Phil Harvey: Kind of blue

Phil Harvey is a modern-day Robin Hood. But he doesn't rob the rich. He sells them hard-core porn and funds family planning for the poor. Rafael Garcia-Navarro investigates
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The Independent Online

Mae West once said that she had absolutely nothing against censorship. After all, she quipped, she'd built her fortune on it. It was ever thus: when society attempts to place constraints on human diversions, one thing is certain: there's a great deal of money to be made. During the 1930s' depression, American bootleggers became millionaires thanks to Prohibition. The drug cartels, after decades of prosperity, continue to flourish in spite of - or perhaps because of - opposition to legalisation. And the subject of sex continues to pester minds and hearts, particularly in the States, where anything vaguely sexual retails even in places where Christian fundamentalists worship in today's unprecedented numbers. Weeks after George Bush won his second term, the president appeared before the US Congress to tweak a $388bn spending programme on behalf of a pet project. The legislators acquiesced: $131m would be set aside for abstinence classes in state schools, the awkward fact notwithstanding that since these were introduced in 1997, 10 state-sponsored studies on them have shown virtually no effect on teenage sexuality - which remains unbridled as ever. Plainly, in the 43rd president's view, the routinely proposed solution to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies - namely, the distribution of condoms and information on safe sex - is the devil's work.

It comes as no surprise, given the current political climate, that anyone whose business is hard-core pornography wouldn't be a member of winner's club in Washington, DC. But Phil Harvey hasn't ever had to worry about winning a popularity contest within government circles. As one of the world's leading purveyors of mail-order sex toys and adult videos (to the tune of $70m a year) through his company, Adam & Eve, based in Hillsborough, North Carolina, Harvey has, against intimidating odds, carved a remarkable niche for himself in the annals of American business (and also civil liberties). He hates the term pornography, by the way ("I prefer erotica," he says coolly), and perhaps he's right to. Circumspect and studious in bearing, Harvey, who at 67 years old dons half-rim tortoiseshell glasses, checked shirts and tweed jackets and whose general appearance suggests a college lecturer, isn't a self-promoter. His words, thoughtful and generally careful, are delivered in a flat, nasal drone, as befitting the farm-tractor salesman's son from the Midwest that he is. In substance as well as style, Harvey couldn't be further away from the run-of-the-mill-porn-mogul stereotype. But the paramount reason there's no one quite like him is this: the lucrative adult distribution business is only one half of Phil Harvey's world.

His genuine mission, which took form after he graduated from Harvard in 1961, wasn't turning people on and making heaps of money in an industry variously estimated to bring in between $4bn and $10bn a year. It was, and continues to be, the effort to save lives and fight poverty in the poorest corners of the globe - in Africa, Asia and South America.

Adam & Eve is run by the same Phil Harvey who heads DKT International, a non-profit company based in Washington, founded in 1989 and named after D K Tyagi, champion of India's family-planning movement. It markets contraceptives across the developing world. Both companies are independently directed and owned by Harvey, who has been called the "guru of social marketing", a concept he pioneered, meaning the application of commercial marketing techniques on products that are beneficial, especially to poor societies. The same strategies used by A&E in promoting the latest nipple clamp or bisexual video at premium prices in the US are taken up by DKT International in promoting condoms at basement prices, often with the aid of foreign endowments and local-government participation, to combat the ravages of overpopulation and disease.

The organisation's website puts it this way: "In 2003 alone, our programs provided ongoing protection for 7.61 million couples. By protecting these couples, DKT programs have helped avert 1.91 million unwanted births and prevent 152,000 maternal and infant deaths". As one of Harvey's copywriters at Adam & Eve admiringly puts it, he's "stealing from the horny to give to the poor".

DKT, WHOSE budget per annum is $31m, in 2003 sold approximately 350 million condoms and 20 million birth-control pills as well as female condoms, IUDs and injectable and oral contraceptives, all at a tiny proportion of trade costs. Promoted with glossy ads in the local media and billboards, DKT contraceptives command the markets of Ethiopia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. They also figure among the top three brands in Brazil. f

Harvey contributes a significant portion of his hefty pay-cheque from A&E - around $2m annually - to subsidise DKT's endeavours abroad. How does it work? "US tax law permits charitable contribution deductions of up to 50 per cent of adjusted gross income, which is basically all your income from all sources," Harvey explains. "Anything above is no longer deductible. So the answer is, I have always exceeded 50 per cent and have always taken advantage of that deduction." It's difficult to think of another instance where pornography has been conceived and developed as the fundraising limb of a philanthropic organisation - an unorthodox means to a worthy end.

The long, circuitous path to sex was embarked upon after Harvey left university and his immediate goal was simply to see the world. These were the optimistic Kennedy years, when young men were challenged to go out and make a difference. At first, he considered the Peace Corps, before deciding (lest he be drafted later) on a stint in the army. After completing his service, he moved to India, where he joined the relief organisation, Care. Five years down the road, now deputy director for India, he was running a programme offering school lunches to hundreds of thousands of poor children. He discovered that no matter how much money was being decanted into this effort, any potential benefits lagged some steps behind the explosive growth in the population. "That's when it became clear to me that the problem couldn't be solved by money alone," Harvey says. It was the genesis of his lifelong advocacy of family planning.

In his 1999 book, Let Every Child be Wanted, he recalls an incident that further stimulated this commitment: "Part of my job with Care was to make sure that emergency relief food supplies reached their intended beneficiaries. In 1968, I escorted a truckload of food to a badly flooded village in the northern state of Punjab. As we stood about discussing logistics, a woman in a ragged sari, carrying a baby, walked over to me, knelt down and touched my feet. I was upset, confused and instinctively repelled by this gesture. I sensed that there was something deeply wrong in any situation that so divided the benefactor from the 'beneficiary'. Why should this woman, struggling for her existence and her children's, a woman whose life probably exemplified many of the virtues we most admire, be 'grateful' to a privileged young man who had it so easy? This was not the way helping people should work."

It was an idea whose time had plainly come, but not just yet. At first, there was opposition to social marketing in countries, and by governments, content with family planning to remain an offshoot of the medical community, even if the results were, as Harvey believes, barely adequate.

Back in the US in 1969, Harvey attended the University of North Carolina on a fellowship from the Ford Foundation. In graduate school he met a kindred spirit, Tim Black, then a young British doctor with experience of his own in the developing world. With approval from the university and a modest grant from the foundation, they contrived a thesis project in which the principles of social marketing could be tested in the US, at first setting up shop in an office located in the back of a restaurant in Chapel Hill. What later grew into A&E took its first steps with a desk made up of an old door balanced on a pile of bricks - and a bare-bones campaign by two young men to sell condoms by mail. Students, obviously, were the first target group. Their copy, even from this vantage point in time, was ingenious: "What will you get her this Christmas - pregnant?" Advertisements ran in 300 of the largest university newspapers and orders soon began pouring in.

Harvey and Black knew they were breaking the law, but were willing to take a chance. In 1970, mailing condoms across state lines was a technical violation of the Comstock Law, a piece of legislation rendering them obscene, named after one of the more peculiar and repulsive footnote characters of American history. Anthony Comstock was a Civil War veteran from Connecticut who'd tried (unsuccessfully) to be a salesman after the war and ended up as a morals crusader in New York. He also moonlighted as an agent of the post service. In the mid-1870s, he was able to get a group of federal and state laws banning any form of contraception passed. Comstock openly boasted about the so-called "libertines" (ie unmarried mothers) he'd driven to suicide. America being America, his laws had staying power: the Connecticut law criminalising married couples caught in possession of contraceptives wasn't rescinded until 1965. By the time Harvey and Black were mailing condoms, however, Comstock laws were barely being prosecuted. Apart from the whiff of an untapped market waiting to be gobbled up, they also couldn't help noticing that after paying their bills at the end of the week, there was always more money left over.

What if there was enough profit to fund social-marketing projects overseas? The partners turned ambitious. They named the revenue-earning arm of their new venture Population Planning Associates, and founded the non-profit wing Population Services International (PSI), which by 1975 had assignments in Kenya and Bangladesh and today is the largest social marketing organisation in the world. Neither founder is involved with PSI any longer but they remain friends and associates. "I had my vasectomy some years ago at one of Tim's clinics in London," reveals Harvey. He doesn't think the procedure is for everyone, but "it was the right choice for me", he says cheerfully.

THE ADULT-SEX market is in many ways a mirror image of contemporary popular culture. Much of what emerges is blandly forgettable, but there are occasional strokes of something approaching inspiration. A few porn-video titles spoofing famous Hollywood films spring to mind: Ben-Hur Over, Oklahomo!, The Man-Chewing Candidate, Indiana Joan and the Temple of Poon and the pièce de resistance, Schindler's Fist. The plays on words are probably their salient virtue. Here's an example of advertising from the inexhaustible line of goods at , for something none-too-modestly billed as the "Cosmic Invader Vibrating Jelly Probe": "All systems are go with this glittering purple probe! Cosmically curved for reaching the deepest parts of orgasmic space, the Cosmic Invader has a ball-end tip that'll send her to the moon!" And then there's the Scorpion Double Shaft Probe, for which neither much imagination nor numerical skills is required. Some implements are promoted for their ornamental value as well, such as the "Rose Fumed Crystal Ecstasy Glass Dildo", which sells at $75 and being made of Pyrex glass, is presumably also dishwasher-safe.

A sense of humour, more than a sense of proportion, seems to be what marketing sexual paraphernalia is about. But that isn't enough, as Harvey has discovered: determination and resilience are also prerequisites for the long haul. Harvey has been forced to defend his business - and, more critically, himself - in ways he couldn't have anticipated back in Chapel Hill.

On the morning of 29 May 1986, while he was in New York's PSI office, he learnt that some f 40 law-enforcement officers had raided A&E's headquarters, under orders from the Department of Justice with the intention to prosecute Harvey in various states for selling obscene material. It was part of a Justice Department sweep of the adult-sex industry led by Ronald Reagan's chief law-enforcement officer, Attorney General Edwin Meese, who set up the task force and that year published his commission's report on pornography, largely regarded as biased and inaccurate.

The siege of A&E had coincided with a boom in the industry, heralded by the advance in the use of VHS tape, which effectively relegated the grubby theatres to the dust heap. With the full force of the US federal government against him, it would have been easy to pack up and move, hoping for a settlement, as many of Harvey's competitors did. Instead, he chose to fight. He has written an excellent account of his legal defence in his 2001 book, The Government vs Erotica, that's both well argued and scrupulously reported. (It would make a great film.) "It wasn't a particularly brave choice," he says now. "They really didn't give me much of an alternative." He sued the government for harassment and violation of free speech. Eight years and $3m later, David beat a Goliath who had trampled on the First, Fourth and Sixth Amendments to the US Constitution, winning for his company and the industry at large some measure of freedom, although the legal position for anyone in this field of battle is a greasy pole on which to raise hopes. The second Bush administration's agenda is a source of guarded paranoia for many.

After the legal conflict, Harvey moved the goal posts. "Today, anything that hints at coercion [in adult videos] we simply won't touch," he says. A&E keeps records of every single performer's identification details to verify age requirements. Gone are the Traci Lords days when underage beauties could (and did) perjure their way into the industry. And some material - simulated rape, for example - is flatly out of bounds.

Sean Rowe is a close friend of mine who writes fiction (his first novel is published this September) but is also a copywriter for A&E, fast-forwarding through the bumping and grinding in adult videos to get to the clean bits and glean some sense of whatever plot is on offer. ("The easiest job I've ever had," he says. "How could it not be?") He admires Harvey's influence in the adult industry. "He's instituted a system of checks and balances in order to make sure that his legal position is covered and that our sexual material promotes a healthy and good image," he says. "He's also tried to get others to adopt similar practices." To that end, A&E is a squeaky-clean business operation. "If you look at our offices, you'd think ball bearings were produced here. It looks like any office in corporate America, except for the occasional picture of a nude woman or a vibrator. Out of my window, big trucks are pulling in and out from our loading dock, full of merchandise." Harvey has on retainer a panel of sex therapists and legal advisors who examine every product before it's put on the market.

These days Harvey spends quite a bit of his time writing editorial opinions on civil-rights issues, a lectern he has earnt the right to occupy the hard way. His latest book, Government Creep, presents a number of slightly fictionalised case histories arguing how government intervention, from taxes to trading regulations to obscenity laws to the Patriot Act, stifles - and, in some instances, traduces - its citizens. He hates the way tax revenues are frittered in America: "The war on drugs costs billions and billions of dollars and has done nothing but make life more miserable for practically everyone involved, including the governments and judicial systems of several Latin American countries - as well as corrupting our own police." He's hopping mad about President Bush's position on teenage sex, incidentally. "That is just insane," he says. "Look, we promote abstinence in our Ethiopia programme. I have nothing against it at all. But to exclude condoms from the mix, based on all the studies and information we have, is wrong. It's more than that. It's immoral."

What about the Republicans' second term in office? "It is depressing to face the prospect of four more years of this nonsense with respect to birth control, family planning, Aids prevention and, finally, abortion as well."

On the subject of obscenity - what it is, or rather what, in lawful terms, it might be - the Supreme Court produced a historic example of ambiguity and abstraction in 1973's Miller vs California decision. This famous ruling categorises obscenity as a form of expression legally unprotected by the First Amendment, its sexual depictions "patently offensive to contemporary community standards". The phrase "prurient interest in sex" is used, meaning an unnatural, morbid interest, rather than a normal one. And in order to be illegal, said material must be judged to be without literary, artistic, scientific or political value - very ambitious parameters. Harvey is no fan of Miller, but he believes "it has stood up remarkably well, considering its fundamental flaws, notably its vagueness". The best argument in favour of pornography is featured in The Government vs Erotica, when Harvey compares the impact, or potential harm, of sexual materials on US society with those of other elements known to be harmful. He cites 400,000 deaths a year from cigarettes, 105,000 from alcohol, 49,000 from automobiles, handguns weigh in at 8,900 and lightning accidents at 45. Pornography is last, at zero.

It would be hard to imagine a funnier two-fingered salute to the war on drugs than a mail-order Acapulco Gold business. But don't count on Phil Harvey to launch it. Thousands of copies of Blonde Eye for the Black Guy 2 are being processed in the A&E mailroom, with more to come. And besides, his own war against poverty and disease, together with his defence of American liberties, are enough to keep him occupied.