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Sex Aid: Porn to Save the Third World

Phil Harvey built a porn empire to save the Third World.
 
 
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It's 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. 

Steve Almond's debut collection, My Life in Heavy Metal, will be published in April 2002 by Grove Press. This article originally appeared on Nerve.com.