Uncovered – Adam & Eve… an obscene public health service?

So I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m still high off the whole John Stagliano/Evil Angel dismissal of obscenity charges thing from last week… sigh.

And in thinking more on this most recent obscenity debacle, I was reminded of another similar situation that occurred almost 25 years ago. What better time than now for the back story on Adam & Eve?!

In the early 1970s, Philip D. Harvey was working on his master’s degree in public health at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. With the support of his university, he began exploring different ways to promoting family planning in populations that were outside clinic-based networks and/or in places where contraceptives were unavailable.


(pictured: Phil Harvey)

Hmmm… people want birth control for various reasons, birth control is unavailable in certain areas and to certain populations for even more various reasons, there’s really only one effective method of birth control available to sexually active (heterosexual) persons that doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription… and it didn’t take long for him to connect the dots – mail order condoms!

Phil had identified a need and a wide open market that no one was tapping; however, it was unlikely that no one had ever thought of this before. More likely, it was that people were too afraid of federal prosecution to act on it.

You see, back in these days (the 1970s/80s) no one was using the mail to deliver anything even remotely sexy. This was because of the anachronistic Comstock Law. In 1873, Anthony Comstock succeeded in codifying the vaguely-worded definition of “smut” as any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious… article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use or nature” into federal law. Consequently, anything that could be considered “smut” –like information about contraception or contraception itself– most certainly could not be “trafficked” via the US mail.

But after consulting with lawyers, researching what components of the law had already been declared unconstitutional, and assessing the risk associated with violating the remaining dimensions of the Comstock Law, Harvey decided to go for it and Adam & Eve/PHE was thus born.

He quickly realized that condom sales alone would not support his rapidly growing business, so he began selling additional items – clocks, clothes, and ship-building kits (no joke!). Eventually however, and almost seemingly naturally, the “additional items” coalesced around sexual health-related needs, which included sexual expression and exploration – sex-related books and magazine (both educational and purely pleasurable), sex toys (including the then-infamous, now legendary double-dong), and film and print adult content.


(pictured: Adam & Eve – public health)

Things were going well for Phil and Adam & Eve until 1986 when federal and state representatives raided the company, processed and questioned its 118 employees, and eventually handed out nine obscenity indictments. It turns out that Harvey’s little mail-order public health company had been under investigation for some time. And although Adam & Eve was quickly found not guilty at the state level, the company and Harvey himself were almost immediately subsequently indicted on federal charges.

And eight grueling years later, everything would finally be dismissed.

If you’re reading this thinking “WTF?!,” I hear you. And if you’re reading this thinking “WTF is a double-dong?!,” you should look it up. Because the thing with Adam & Eve is this – it was born out of a desire to provide opportunity for choice, disseminate information, increase individuals’ access to health services, and facilitate sexual growth and discovery.

Think I’m kidding? Maybe just embellishing? Consider this: Adam & Eve sells every kind of sex toy you can imagine, from craaazy to discreet and demure; lingerie and “costumes” in every size; and film content from myriad genres and production companies, including their own in-house features. The company donates 25% of its profits to organizations working to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections and over-population in countries world wide. This is part of Adam & Eve’s mission statement:

It is our goal to ensure that our customers enjoy sex to its fullest while discovering new, exciting things in order to have a healthy, sex positive lifestyle. ‘Sex positive’ is defined as a variety of elements that incorporate philosophical and social attitudes that promote open sexuality. Adam & Eve uses this term to describe a lifestyle that allows people to embrace new sexual activities including using toys for sex, new sex positions, and a general broadening of sexual horizons.

Why prosecute this organization? Because they were using the ol’ pony express to peddle smut across state lines, and that’s super illegal?

The answer is, of course, no. Adam & Eve was prosecuted in the 1980s for the same reason Evil Angel was prosecuted in 2010 – because, for whatever reason, there are members of our society unable to comprehend that sexual preferences are not universal. In one case it was over a double-dong, in the other it was enemas and squirting, but the rational behind both was exactly the same.

Maybe you’re not ready for a double-dong, and that’s ok – but if you want to be, it and much other funness are there for you. You owe Phil Harvey a little bit of thanks for that.


…and some cites!

Harvey, Philip D. 2001. The Government vs. Erotica: The Siege of Adam & Eve. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Williams, Linda. 1989. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


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PVVOnline’s feature Uncovered explains key dimensions of adult production and sheds some critical light on industry urban legends and myths.

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