“The threat of open tyranny is remote and unlikely for us in America. Far more dangerous is the slow erosion of our liberties, particularly freedom of speech and of thought, by fervent moralists who believe they are ‘improving’ us.” So Philip D. Harvey writes, and he has often been in a position to feel the pressure from religious moralists. Harvey is the president of Adam and Eve, a North Carolina firm that started thirty years ago selling condoms by mail, and then branched into erotica and sex toys. In 1986, thirty-seven law enforcement agents, some with firearms, representing county sheriffs, state officials from North Carolina (and from Utah), and federal inspectors, descended on Harvey’s firm, shut it down, and began interrogating employees. Harvey himself wasn’t there, but he heard by phone about the raid as it progressed. What came of the raid was an eight year struggle against the government. Harvey tells the story of the struggle, an inspiring David-and-Goliath legal fight, in The Government Vs. Erotica: The Siege of Adam & Eve (Prometheus Books), and it is a page turner that I found I had to skip sleep to finish.
What initially dismayed Harvey was that six months before the raid, North Carolina had revised and made more restrictive its obscenity law. Harvey had gone through the changes with the local district attorney, and had simply removed from the Adam and Eve catalogue the items that might now be classed as obscene. It seemed to him unimaginably unfair and excessive that agents would thereafter descend on the firm, hold the staff in one room, and sweep through the warehouse to get information. The agents issued subpoenas, looked through employees’ pocketbooks, and confiscated computer ledgers. They insisted that the employees turn over all weapons, and seemed disappointed that only boxcutter knives were available for surrender. They demanded to see the studio where all the sex videos were made, but in a mail-order warehouse, there is no such thing. The operation was publicly described as “the first strike of a federal-state pornography task force,” but as Harvey points out, there was nothing for the task force to uncover. They could have asked for a catalogue, and could have simply gotten copies of anything they deemed questionable. The way his employees had been treated, Harvey thought they wouldn’t be coming back to work, but they were there the next day, and they were angry, wanting to know if the goons had ever heard of the First Amendment. Morale went up, as did productivity.
As Harvey tells his tale in this engrossing book, he intercalates chapters of his own biography or his philosophy on wealth, freedom, and libertarianism. Adam and Eve started in 1970 as a condoms-by-mail supplier; Harvey was working on a master’s in family planning administration, and his firm started as part of his thesis. The business was successful, and he added into his offerings books about contraception, and then about sex, and then erotic magazines, and sales took off. VCR tapes followed when that technology took over. Harvey had started business as a nonprofit, and had experience with CARE and Population Services International. When Adam and Eve succeeded, he sent his profits to a worthy cause: “…a Robin Hood business selling contraceptives and sexual accoutrements to the relatively wealthy citizens of the United States in order to generate funds to subsidize the sale of contraceptives in poor countries.” The government might try to make Harvey look like an evil pornographer, but even given that this book is his own version of himself, it is hard to make that image fit. He writes, “As a committed iconoclast and contrarian, I find it personally satisfying to be something other than what people expect.”
In other chapters, Harvey discusses how Adam and Eve submitted its goods to sex therapists for review, and screened the items to make sure that they were exclusively of “cheerfully consenting adults.” He refers to the studies, even government commissions, that have tried to show how harmful such pornography is, but have failed. He quotes John Stuart Mill extensively (“The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”) He discusses the writings of Christian thinkers such as Augustine who have given their religion a strong bias against sexual pleasure compared to, say, the Torah.
In his legal battles, Harvey saw himself as dealing with those steeped in religious moralism: “…we were dealing with people for whom sexual pleasure, unless specifically linked in some way to procreation, was wrong, and the sale of sexually stimulating items could therefore not be permitted…” His account of the legal battle is detailed and fascinating. The raid on his firm lead to nine felony counts of obscenity, for which he went to trial in North Carolina in 1987. Harvey’s description of the showing of the explicit films to the jury is hilarious: “I am acutely embarrassed in this context, with the jurors forced to watch all this material in our presence and in the company of each other.” His defense team had learned that citizens were not convinced that sexual entertainment was well defended as having “artistic value,” but that citizens were also reluctant to dictate what their neighbors could do at home (unlike the government itself, it seems). It worked; the jury returned a quick not guilty verdict.
But that was only the start. The Federal government, realizing that the sort of tapes Adam and Eve sold were overwhelmingly popular but were not legally obscene, developed a heinous plan to put out of business pornographers who dealt in non-obscene (and therefore legally protected) material. It would financially annihilate such firms by simultaneously prosecuting them (even when such prosecutions could not legally succeed) in several different parts of the country, over and over. The Feds had lots of money, the firms relatively little, and the aim would be simply to bankrupt legal businesses whose wares offended government agents. This strategy did work on other providers of mail-order erotica, but Harvey had deep pockets, a good legal team, and an inability to concede defeat. He won; the government can no longer put firms like his out of business in such a crafty way. But then in 1993, the business was raided again, this time by Alabama postal inspectors. The lengths to which the righteous would go to conquer Adam and Eve are astonishing, and the bizarre charges and eventual outcome of this case make it plain that some official somewhere is going to try some new tactic sometime.
Let us hope that Harvey keeps his determination. This is a splendid, entertaining book about the rights of citizens and the eagerness of moralists with the “right” view to impose that view upon others. It is a ringing defense of the First Amendment, surely, but it is also a grim reminder that the First Amendment cannot be taken for granted, but must forever be defended against the zealous.
© 2006 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.