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I'm a Female Pornographer and I'm Sad Hugh Hefner Is Dead

Filmmaker, photographer, and sexologist Shelby Sells on the lasting legacy of the man in the velvet smoking jacket.
Photo by Ron Tom/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Today, millions of penises, vaginas, and other unidentified genitalia mourn the loss of Hugh Hefner. The 91-year-old Playboy founder, sex icon, and gentleman extraordinaire leaves behind an untouchable legacy of libido and liberation, a multimillion-dollar publishing empire, and a grief-stricken gaggle of sexual partners.

Hugh Hefner gave porn a sense of class, making "entertainment for men" something the general public could at least tolerate, even if they disagreed with it. Countless iconic female figures posed nude within its pages. Hef, as he came to be known, wanted to show that celebrities are just like us—even if they look way better naked. In a way, he empowered a straitlaced American generation to speak more frankly about sexuality. His work implemented an "if they can do it, so can I" attitude that, as a pornographer, I'll carry on forever in my life and work.


Shelby Sells. Photo by Taylor Williams. Courtesy of the author

As a filmmaker, photojournalist, and sexologist, I've been inspired by Hef in more ways than one. I began my own series where I interview people about love, sex, and relationships, and it's all accompanied by nude—or, suggestively nude—photos. I am infatuated with the naked body and I think we can all attest to the fact that Hugh was, too. There's something inherently beautiful about the vulnerability of nudity. I fall in love with each person's unique characteristics, be it a displaced mole, a big, round booty, a shy smile, eyes that look like pools I could drown in… you get the point. Eventually, I even began shooting and directing softcore pornography films, taking my portraits of people to an even more intimate level.

I try to ride the fine line of sophisticated smut that Hef so elegantly represented. Sex sells. Pornography is a market that will never not be in demand. By capitalizing on this natural knowledge, Hefner made a successful career for himself, and hopefully so will I.

Photo by the author

I was lucky enough to have attended some of the notorious parties thrown at the Playboy mansion before it sold in 2016. They represented perhaps Hef's biggest impact on pop culture: that of unabashed Hollywood hedonism. The first time I went to a Playboy party, I was 18 years old and fresh on the Los Angeles scene. I showed up with a girlfriend of mine and an older guy friend of hers who was getting us into the function.


Say what you will about the divisive aspects of his parties, often wildly recounted for their sexual deviance; each one I attended provided both a sense of pleasure and belonging. Here I was, some random girl from Idaho, at the notorious Playboy mansion, mingling with stars from every industry conceivable. At the epicenter of it all was Hugh. He brought people together, bridging boundaries between gender, race, social status, sexual preference, and, I say this with a grin, age. If that's not inspiring, I honestly don't know what is. I'm grateful to have been but a small part of this unique piece of history. My only regret is not being able to meet Hef himself, slink around his mansion naked, and sit on his lap for good luck.

Photo by the author

Today, as I wear a vintage 24-karat gold Playboy key around my neck—yes, the one you had to have in order to enter the most exclusive parties—my heart is heavy. Hugh, I thank you for everything you've done not only for the sex industry, but for providing endless entertainment for us perverts, throwing the most epic events, and for appreciating women to the finest degree. By liberating sexual prowess, you helped break down walls and social stigmas that previously made sex a taboo in the United States.

You brought elegance and sophistication back to a wonderfully smutty industry. You reshaped our outlook on love, life, and sexuality by being successful at simply doing whatever the fuck you wanted—all while having a gentle attitude and a smile on your face. You gave libido something to look forward to.

Hef, today we masturbate in your honor.

Follow Shelby Sells on Instagram, Twitter, and on her website.