In an analog era, newspapers and magazines provided much of the essential HIV/AIDS reporting in the United States by disseminating updates on the evolving medical consensus that shaped an emergent pandemic politics.
Among the popular magazines of the 1980s, Playboy had a unique vantage point on the crisis. The AIDS epidemic ― and the moral panic it engendered — threatened not only the magazine’s business model but its worldview. The magazine’s focus on sexual liberation, tolerance, and civil liberties meant that it recognized the political threat posed by HIV/AIDS — both to marginalized communities and sexual freedom — with a clarity that other magazines lacked.
On the edge of disaster
In a cultural sense, the free-love era of the 1970s conclusively ended on July 3, 1981, when The New York Times reported on an emerging health threat under the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” This was the first widely available account of a mysterious virus that, by 1983, would be known globally as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Most non-specialists knew the virus by its late-stage ― and, at that point, terminal ― development: AIDS.
It can be difficult for those under the age of 40 to comprehend how devastating those early years were before either effective antiretroviral treatment or the prevention drugs pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) existed.
In 1979, the World Health Organization eradicated smallpox, which unleashed a feeling that anything was possible. However, the then-elusive nature of HIV transmission, coupled with potentially long incubation periods, short-circuited medical optimism about the end of viral infections.
Politics also exacerbated the health crisis. President Reagan (1981-1989) did not publicly use the word “AIDS” until September 1985, a full four years after the crisis officially began. As the death toll rose, magazines such as Time and Newsweek tried to fill the leadership gap by raising awareness, though they often did so in ways that fueled paranoia and prejudice.
For example, Newsweek‘s first cover story on AIDS ― published in 1983 under the bold headline EPIDEMIC ― announced that “a new and deadly disease is coursing through the country wasting bodies of victims, incubating in an untold number of others who have yet to show symptoms and triggering one of the most intensive investigations in medical history.”
Other publications, like the Los Angeles Times, began to poll people in the United States about their reactions to people diagnosed with HIV. While the ostensible goal was to combat prejudice, this type of reporting often perpetuated the stigma it was meant to alleviate.
Playboy focused on risk assessments in the initial stages of the crisis, excelling at judicious reporting of official data. However, its unique position in the culture — both mainstream and niche — allowed it to channel the rage of an era soaked in death much more effectively than weekly magazines that tried to stake out a “middle ground.”
Into the abyss
In the mid-20th century, Playboy magazine was a cultural behemoth. It debuted in December 1953, and by 1960, it was selling one million copies per month. By the early 1960s, with the arrival of the contraceptive pill and as the sexual revolution was about to ignite, founder Hugh Hefner staked his future on six pillars: sexual liberation, personal freedom, consumerism, free speech, rationalism, and secularism. Under that formula, by 1975, at the apex of the sexual revolution, an astonishing 5.6 million copies of the magazine circulated monthly.
Yet the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s threatened Playboy‘s libertarian ethos at a fundamental level. While other mainstream publications tried to maintain a measured air toward the crisis, Playboy raged. It recognized that HIV/AIDS mercilessly struck down people in their prime and that the epidemic was rapidly becoming not only a health catastrophe but a political and cultural disaster.
In October 1983, Playboy contributor David Nimmons scathingly argued, “All we had to worry about was plain old V.D. [venereal disease]. Then, when V.D. became a ‘sexually transmitted disease,’ the media swung their klieg lights into place, and we got ‘scourges’ or, even better, ‘plagues.'” Playboy writers like Nimmons were attuned to the media language of HIV and AIDS quite early, calling out the way in which the media often stoked fear and boosted the cultural backlash being orchestrated by political actors such as evangelist Jerry Falwell and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC).
Nimmons also explicitly criticized the previously mentioned Newsweek article, noting that “‘incubating in untold numbers’ … is journalese for ‘We dunno.'” Most importantly, the article confronted the issue of homophobia and stigma with clarity, arguing: “About AIDS being a ‘gay’ disease: It’s not. There’s no such thing. Germs can swing both ways, and they don’t care whom their hosts sleep with.”
Addressing the HIV virus’ reality
By the mid-1980s, Playboy was openly politicizing the cultural dynamics of the crisis. It linked the deliberate cultivation of paranoia about the gay rights movement (and the demonization of gay men) to a broader cultural agenda intent on reversing every step forward made in the 1970s: “We’re facing a rerun of the Dark Ages. … While it is easy to scorn the parents we see on television who won’t allow their children to sit in the same class as a victim of AIDS, the darker possibility is that those parents are going to start forbidding gay teachers to even enter the classroom.”
Simultaneously, the magazine tried to depoliticize medical issues that were vulnerable to manipulation. In June 1986, for example, Playboy bluntly called out the new morality police when it declared, “Some people have the idea that sex causes AIDS. That’s not true. … What causes AIDS is a virus — a tiny, delicate shred of genetic material — called HTLV-III/LAV.”
Such editorializing might seem unremarkable today or the bare minimum of consideration one should give those living with a chronic illness. But in the context of the 1980s, it was unusual for a popular magazine to explicitly decouple HIV and AIDS from blame and to confront the deeply entrenched notion that the infection and condition were a punishment rendered unto those who had sinned. As Arthur Kretchmer warned, “It’s no surprise that Jerry Falwell is working this street. AIDS almost lives up to Falwell’s idea of a dream disease — one that would instantly strike dead anyone having sex not sanctioned by his church.”
In July 1987, when it had become obvious that no vaccine was imminent and the death toll had risen to more than 20,000 people, contributor Cynthia Heimel urged Playboy‘s readers to realize that “in place of hysteria, we need compassion and dignity. We need to work incessantly to find a cure, a vaccine. We must stop blaming the victims of AIDS and instead mourn their tragedy. It’s the only way to set the life force back on track.”
Against the backdrop of fourth-wave feminism and the #MeToo movement, Playboy has lost much of its cultural cachet. Yet, however self-serving Hefner’s ethos might have been in other respects, on the issue of HIV/AIDS, his magazine called out hypocrisy, mendacity, and fear at a time when the government seemed willfully oblivious to the human toll of the disease and the danger of the new puritanism.
Though an imperfect messenger, Playboy played an unwavering role in debunking stigma and elevating the rights of maligned and vulnerable communities. Today’s publications should take note and follow suit.