DISPATCHES


Porn Again by Steve Almond



I not every day that I'm offered the chance to tour a sex factory. In point of fact, I'd never been offered the chance until a couple of months ago, when I visited my friend Sean in North Carolina. Sean works as a copywriter for Adam & Eve, the nation's largest adult-oriented mail-order company. A&E's headquarters is a nondescript building outside of Chapel Hill, just past an artificial lake with several geese. It's full of the standard corporate stuff: cubicles, workers hunched before computer monitors, bulletin boards with perky blood-drive announcements. Only when you take a closer look do you start to see the nature of the office tchotchkes: dildos, photos of porn stars, the odd butt plug.


    
One of Sean's jobs is to write the blurbs that go on video boxes. This requires him to watch half a dozen movies a day, fast-forwarding through the sex scenes so he can get a sense of each film's deeper ambiance and setting. The porn no longer arouses him, he says, though, given that he's heterosexual, the gay stuff is still a little tough to watch. (He'd just finished up Ass Angels 3 when I visited.)


    
Sean's tour of the facility included the administrative offices of A&E's film division, which does not house an actual studio — the movies are shot in Los Angeles — but did include two women cheerfully talking P.T.A. politics while splicing money-shot scenes together.


    
The company's warehouse is 40,000 square feet; it contains, in addition to videos and DVDs of every possible persuasion, the largest selection of lubricants and sex toys in the world. On the day I visited, Sean was quite excited about a new device which, when affixed to the end of the tongue, aids in cunnilingus.


    
Attractively enough, the TongueJoy™ Vibrator is not the most unusual thing about Adam & Eve. That would have to be Phil Harvey, who founded the company three decades ago as a way to generate seed money for family planning programs in the developing world. Despite a steady campaign of harassment from the religious right and the U.S. Department of Justice, Harvey has become one of the most unlikely Robin Hoods in the annals of American business. By selling sex products to the world's richest citizens, he's been able to distribute cheap contraception to the poorest.


    
He agreed to speak with me from his office outside Washington D.C. I'd never talked to a real, live porn czar before, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. (A grubby self-promoter along the lines of Al Goldstein? A loudmouth martyr à la Larry Flynt?) Harvey, sixty-four, is neither. He speaks in a flat, midwestern accent. The language he uses is often academic, bordering on technocratic. The very tag "porn czar" is decidedly un-Phil.


    
After graduating from Harvard in 1960, Harvey enrolled in the Peace Corps. He was drafted instead, and served a brief stint in the army, after which he traveled to India to supervise feeding programs for the charity CARE. "I possessed what I would call a normal youthful enthusiasm to save the world," he says, one he attributes both to Kennedy-era idealism and to a passion for other cultures. His experience in the subcontinent radicalized him. "I was in charge of the pre-school feeding program. Every year we would increase the benificiary roles and every year we'd sit back and realize we were farther behind than when we started. It became very clear to me that shipping food from the U.S. to India was nuts. That if the industrial world really wanted to be helpful to countries like India, voluntary family planning was the way to do it."


    
CARE officials were less than enthralled by the idea, so Harvey returned to the States to earn a masters degree in family planning administration at the University of North Carolina. In Chapel Hill, he met a British doctor, Tim Black, who shared his vision of making contraception available on a mass scale in the Third World.


    
The two men launched a mail-order condom business. Sending condoms through the mail was illegal in 1970 due to the Comstock Law, which classified them as obscene. "But we decided to go ahead and take our chances," Harvey says. "As a result of the fact that no one else was doing this, the orders just poured in. Tim and I had no idea what to do. We never had any intention of making money. We were out to save the world."


    
But both men quickly saw the potential. They could use the profit from their mail-order venture to seed their overseas programs. This led to the establishment of a non-profit, called DK International. (The organization is named after the late D.K. Tyagi, one of India's first crusaders for family planning, who befriended Harvey during his years in New Delhi.)


    
Meanwhile, the mail-order business continued to grow. "We tried to get our customers to buy leisure wear, shipbuilding kits, belt buckles, model airplanes," Harvey recalls. "But they just yawned at that stuff. Every time we put something with erotic appeal in the catalog, the bells would ring."


    
Adam & Eve continued to boom throughout the '70s and '80s. In May of 1986, however, the company hit a major speedbump. Thirty-seven federal agents with guns on their hips raided its North Carolina headquarters. "The government's strategy was a direct frontal assault," Harvey recalls. "They went after a whole lot of companies who distribute erotic material and managed to shut a number down. They tried to get us to plea bargain, but we said we're not going to do that." What ensued was an eight-year legal battle with the Justice Department, which ended in a not-guilty verdict. (Harvey details the debacle in his new book, The Government Vs. Erotica, Prometheus Books.)


    
Harvey is often asked how he squares his philanthropic work with his role as a purveyor of pornography. "I don't see a conflict," he says bluntly. "As the publication of my book made clear, I'm proud of what I sell and I have no reservation about publicizing it. Why be defensive? I sell products that provide sexual education and sexual pleasure. Period. And I must say that in twenty-five years, we have never, to my knowledge, lost a grant or donation because of my work with Adam & Eve."


    
That said, Harvey says that there was a time, during the '80s, when "some material crept into the catalogue, bondage magazines and so forth, that I didn't feel comfortable with." This, along with the federal crackdown, led him to institute a meticulous review process. Today, all the products Adam & Eve sells are submitted to a panel of sex educators and therapists who have to certify that the materials are "non-prurient" and "appeal to a healthy interest in sex" before the company will sell them. Any kind of coercion or violence, for instance, is verboten.


    
"I'm an ardent opponent of the (Andrea) Dworkinites," says Harvey. "This idea that men are all foul beasts and women are all victims — I just think that's a load of crap. It turns women into a victim class and I cannot think of any worse vision of women. The fact is, mainstream pornography gets a lot of people upset because women are portrayed as lusty without being bad. They are enthusiastic participants  . . . Most money shots, I would say, are in bad taste, But that's my taste. If they pass the screening process as being consensual sexual acts, I don't worry about it a lot."


    
What Harvey does worry about, and considerably, is the way in which contraception is still stigmatized in the United States. "It's perfectly fine to show two people locked in a heated embrace in some glossy magazine," he notes. "As long as there's no condom in sight." Ironically, he says, condom use (for intercourse, at least) has become de rigeur in the adult film industry.


    
Still, Harvey is well aware of the fact that his mail-order business owes its existence to America's sexual hypocrisy. "If we weren't so conflicted about our sexuality, there'd be dildos on the shelves of every Wal-mart. Obviously, the shame people feel has created a niche for us."


    
Lucrative "niche" empires aside, Harvey's chief concern remains the state of his overseas programs. These ventures are chiefly funded by foundations and foreign governments. There is no direct link to Adam & Eve, other than Harvey himself. (Over the past two decades he estimates that he has donated $40 million of his own money to the cause.)


    
Just how many condoms do his programs distribute?


    
"That's easy," he says, tapping at his computer. "Just a sec. Okay, here it is: 364,741,409. That's for last year. We also distributed just under twenty-three million cycles of pills, plus injectibles and IUDs."


    
And just think: without the religious right, he couldn't have done any of it. 







©2002 Steve Almond and Nerve.com, Inc.

Commentarium (17 Comments)

Jul 17 02 - 11:14am
RP

He is my hero.

Jul 17 02 - 11:25am
LL

Phil Harvey is the coolest man alive. He's my boss. He drives a station wagon and wears reading glasses on his head. He has an amazing sense of humor and a zero-sum hypocrisy principle for his political, social and sexual beliefs.

Once, during a meeting in which we were redesigning our mail-order catalog, I made a comment about the models and photos we've been using for years, saying that we were "trying to get away from 70's." He looked me in the eye and said, "I'm just trying to get back there."

Long live Phil, and long live Adam & Eve.

Jul 17 02 - 11:53am
jc

Holy crap, what a guy! If we had leaders of the country with as much compassion and ingeuity the world would be a much better place. Rock on Phil!

Jul 18 02 - 12:21am
vbh

the "saving the world" part of this article made my heart feel good, and i was even considering sending for one of their catalogues to help with their cause, but it was kind of disappointing to see that harvey is "not comfortable" with homosexual sex or things that he calls "purient"... he lumps bondage magazines (which would be safe, sane, and consentual in reality even if the scenes look as though they're not) with coerson and violence. he says that they have "a panel of sex educators and therapists" who make certain that the materials "appeal to a healthy interest in sex" before the company will back them. i would argue that people who engage in responsible bdsm do have a healthy interest in sex.

Jul 18 02 - 12:23am
vbh

the "saving the world" part of this article made my heart feel good, and i was even considering sending for one of their catalogues to help with their cause, but it was kind of disappointing to see that harvey is "not comfortable" with homosexual sex or things that he calls "purient"... he lumps bondage magazines (which would be safe, sane, and consentual in reality even if the scenes look as though they're not) with coerson and violence. he says that they have "a panel of sex educators and therapists" who make certain that the materials "appeal to a healthy interest in sex" before the company will back them. i would argue that people who engage in responsible bdsm do have a healthy interest in sex.

i guess it's his company, though. and it's cool that he's got a set of morals and guidelines that he sticks to. he's doing good, important work.

Jul 17 02 - 1:30pm
SG

It's about time I found someone to give me back a sense of my long-gone pride in humans. Thanks, Harvey!

Jul 17 02 - 5:21pm
MN

There is a coding error in this story...what should be an "/A>" is written as "A/>", following the link to the "Adam and Eve" url.
Just makes it hard to read...

Jul 17 02 - 6:24pm
bw

I remember sneaking copies of Adam and Eve's catalogue from the mail box when I was a kid. I had no idea all that porn stuff dad bought was going to help a good cause lol. Maybe he wasn't so bad after all.

Jul 20 02 - 3:21pm
kmb

What a great article. I've "accidentally" been put on the mailing list, and was a little freaked out by receiving pornographic literature at my home (especially since I have children). I never stopped to think about who was behind the company, or what was their motivation. Thanks, Nerve, for keeping my mind open and lubicrated!!!!

Jul 30 02 - 9:06pm
LSD

SOUND GOOOOD TO ME YO>>

Jul 31 02 - 3:44am
AZ

Loved it. Great story to share with us. Nice conversational style.... solid... Excellent! I can't wait to read more from Mr. Almond!

Aug 04 02 - 10:10pm
DLS

Is there any way to become a volunteer/get involved in Phil Harvey's cause?
It's so true what he said about sexual hypocrisy. "If we weren't so conflicted about our sexuality, there'd be dildos on the shelves of every Wal-mart. Obviously, the shame people feel has created a niche for us." I completely agree with this quote. Unfortunately there are not enough open-minded people like Mr. Harvey, especially of his generation. Keep up the good work, Phil Harvey!

Aug 08 02 - 11:08pm
abll

There will never be another Phil Harvey, and of course his long-time partner Tim Black. I really fear the day when these guys will be gone. They have done such wonderfull things for people in poverty stricken and populous countries like India, Ethiopia and the Philppines. I will, forever look up to Phil in the highest regard. Long live Phil and Tim

Aug 23 02 - 10:35pm
BJM

Thank you for this article, I feel you presented my workplace very accurately. I work at PHE (the Siclair Intimacy Institute division) and you mostly likely passed my desk on the way to Phil's office with Sean. Phil has created a workplace for individuals, not just robo-workers. I celebrate my 5th anniversary in February. How many people do you know that get to talk about sex and sex products all day and get paid for it? Life is grand!

Sep 18 02 - 1:53am
ll

Condom use in the adult film industry is only "de rigiour" (sp?) for the big film studios with contract stars. The rest of us are gladiators, risking for other's enjoyment.

Oct 01 10 - 4:04pm
crackpatch

Your writing is simple great, Especially for beginners!

Jul 28 12 - 3:27am
Lopez Jennifer

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