t quite make the cut: Bettie Page, Xaviera Hollander, Larry Flynt, Terry Southern, Prince, David Bowie, Shere Hite, John Money, Dan Savage.

One recurring judgment Rowe had to make was whether to give the nod to the “pioneer” or the “popularizer.” Joani Blank founded the most well-known female-friendly sex-toy boutique, Good Vibrations, but she was beaten to the concept by Dell Williams (#54) of Eve’s Garden. On the other hand, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry performed sex-infused rock ‘n’ roll before Elvis Presley (#14), but, Rowe concluded, “Elvis’ influence was ten times any of those people.”

That raises what is, to my mind, the most glaring problem with the list. Without a single black person on it, it makes no recognition of the influence that African-American sexual culture has had on American society at large. The black-power movement of the 1970s was intertwined with a celebration of black male prowess. And hip hop’s sexual (and frequently sexist) swagger has become the erotic lingua franca of young Americans of all races. I proposed to Rowe that these should have been represented by, for instance, Richard Roundtree and LL Cool J. He admitted he should have considered them, but still put them in the gray area of 40 to 100.

“There are only a few suggestions people have made that I knocked myself in the side of the head for totally missing,” says Rowe. These include Evelyn Hooker, the psychologist whose work is largely responsible for the fact that homosexuality is no longer classified as a mental disorder, and, perhaps somewhat less crucially, my own proposal of Bob Clark, the writer and director of Porky’s. Rowe will cop to only one person would have ranked very high on the list if he’d thought of him: Patient Zero. Instead, the AIDS crisis is represented by Rock Hudson, who put a face on it for most Americans—a choice Rowe acknowledges as inadequate.

Somewhat depressingly, the gay-rights movement’s only representative is the enemy who most galvanized it: Anita Bryant (#23). “Stonewall was more important, but there was no one figure behind it,” says Rowe, who also considered Harvey Milk and Larry Kramer. Playboy has always championed gay rights as part of its overall vision of sexual freedom, and Rowe says he believes that if this list were to be revised in another two or three decades, the inevitably coming acceptance of gay marriage and of transgendered people would surely determine the makeup of the top ten.

But the fact is that the list will almost certainly never be revised. Playboy has been struggling financially for years and few magazine industry observers would bet on a 75th-anniversary issue. There is no single reason for this, but certainly part of the blame can be placed on the shoulders of Tim Berners-Lee. The fire hose of unfettered sex on the Web has rendered Playboy’s airbrushed nudes helplessly anachronistic. And yet it has also created a sexual environment that would seem to demand a sophisticated, unembarrassed, mainstream interpreter. The “crude, 30-second pleasures” of the Web, as Rowe calls them, short-circuit any attempt to consider sex in the broader context of society and of life. For five and a half decades, Playboy has been one of the few outlets filling that role. Where else do you see sex consistently taken both seriously and playfully as a form of popular culture, without any hypocritically reflexive condemnation? Who else but Playboy could have published this list with any claim to authority?

Rowe says that part of Playboy’s problem is its own longevity. “All the things that we advocated in the first ten years have come to pass,” he observes. And the magazine’s editors are aware that something needs to change. They just don’t seem to know what. “It’s not what it was in 1953,” says Rowe. “It’s not as straightforward as it was then, when you published a picture of a topless woman and set the world on fire.”

Playboy's list of the most important people in sex from the past 55 years—and, no, Hef isn't No. 1—reminds the author why we still need America's smartest smut. And not just for the articles.

1 Alfred Kinsey

2 Dr. John Rock

3 Hugh Hefner

4 Alex Comfort

5 Marilyn Monroe

6 Monica Lewinsky

7 The Rolling Stones

8 Timothy Berners-Lee

9 Peter Dunn and Albert Wood

10 Madonna

11 Helen Gurley Brown

12 Charles Ginsburg

13 Ruth Westheimer

14 Elvis Presley

15 Masters and Johnson

16 Howard Stern

17 Ed Meese

18 Brigitte Bardot

19 Estelle Griswold

20 Bo Derek

21 Catharine MacKinnon

22 Vladimir Nabokov

23 Anita Bryant

24 Farrah Fawcett

25 Erica Jong

26 Barney Rosset

27 Germaine Greer

28 Christine Jorgensen

29 Pamela Anderson

30 Frank Sinatra

31 Nancy Friday

32 Jenna Jameson

33 William O. Douglas

34 Philip Roth

35 Charles Keating Jr.

36 Candace Bushnell

37 Dr. Mary Calderone

38 Beverly Whipple

39 Alberto Vargas

40 Potter Stewart

41 Linda Lovelace

42 Mike Nichols

43 Betty Dodson

44 Dr. David Reuben

45 Ian Fleming

46 Lenny Bruce

47 Gloria Steinem

48 Robert Mapplethorpe

49 Danni Ashe

50 J. Edgar Hoover

51 Gay Talese

52 Rock Hudson

53 Bernardo Bertolucci

54 Dell Williams

55 Rudi Gernreich

Daniel Radosh is the author of Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture and a contributing editor at The Week magazine.