I was walking to school with my sisters or neighbor kids, I’m not sure who was with me. Sometime in the fifth or sixth grade, which would have made me ten or eleven years old. As we walk I notice something on the ground off to the side, washed up in the gutter. Just some trash, some pages from a newspaper or magazine. I glance down as we walk past the trash, and the images I see as we walk by barely register. Wait, what was that? There was a picture of a man smiling. But something was different. Did I also see a penis? We’ve walked past now, and my mind is trying to put the pieces together. Smiling man… penis… was that man naked? Were those pages from a Playgirl?
I know what a Playgirl magazine is, as well as Playboy. I’ve never seen either myself, except high up on the magazine shelves or behind the cash register at the 7-Eleven. Long ago my sisters and I found my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex so we know the lay of the land in terms of basic anatomy (not to mention various sex positions) but the images in that book are hand-drawn and mostly black and white. Also the people in that book look like hippies. But Playboy and Playgirl – colorful, contemporary, up close, sexy.
Sexy? I’m only just starting to be thinking about sexy. Naked is interesting, but I’m still on the cusp of associating naked bodies with sexual yearnings. It’s formative now, like a world just about to be discovered.
I’m walking along with other kids, so there is no way I can go back and check if those pages in the gutter were really from a Playgirl. But wait, here come some more. Nobody seems to have noticed them, and we keep walking. I look quickly and furtively and see more images of naked men on the crumpled pages. This time it’s certain – I’m not imagining this. But I can’t do anything, yet.
After school I walk home alone, hoping I can find the magazine pages. Some are gone, but a couple of pages are still there. I hastily snatch them up and look around to make sure nobody has seen me. I stuff them between my books and hurry home. I look at the images and my dick gets hard. I don’t understand the implications of this, I just know I like what I see.
This would be the start of a relationship with Playgirl magazine that would span decades.
* * *
This was the 1980s, years before the internet. For me and others like me, Playgirl was the best known option for getting a glimpse of that forbidden world.
It would be a couple more years before I got my hands on a complete copy of Playgirl. This time I’m in the eighth grade, just turned fourteen. My best friend is a compulsive liar and trouble-maker. He never does me wrong, but as we hit adolescence I’m starting to get an idea of what kinds of mischief he is capable of. He is masterfully good at crank calls, but he’s past that childish stuff now. He’s moved on to shoplifting. He starts with swiping candy, then moves on to small toys and games, then books. He’s getting more and more brazen, and he’s on a roll.
He tells me he wants to shoplift some Playboys, and asks me if I want one too. He’ll take a couple, one for each of us. “Sure” I say. I don’t dare tell him which magazine I really want.
It doesn’t matter, because he beats me to it. “I also want to get a Playgirl,” he says. “Might as well get both. Do you want one?”
“Sure,” I tell him, trying to remain cool. “I mean, if you’re getting both, might as well.
He goes into the store, then comes back out a few minutes later. “I only got the Playgirls,” he says, and hands me one.
In retrospect, this all should have added up. After all, this is the same friend who I’d hung out naked after we’d gone swimming one afternoon. We didn’t do anything sexual, but we’d been naked together. I’d seen his dick. But I did not know enough about things to make sense this, and what the implications were.
* * *
This was the start of my secret relationship with Playgirl. My friend would not steal another one – he’d moved on to bigger and increasingly brazen things – so I had to come up with new strategies.
First, I sent in the subscription card with my sister’s name and our home address. A few weeks later the magazine arrived wrapped in brown paper, and my mom put it on the dining room table not knowing what it was. When my sister unwrapped it, she was perplexed but also intrigued and amused. Which one of her friends had pulled this prank, she wondered? We all got a laugh out of it, mom and dad included. Later, when nobody was looking, I swiped it. This lasted for a couple more issues, but since I didn’t send any money with the subscription card the magazines stopped coming eventually.
Now what? The neighbors two doors down were away for the summer. Their house – and their mailbox – were sitting empty. I sent in another subscription card, and within a few weeks another Playgirl was deposited into their otherwise empty mailbox. But the day after I’d snatched the first issue from their mailbox, they were back in the house and receiving their own mail.
But now I’m sixteen and have a driver’s license. It occurs to me to get a post office box. Would they give a sixteen year old a post office box? I drive to a far-away branch office where there is less of a chance of running into someone I know. I fill out the form, hand over the cash, and the P.O. box is mine. Bingo! My heart races as I contemplate the possibilities. I have my own secret address. I race home and send in a paid subscription.
The magazines come once a month, and I watch the calendar with anticipation. I know the approximate day of the month that the new issue is delivered, but it can vary a day or two. I drive to the remote post office with a mixture of giddiness and trepidation. Sometimes I open the door to the P.O. box and it is empty; my heart sinks. When I open the box and see the magazine rolled up inside, I feel a rush of excitement.
Half-way through high school, my dad gets a job in another state and we all move. I get another P.O. box at another remote post office, this one tucked away in the basement of a shopping mall. I transfer the subscription and the ritual continues through the end of high school.
One day I’m at the post office with my mom. This isn’t the post office in the shopping mall basement, it’s the shiny new branch near our house that we go to a couple of times a week. As we walk through the lobby on our way out I notice a boy about my age (or maybe a bit older) closing up a post office box. He grabs a handful of mail and walks out. His clothes are cool and he’s handsome – “cute” as they say at school. I wonder if he’s doing the same thing I’ve been doing, receiving the same kind of mail I’ve been receiving. I wonder if he’s like me. I figure he’s like me.
* * *
It’s easy to live a contradiction when you’re in denial. At the very same time that I was making my monthly pilgrimage to my secret post office box, I was receiving Playboy magazines at home. My parents were liberal-minded so did not question me when I said I was old enough to order my own subscription. My older sister snorted with disapproval, but nobody put a stop to it. While my parents were progressive, they were not reckless, and knew Playboy magazines were tame enough for a curious teenage boy.
While my motivation to openly subscribe to Playboy at home was partly to create a cover for myself, there was a deeper and more desperate objective too. I knew deep inside what turned me on, and that was found in Playgirl. But I wanted to change. I figured if I jacked off to the images of women in Playboy, over time I’d associate those images with sex and sexual urges. Over time I’d get myself to change. Nobody told me to do this or think that this could work, it was something I came up with on my own.
But anyone who has tried to change their sexuality knows how futile it is. The breasts were attractive and spectacular, but they did not make my dick hard. No matter how much I tried, my self-diagnosed conversion therapy failed to deliver.
* * *
The trips to the post office continued through college. Different town, different post office, same routine. Same anticipation and excitement each time. In fact, that giddy excitement is something I never outgrew.
I outgrew the denial, though, and eventually allowed the post office box to close. I bought my magazines in the light of day from stores in the Castro, and better yet, started having sex with guys. Just writing those words, “having sex with guys” makes my dick start to stir.
Playgirl continues to have a special place in my heart though. There was something innocent and almost charming about the guys in those early issues. They had casual poses, like they’d just been hanging around and been caught unaware. I’d fantasize that maybe the guy in the photo was a friend of my sister’s, or my friend’s older brother, or an older boy at school. Maybe I’d just run into him while he was changing or showering, and I got to check him out. Looking at those photos as a teenager, I’d objectified their bodies but had not yet accepted the possibility of being sexually intimate with them.
Through the 90s Playgirl got more and more racy. There were more hard-ons to be seen, and after a while there were guys stroking their hard-ons. Coincidentally, this evolution coincided with my acceptance of and my acting on wanting to have sex with guys. The guys in the photos were not as passive as before – the possibility and fantasy of having sex with them was real.
And yet, I still like to go back and look at those old photos. Given the plethora of porn on the web, I still like the old Playgirl photo spreads. I rarely pick up a Playgirl these days (in fact, for a few years they stopped publishing the magazine all together), and yet there is something about those photo spreads that resonates with me like nothing else. More to the story I suppose.