On Wednesday, Nicole Cliffe—noted Twitter personality and Slate columnist—got the Penthouse treatment. The magazine’s official account tweeted an actually-quite-flattering caricature of Cliffe, with the message that she’d been put on something called #TheNewPuritansList for being “our favorite Mean Mommie” and siccing “mobs” on people. I gasped at the most bizarrely derogatory reference to motherhood I’d seen in a while; Cliffe seemed undisturbed, promptly making the caricature her Twitter avatar.
And Cliffe fans not accustomed to thinking of Penthouse at all suddenly wondered: Is the iconic 20th-century porn mag part of the intellectual dark web now? The answer, a qualified yes, is extremely instructive if you’re trying to understand how decades-old fights over feminism have morphed into undercurrents of the messy partisan politics of 2018.
Penthouse’s tagline in the 1990s was “sex, politics, and protest”; the 20th-century magazine’s editorial content is inevitably described as “pushing boundaries.” “The magazine infuriated feminists and conservatives, but others praised it for breaking taboos,” Robert D. McFadden writes (in an example of infuriating New York Times both sides–ism) in founder Bob Guccione’s 2010 obituary. And that founder explicitly thought of the magazine as a political project. “I think we made a very serious contribution to the liberalization of laws and attitudes,” Guccione said to Anthony Haden-Guest in New York magazine in 2004. “Much that has happened in the Western world with respect to sexual advances is directly due to steps that we took.”
Like its rival Playboy, 20th-century Penthouse had its ambitions to contribute to culture and political discourse. It published Philip Roth, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anne Rice, and interviewed Isaac Asimov. Anna Wintour worked as a fashion editor at Guccione’s Viva, a magazine for women that ran male nudes (though Wintour allegedly saw the job as beneath her and has tended to downplay that part of her biography). Guccione loved science and started Omni magazine, which was genuinely good. For a while in the late ’80s, he and his wife funded a group of 82 scientists working on cold fusion in San Diego.
Yet, always, there were the photographs of naked women—and some of the “boundaries” those photographs pushed earned critique from feminists. In the 1980s, activists Melissa Farley and Nikki Craft carried out a two-year protest they called a “Rampage Against Penthouse.” In a later reflection, Farley described the bondage-themed Penthouse pictorial that sparked their protest of the magazine’s advocacy of what they called “femicide”: “Nine images of Asian women tied up with heavy rope, bound tightly with ropes cutting into their ankles, wrists, labias, and buttocks. … Two of the images show women bound and hanging from trees, heads lolling forward, apparently dead.”
In the course of their protests of the magazine, Farley and Craft and their fellow activists burned an effigy of Bob Guccione in Wisconsin; ripped up copies of Penthouse in bookstores, while telling stories of their own sexual assaults; and handed out provocative fliers asking people to call for advertiser boycotts of the magazine. One, preserved in the digital collection of Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, featured a picture of a naked man with Guccione’s head photoshopped onto it and the caption: “Bob Guccione is the publisher of Penthouse, a handbook for rapists.”
In the 21st century, Penthouse has endured a litany of financial troubles. Perhaps in response to these stressors, Penthouse Australia—a licensee of the brand with no editorial connection with the American magazine—has gone all the way alt-right.* It’s published articles like “Why Right-Wing Girls Are Better Girlfriends” (“If you want a girl who’s a package deal, ditch those leftist-feminazis and try your luck with an empowered, freedom-focused, right-wing glamour girl,” writer Daisy Cousens advised) and organized speaking tours for figures like Gavin McInnes and Milo Yiannopoulos.* (The McInnes tour was canceled after he was denied a visa.)
But the American magazine’s politics could best be characterized as inconsistent. Other people on the “New Puritan List” with Cliffe include Alex Jones, Laura Loomer, and Roger Goodell (“After not paying taxes for years, @nflcommish Roger Goodell had the nerve to accuse @kaepernick7 of being unpatriotic. But what’s more unpatriotic than censoring a man’s free speech?” Penthouse’s account tweeted). Penthouse has even angered Trump fans: In January of 2017, the magazine announced that it would pay $1 million for “exclusive rights to the FSB tapes of Donald Trump’s #goldenshowers”; in May, the magazine put Stormy Daniels on the cover, calling her “The Penthouse Pet of the Century” and offering her space to dish about the president’s failings in the bedroom.
Penthouse Media Group’s former CEO, Kelly Holland, arrived on the job in 2016 to some media fanfare, because of her gender and her self-proclaimed feminism.* Libby Copeland interviewed Holland that year for Esquire. Holland called herself a “born-again leftist” and proudly described a record of being an ally of women in the sex industry. When Copeland asked about the magazine’s turn toward coverage of social issues, Holland cited a piece about Utah’s anti-porn resolution that also critiqued the state’s record on other quality-of-life measures. “The cover was ‘Utah’s governor wants to handle your penis,’ ” Holland told Copeland, with some measure of glee. The magazine sent copies of the issue to that governor, Gary Herbert, as well as leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The magazine’s current executive editor, Mish Barber-Way, also describes herself as a “longtime feminist” and has a degree in women’s studies.*
But in other instances, the magazine has given voice to a motley crew of people on the right. Alan Dershowitz—who also contributed to Penthouse back in the day, showing some continuity between past and present—wrote for the December 2016 issue on the topic “Does Porn Cause Harm?” (Guess his answer!) In September, the magazine profiled Blaire White, a trans YouTuber who supports Donald Trump. The December issue’s cover reads “The Culture Wars,” and the magazine features Jordan Peterson (“Dad of the Moment”); Claire Lehmann, the founding editor of Quillette; Debra Soh, a Canadian neuroscientist and science writer notable for defending James Damore’s position that gender differences account for women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields and arguing against allowing trans children to transition; and Dennis Hof, the brothel owner and Joe Arpaio pal who died before being elected to the Nevada State Assembly. A piece about Mike Cernovich took a critical tone.* Libertarian journalist Art Tavana wrote a sympathetic profile of female gun rights activists for the same issue, sharing an excerpt on Twitter that describes Dana Loesch as “ a right-wing vamp,” “a cultural bump stock in a movement that’s inspired conservative women to transform into gimlet-eyed Bond girls.” Tomi Lahren retweeted his promotional tweet: “Amen!”
The magazine seems to swing farthest right when it touches on gender politics directly. Penthouse columnist Leah McSweeney has published pieces critiquing the #MeToo movement using a combination of empty generalizations and reductionism. In a pair of essays, McSweeney mischaracterized the movement’s hashtag as #BelieveAllWomen (it’s #BelieveWomen, and that difference matters) and wrote that she doesn’t think that Asia Argento or Rose McGowan were really “raped” by Harvey Weinstein. Perhaps most disturbingly, Penthouse compiled and circulated a timeline of events of Asia Argento’s actions before Anthony Bourdain’s death, essentially accusing her of causing his suicide. “Toxic femininity exists. We can’t continue to deny that,” McSweeney wrote. For McSweeney, Argento and McGowan are #MeToo, and their personal failings condemn the entire movement. The many, many other revelations of male misconduct in multiple industries beyond Hollywood remain undiscussed.
The magazine’s treatment of other contemporary hot-button political issues can be charitably described as confused. The December 2016 issue featured a superweird pictorial called “Black Wives Matter.” In this little story, “Anya” (the black model) leaves her keys at work and one of her neighbors, seeing her get out her spare key, calls the cops: “After all, Anya is a woman of color, so she must be up to no good.” The second protagonist of the spread is “Scarlett Sage,” a blond female police officer who is “one of the good ones.” You can guess where this goes—it involves a lot of photos of Anya up against a police cruiser, and Scarlett wielding cuffs. The spread opens with a quote from Rosa Parks: “Racism is still with us, but it is up to us to prepare our children for what we have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”
Maybe this inherent inconsistency—we’re a magazine that promotes “free thought,” so long as this “free thought” is of the type that turns men on—has been baked into the Penthouse concept for years. In a truly mind-blowing reframing of history, Damien Costas, Penthouse Australia’s publisher, told Kishor Napier-Raman of the Australian politics website Crikey in November that “Penthouse (and indeed Playboy) were at the forefront of the culture wars [during the 1960s], fighting for women’s rights and civil rights. … Today, we’re still fighting for freedom of speech. We’re still fighting against those in positions of power who would quash debate rather than engage in it.”
When Playboy’s Hugh Hefner died, in September of last year, some hailed him as a champion of the First Amendment and a supporter of abortion rights, while others pointed out that the magazine he ran, and the lifestyle he championed, was inherently misogynistic. As my colleague Christina Cauterucci pointed out at the time, the man ran a magazine that was explicitly antagonistic to feminism (“these chicks are our natural enemy,” an internal Playboy memo recorded him saying of second-wave feminists) while being built on the bodies of women.
Penthouse is still working through this problem today. Looked at from this angle, it makes sense that the magazine has found common cause with the crew of thinkers on the right. As with the “civil rights” the old Penthouse fought for, if you strip away the supposedly “free-thinking” politics of today’s alt-right, you always find misogyny at the core.
Correction, Dec. 15, 2018: The original version of this article described Penthouse Australia as “Penthouse’s Australian edition.” The two magazines are separate entities. Additionally, this article originally misidentified Kelly Holland as Penthouse’s current CEO, and it characterized Gavin McInnes as an alt-right figure (he has asserted that he is not part of that movement).
Update, Dec. 15, 2018: This article originally mentioned Cernovich without specifying that the piece in Penthouse’s December issue was a critical one.