It was 28 years ago this month that the July issue of Playboy went on sale. One of the most notable features of this issue of the magazine was the pictorial of Ellen Stohl.
The young woman who got the gig by sending in a letter:
My name is Ellen Stohl, I am a model/actress, who three years ago was injured in a tragic auto accident. At first, I had given up hope of pursuing my career, but after a few months and a lot of learning, I realized a wheelchair should not make a difference. Since that realization, I have been working twice as hard to achieve my career goals not only for myself but also to teach society that being disabled does not make a difference. The reason I choose Playboy for this endeavor is that sexuality is the hardest thing for disabled persons to hold onto. Not to say that they are not capable, but rather that society’s emphasis on perfection puts this definitive damper on self-esteem. Well, I believe it is time to show society the real story. Anyone can be sexy; it is a matter of how a person feels about himself or herself, and personally I feel great.
Her wish was granted and the July 1987 issue was the first in which a disabled woman appeared in a Playboy pictorial.
At the time, this issue was known as “the uncomfortable issue.”
Associate editor Kate Nolan said, “On the surface, it’s a noble statement: People with disabilities still have their sexuality. But do you think we’d run pictures of someone who was really, seriously deformed? Of course we wouldn’t. This is a safe kind of exploitation. We’re saying, ‘We’ve got pictures of someone who is disabled. Buy our magazine and look at the pictures.’ But the woman looks ‘normal.’ So we’re protected, in a way. I really think we’re opening ourselves up to charges that we`re no better than Hustler. The idea sounded horrible to me when I first heard it, and I haven`t changed my mind.”
But the decision wasn’t up to Nolan; it was, despite the tone of later interviews which made it sound like Hefner was hip, up to Playboy’s editorial director Arthur Kretchmer. This was his stated reasoning:
“We all so easily dehumanize people,” Kretchmer said. “We categorize people because it’s easy. We categorize people in wheelchairs as ‘cripples,’ and we all get on with our lives and forget about them.”
“I may be naive, but I don’t see this as exploitation. The word ‘exploitation’ comes up in other contexts when people criticize Playboy, but in this case I think we’re on the side of the angels.
“I think we are honoring Ellen Stohl’s faith in us. We are allowing her to be whole–to be sexual–and I think it is a wonderful tribute to Playboy that we are the magazine to which she wrote.”
“I agree with Kate Nolan that this would all be different if Ellen Stohl was terribly disfigured. In that case, we would be putting on what would be called a freak show. We’re not doing that.”
Kretchmer may have seemed brave at the time, but if he was so against dehumanizing people why would he so blithely label others as “a freak show?”
In the end, Stohl’s photos were beautiful and their publication was a first step. But many more steps would need to be taken ~ still need to be taken ~ in order to show that anyone can be sexy.
Stohl did an interview with CBS in 2011, and she’s still on the mission ~ including posing nude. She also has a website, EllenStohlStory.