Hugh Hefner, Playboy and the Realities of Harem Life

 In History, Revenge of the Corsairs

Revenge of the Corsairs, coming soon! Revenge of the Corsairs is the sequel to  Captive of the Corsairs is an action packed historical romance. Published through Dragonblade Publishing. Captive of the Corsairs is out now!

When writing Captive of the Corsairs and Revenge of the Corsairs, I thought long and hard about how to portray harem life.
 
So much of it in romance (both contemporary and historic) is, well, highly romanticised – beautiful women, opulent surroundings, decadent pleasures and the sheik who loves one above all.
 
This fantasy plays into the unconscious fantasy of women to be object of desire by an alpha male who has his pick of the best in the world but chooses her above all.
 
The reality is much, much different.
 
A harem is first and foremost about sexual servitude, no matter how nice the trappings. Depending on the degree of coercion, it is also sexual slavery and forced prostitution.
 
It was that level of reality and authenticity that I wanted to bring to Captive of the Corsairs to provide a counterpoint of realism to the ‘sheik romances’, a popular subset of romantic fiction.
So it was with interest, that with the death this week of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, I read an excerpt from the book Down The Rabbit Hole by Holly Madison, one of Hef’s  ‘number one’ girlfriends.

We were whisked away to a private area next to the dance floor. To an outsider, it must have looked incredibly glamorous: seven beautiful women dancing away behind velvet ropes with private table service to cater to our every desire – all at Hef’s expense.

But if you looked close enough, each girl appeared to be just a little bit vacant.

When Hef stood up to dance, his rhythm was so off that I let out a big laugh. I wondered why these women didn’t care enough to protect him from the embarrassment—surely they owed him that? Back at the table, he leaned towards me with a bunch of large horse pills in his hands.

‘Would you like a Quaalude? Hef asked. ‘No thanks,’ I answered cheerfully. ‘I don’t do drugs.’

‘That’s good, he said nonchalantly. ‘Usually I don’t approve, but in the Seventies they used to call these pills “thigh openers”.’

It should be pointed out that all the women in Hefner’s Playboy mansion were there consensually, but Madison points out a little discussed aspect of this modern harem life – it pits women as rivals.

Forget the once again romanticised notion of female solidarity. The internal politics within a harem is more like high school politics – think of living with the bitchy Heathers 24/7 in a relatively confined space.

I was too naïve to realise it at the time, but Hef wanted to have us wallowing in our own insecurities and pawing for his acceptance. Girlfriends that didn’t get along gave him the feeling of being fought over and desired, something he was desperate to feel in his old age…

… Meanwhile the girls were becoming increasingly hostile. I noticed a piece of paper taped over a vent on Vicky’s bedroom wall. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘The girls who were in here last night put that up,’ she explained. ‘They were up here smoking meth and it has a really foul smell.’

Speaking of the other girls, Vicky added: ‘You know I can’t stand Dianna, right? You know how when you do coke, there’s a pile in the centre with some lines next to it for people to do?’ I nodded. I didn’t do it myself, but cocaine was the drug of choice for the girl.

‘Well, Dianna does the whole f*****g pile! And you know Amanda?’ she asked, jumping to the next subject. ‘Well, she makes a lot of money. Thousands of dollars a night. Actually, almost all of the Playmates make that kind of money.’

‘No way!’ I shouted. Rumours of Playmates working for escort agencies had circulated for decades, but I’d never heard it first hand before.

And make no mistake, some women thrived in a harem environment – the same way that any dominant personality will rise to the top – using the resources of sexuality to gain favour, and exercising the typical feminine power of ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ within cliques to consolidate a power base.

Because of their unique placement in palace life, the wives of powerful sultans and politicians were often well-placed to rule behind the scenes. While history notes their husbands and sons as princes, conquerers and kings, the efforts of these women are often forgotten or simply unknown. Three women in particular, Hürrem, Nurbanu and Kosem, played instrumental political roles in securing the throne for their sons and supporting their husbands behind the scenes.

Revenge of the Corsairs, as well as being a romance (of course!) is also the exploration of contrasts between of two women – Laura Cappleman, a young English woman forced to be a concubine and Rabia, a wife of a powerful sultan who  uses her power as a wife and mother of the sultan’s only male heir.

Here’s an excerpt:

Rabia loved her son even more than she had loved her husband. She had worked hard to keep him safe from the endless jealous machinations of the other women. He had been raised to be a ruler, and she smiled thinking about the haughty bearing he had mastered.

Just a few weeks ago, her son told his father he was too big to live among the women. Selim Omar had laughed and hugged the boy to his chest.

“They order me about and I don’t like it.”

“Wait until you are bigger, then you can order them about.”

The boy’s eyes lit up.

“Even maman?”

Selim had looked up at her, his eyes twinkled with merriment, then smiled down to the child.

“No, a boy must always obey his mother, even when he is bigger,” then he had staged whispered into the child’s ear to be sure she could hear. “But if your maman is ever unfair, you have my permission to see me immediately, and I will decide her punishment if she is unjust.”

The boy raised his head and gave her a haughty stare that she had seen frequently on Selim Omar’s face. Memories of it aroused her. Selim Omar was her lord and master and a very, very accomplished lover.

It had not taken long to get the measure of the man. He admired beautiful, prideful women. His arousal ran hottest when he asserted himself forcefully. A woman who gave in too easily never kept his interest. That strength was also his weakness.

How easy it was to manipulate his mood – all she had to do was the opposite of what he expected.

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