- - Wednesday, October 4, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Hugh Hefner dies at 91 and women in Saudi Arabia get royal permission to drive a car. These two markers separated by continents and cultures, one in the West and the other in the East, dramatically reflect the changing ways men and women relate to each other.

Hefner was largely responsible for a sexual revolution that affects us all in ways that both hurt and help both men and women in the never-ending war between the sexes. It’s true that neither side will win this war because there’s too much fraternizing with the enemy. It’s more like the push and pull of ying and yang, that never ends.

The founder of the Playboy “philosophy” packaged sexuality just as women in the West discarded girdles and pantyhose, sometime stand-ins for chastity belts, and moved toward liberation by the Pill, freed for careers and from dependence on the men in their lives. Men abetted the changes, buying expensive toys advertised in Playboy which they imagined would be more glamorous and lead to more sophisticated seductions. Women in turn freed men from binding commitments.

In Saudi Arabia, isolated from Western civilization on the darker edges of Shariah law, Mohammed bin Salman, a crown prince soon to be king, seems to understand that the times, they must be a’changin’, not as swiftly as in America when Bob Dylan sang his famous lyrics late in the previous century, but digitally in the new. The global economy linked by the internet depends on women in the workplace, and the prince has laid out ambitious plans for economic reform that includes women.

The ruling royal family in Saudi Arabia is the last stronghold of male chauvinism, with the Koran as a constitution, but as oil prices fall and women become crucial to the economy, the time to let the ladies drive is clearly at hand.

Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who was jailed in 2011 after she posted a video on YouTube showing her driving a car, fled to Australia. She says now that “economic stagnation” is what will change things on the Saudi road. Better women drivers than no cars for anyone. “They cannot afford keeping the women in the back seat,” she tells CNN. Such a prohibition is expensive, wasteful and doesn’t play well elsewhere in the world.

But what will happen to the loosening of sexual attitudes in the land where mixing of the sexes in public places is still taboo, where women’s bodies must be covered with robes and scarves when they venture out of the harem, is not yet clear. The government’s economic reforms, backed by the Saudi business class, draws the ire of powerful and vexatious clerics on whom the royals depend for their power. The imams warn of the coming of “loose morals.” But as the king implied in his decree, not allowing women to drive will discourage foreign investment. Cadillac Arabia already advertises with a woman behind the wheel with only her eyeliner eyes exposed: “Show them what it means to drive the world forward.”

In earlier America, when the automobile liberated the libidos of the young, one moralist called automobiles “brothels on wheels.” Men and women were suddenly freed for dalliance in the cramped confines of a car, even in the back seat of a Volkswagen. Hefner recognized that a revolution was at hand.

For all of the psychological and economic exploitation of women behind the Playboy philosophy — the objectification of women as more body than soul — for better or worse the revolution elevated the tone and style of courtship. Camille Paglia was right when she told the Hollywood Reporter that compared to the rabid ideology of radical feminists who want only to make an enemy of men, the Playboy philosophy promised mutual disarmament.

The philosopher envisioned satisfaction for both sexes through conversation over good writing, which he published by the likes of Norman Mailer, Roald Dahl and Jack Kerouac, with fine food and wine abetting flirtation. It didn’t always happen that way, but that was the goal.

Long before its author’s death, the decadent Playboy philosophy descended ever deeper into vulgarity. By the time the millennials arrived, the quantity of clumsy hookups was more important than the quality of a mutual relationship. On the campus, romance became easier to find in an English-lit anthology than on an actual date, with its potential for discovery. Rather than take control of their sexual lives, college women, confronting the coarsening of coupling, now cry harassment and rape, pleading with administrators for supervision and surveillance of their social lives. The sexual revolution delivered with mixed messages and multiple wounds.

Now that Saudi women can drive, will they drive down the highway paved with temptation toward promiscuity and vulnerability, as Saudi clerical critics say they will, or will they slip into gear to take control of their lives? That will depend on who has control of the GPS.

• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

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