It’s been a tough few years for lads’ magazines. Changing cultural attitudes around sex, as well as the promise of on-demand titillation brought by the internet saw “iconic” titles such as Zoo and FHM go under in 2015. Those who survived were forced to fundamentally evolve.
In the case of Penthouse Australia, that meant taking an ideological leap; rebranding itself as a vehicle for the alt-right, organising Australian speaking tours for figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Gavin McInnes, and employing a suite of conservative commentators to “trigger the libs”.
Sky News with nudes
According to its website, Penthouse Australia offers “the best alternative journalism, sport, interviews and advice on living a richer life”. While the US edition appears, from a glance at the homepage at least, to remain steadfastly committed to softcore pornography, its Australian counterpart has turned into a kind of sleazy Sky News after dark. Pictures of scantily clad women, and features on porn stars jostle for space on the homepage with right-wing blowhards offering their latest hot take.
Culture warrior Brendan O’Neill makes regular contributions, including a fawning piece on Philippines’ populist strongman Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs cost more than 12,000 lives, according to Human Rights Watch. Self-proclaimed “conservative provocateur” Daisy Cousens also appears, with articles such as “Why right-wing girls are better girlfriends” (they’re hotter, they’re smarter, and they don’t hate men, apparently).
Bettina Arndt, has also written for Penthouse Australia, as a part of her ongoing crusade to prove that statistics on sexual assault at universities are overblown. So, too, has Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet, who was accused last year of sexually harassing a university student during a job interview. The Australian Senate’s libertarian edgelord-in-chief David Leyonhjelm, meanwhile, has opined on sex workers.
Penthouse Australia’s publisher Damien Costas told Crikey he believes the publication’s apparent rightward shift is a continuation of its legacy of fighting for freedom and civil rights.
“Penthouse (and indeed Playboy) were at the forefront of the culture wars [during the 1960s], fighting for women’s rights and civil rights,” Costas said. “Today, we’re still fighting for freedom of speech. We’re still fighting against those in positions of power who would quash debate rather than engage in it.”
A doormat for the alt-right
But since last year, Penthouse Australia has moved beyond simply providing column space, and is now rolling out the red carpet to the alt-right.
In 2017, citing a “seismic shift in sex and culture”, Costas scaled back some of the magazine’s long-established print publications, and pivoted instead toward speaking tours, under the Penthouse Events label, beginning with alt-right poster boy and Neo-Nazi sympathiser Milo Yiannopoulos.
Penthouse Events describes itself as “one of the most exciting initiatives in Australian entertainment” that offers people “the opportunity to interact directly with the world’s leading personalities”. Yiannopoulos’ tour was regularly promoted on Penthouse Australia’s social media.
“We like controversy. It’s interesting. It makes people think,” Costas told Crikey.
Controversy was precisely what Costas got. When violent clashes between left and right-wing protesters erupted outside Yiannopoulos’ Melbourne speaking event last year, Costas was hit with a security bill of over $50,000.
Penthouse Events continues to bankroll right-wing tours, often accompanied by protests. In September, former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage appeared at a Penthouse-funded series of talks in Australia. The links between Farage and Penthouse, as well as a premium escort service also run by Costas, caused a few chuckles in the UK media.
Next month, Gavin McInnes, Vice Media co-founder turned alt-right figurehead, will appear at a number of events on an Australian tour dubbed “The Deplorables”. McInnes’ organisation, the Proud Boys, operates as a kind of fight club for men of the alt-right, preaching an ideology that celebrates Western supremacy and male chauvinism, coupled with a glorification of physical violence. A Proud Boy member organised last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where an anti-racism protester was killed. The Southern Poverty Law Centre calls the Proud Boys a hate group.
Appearing alongside McInnes will be Tommy Robinson, one of the UK’s most prominent Islamophobic hatemongers, and founder of the far-right English Defence League.
Costas has repeatedly offered relatively tepid defences of these figures.
“I don’t accept that these people are racist or misogynistic. Quite the contrary in fact,” Costas told Crikey.
In earlier interviews, Costas said the Proud Boys are “not white supremacists, they’re ‘western supremacists’”. McInnes, Costas believes, isn’t the leader of a group of revved-up, violent reactionaries, but “a comedian, who advocates self-defence”.
In an attempt to remain relevant, Penthouse has turned to the alt-right to provide a spark of shock value. But after a month where far-right violence has burst into the global consciousness, it’s hard to still view the open incitements to violence of people like McInnes as merely provocative ideas.