As the president of Phil Harvey Enterprises (PHE) and its Hillsborough, N.C.- based flagship company Adam & Eve, Harvey oversees the most famous sex-oriented mail-order catalog in the U.S.
As the leader of DKT International, he heads a nonprofit organization that has a long history of promoting family planning, contraception and AIDS awareness in developing countries. Another term that is often used in connection with Harvey is "civil libertarian." Having fought multiple obscenity charges in the 1980s, Harvey is — like Larry Flynt — considered a poster child for the 1st Amendment.
But Harvey never set out to become an adult industry icon. After founding Adam & Eve with Dr. Tim Black (a fellow philanthropist) in 1970 and getting into mail-order condom sales, Harvey tried selling nonsexual merchandise as well, ranging from barbecue grills to model airplanes. But when it became obvious that sex-oriented items were his biggest sellers, he went with the flow and established himself as North America's king of mail-order erotica. During the Reagan years, Adam & Eve encountered some very rough times when the Meese Commission declared war on adult businesses. But despite the millions of dollars in legal fees that a barrage of obscenity charges cost Harvey, Adam & Eve, which now includes adult film production and a chain of retail stores in addition to mail-order sales, survived and continued to prosper and expand.
In an interview with XBIZ, the 68-year-old Harvey reflected on his many years in the adult industry as well as his philanthropic activities and free speech battles.
XBIZ: As a veteran of adult entertainment, what are some of the ways in which you have seen the adult industry evolve over the years? What are some of the most important changes you have observed since the 1970s?
PHIL HARVEY: Well, part of it certainly has to do with technology. There have been at least two technological revolutions in the adult industry, the first of which was the video cassette, which enabled people, for the first time, to see good-quality erotic images on their television sets at home in private. Before the early 1980s, most X-rated films could be seen only in movie theaters, and the introduction of the video cassette greatly expanded the market for, and the interest in, adult material because adult material is so much more amenable to private viewing, both for couples and for people by themselves. And the second technological revolution was the Internet, where we continue to see a proliferation of various forms of digital delivery such as video-on-demand, streaming, clips, and so on. The Internet has expanded the market for adult material and expanded the level of interest in it, in part because many of the people who are interested in viewing adult entertainment also are people who love technology.
XBIZ: Generally speaking, do you find the adult industry to be much more corporate in 2006 than what you observed in the 1970s and 1980s?
HARVEY: That is certainly true. Well-known American corporations, from Marriott to AT&T to major search engines on the Internet, benefit from adult entertainment in many, many ways now. So adult entertainment has certainly become more mainstream in that respect. And also, the production values of erotica have greatly improved. I remember seeing a full-color adult film for the first time back in 1964; I think we called it Technicolor back then.
XBIZ: Socially and politically, what are the most important trends that you have observed over the years, and what impact have they had on the adult industry?
HARVEY: Well, there is a certain amount of pendulum effect in the extent to which the federal government goes about trying to stamp out pornography. The subject, of course, has been studied by presidential commissions, which generally come to the conclusion that pornography is not the cause of other social ills. But there remains in American society a very determined and very vocal minority of people who are made very uncomfortable by sex and go to a great deal of trouble, effort and expense to eliminate as many reminders of sexuality as they can. Reminders of their own sexuality deeply disturb them, and those folks have a much stronger political voice in conservative administrations, as witnessed with the intensity of federal prosecution of adult material during the Reagan administration and in the current Bush administration. But during the Clinton years, the focus of federal prosecution was on child pornography, which is where I think it belongs. The political winds will continue to blow back and forth.
XBIZ: In the area of obscenity prosecutions, how bad have you found the George W. Bush era to be compared to your memories of the Reagan era? For the adult industry, has this presidential administration been better or worse than you anticipated?
HARVEY: All things considered, it's been what I would have anticipated. The vocal minority has been pushing very hard on the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute adult obscenity as well as child pornography, and they have done so. On the other hand, they have tended to focus on what I call the bad stuff — that is, sexual material that involves extreme violence or sex with animals, urination and other unnatural sexual themes. They haven't, as the DOJ did under Reagan, done a lot to prosecute what I would call mainstream vanilla adult material. That's not to say that they won't, but so far, they have tended to focus on the extreme kinds of material, whereas the Reagan administration was going after everything.
XBIZ: So under the Reagan administration, you saw even the milder forms of sexual expression getting caught in the prosecutorial net?
HARVEY: Yes, I think they did. At one point the DOJ circulated a letter to convenience stores telling them they should take Playboy and Penthouse off their shelves or they might be in violation of obscenity laws. That turned out to be something they had to rescind because they had no business doing it, but there was that kind of zeal to suppress sexual expression in every way they could think of.
XBIZ: And in the 1980s, the DOJ under Reagan succeeded in creating a climate of fear throughout the adult industry.
HARVEY: Yes, they did, and they put a lot of people out of business. We were drawn into it in 1984. We could see the handwriting on the wall; several mail-order companies were forced out of business by threat of multiple, simultaneous prosecutions — a tactic that was devastating. They would just go to the owners of these companies and say, "We will indict you in Virginia, and we will bring indictments at the same time in Alabama and North Carolina. If we don't get a conviction in the first trial, we will move on to the next trial — or maybe we'll conduct two trials at once to really make your life hell. So you might as well plead guilty and get out of business." And a lot of them did. We saw that coming — and even when we were under indictment in Utah on obscenity charges, we sued the government, maintaining that the tactic of multiple simultaneous prosecutions was unconstitutional. After seven years of legal back and forth, we finally won.
XBIZ: When attorney Paul Cambria spoke to XBIZ recently, he was of the opinion that despite the efforts of the Christian Right, the adult industry is on the winning side of the cultural war in the Bush era, at least when it comes to depictions of vanilla sex.
HARVEY: I would agree with that, in general. Mainstream adult material, vanilla sexual material, has become so widely accepted and such a normal part of entertainment. In hotel chains, the mainstream or vanilla adult material has become widely accepted as a normal part of the menu for Americans — and of course, there are some people who find that deeply distressing.
XBIZ: Adam & Eve was a young company when the U.S. Supreme Court established the Miller test for obscenity in 1973. In 2006, would you say that the Miller test is more of a friend or foe of the adult industry?
HARVEY: That's a very tough and complicated call. Folks in the industry complain bitterly that Miller is extremely vague and that it is the only law in the U.S. where you can't tell if you violated it or not until there is a jury trial. When someone goes to trial for a crime they've been accused of, the jury's job is usually to determine whether he or she did it or not. But in an obscenity trial, the facts are not in dispute. The fact that someone sent a videocassette or a DVD from point A to point B is generally not contested. The issue is whether the material itself does or doesn't meet the definition of obscenity, which means the jury is not a finder of facts but is rendering a judgment as to the offensiveness, the prurience and the artistic value of the material itself. So it's a bizarre law, but it does permit a number of arguments in defense, and it has tended, as I'm sure the Supreme Court meant, to let the definition evolve with time. As community standards change, the definition itself changes, because Miller is tied to contemporary community standards.
XBIZ: If community standards are generally more socially liberal in the 2000s than they were in 1973, does this mean that the Miller test has evolved into a stronger legal defense for adult entertainment?
HARVEY: For mainstream adult material, I think it has, because in most communities now it is not considered patently offensive by community standards to view certain content in the privacy of the home. It is not material that appeals to an unnatural or unhealthy interest in sex, and defendants may present expert testimony to that effect and often do. I think that is why the government is now focusing on material that does clearly appeal to an unnatural or unhealthy interest in sex.
XBIZ: Compared to his predecessor, John Ashcroft, how problematic has Attorney General Alberto Gonzales been for the adult industry? Has he been better or worse?
HARVEY: I don't think there's a great difference.
XBIZ: How much of an impact will November's election have on the adult industry in the U.S?
HARVEY: I don't think it will be major. If the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate increase, I suppose it might lend weight to those who are trying to stamp out adult entertainment and homosexuality and anything else that reminds them of sex. But if things remain pretty much as they are or if the Democrats pick up some seats in both houses of Congress, I don't think we will see a major impact.
XBIZ: Do you think that the Christian Right will continue to have such a strong voice in the Republican Party, or will a more libertarian approach to conservatism eventually prevail in the GOP?
HARVEY: I think they're in deep conflict right now on that very matter. The libertarians and the small-government conservatives are beginning to be heard increasingly. There's a new book called "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle To Control the Republican Party." The author, Ryan Sager, argues that Bush's brand of big-government, big-religion conservatism risks causing a serious split in the GOP, in particular between the traditional south and the leave-me-alone states such as Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Montana. And I think his point is well taken.
XBIZ: Socio-politically, you are among the self-described libertarians in the adult industry.
HARVEY: I'm not a member of the Libertarian Party, but I'm a libertarian in political philosophy. And those of us who consider ourselves libertarians are consistent about this: we want the government out of the boardroom and out of the bedroom, thank you very much. Smaller government, lower taxes and — for God's sake — stop snooping into our private behavior.