Adam & Eve survived obscenity charges and protests to become mainstream

For years, it was always something – a government raid, obscenity charges, citizen protests. If Adam & Eve was in the news, you could guess the reason: Somebody didn’t like what the adult entertainment company was selling.

But those were the old days – the 1980s and ’90s. Seven months ago, an Adam & Eve boutique arrived in Charlotte’s South End with an array of pleasure products so high-tech and stylized that you could mistake them for totally different objects – a thumb drive, a lipstick, a surrealistic paperweight. When the South Boulevard store announced its presence on interstate billboards, no one said a word.

Adam & Eve’s journey is improbable but instructive. Examine the evolution of this North Carolina company – from mail-order condom seller to federal obscenity target to purveyor of upscale sex toys – and you’ll see the vast distance America has traveled, sexually speaking, over the past four decades.

In the beginning, Phil Harvey, an idealistic UNC Chapel Hill School of Public Health student, launched a mail-order condom company as part of his graduate thesis. That was in 1970.

Today, Adam & Eve, one of the nation’s largest adult-product companies, promotes its inventory as part of a healthy lifestyle, much like Dr. Oz extols dietary fiber. “Happier couples,” says a sexologist on Adam & Eve’s home shopping show, “are healthier couples.”

Along the way, Harvey notched numerous accomplishments. He won accolades as a champion for civil liberties. He helped make America less sexually squeamish. And he achieved his original goal, the one that prompted his condom business: He provided birth control to millions of people in developing nations.

Accidental porn king

Harvey, educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, never planned to sell erotica. He’d enrolled at UNC after five years in India, where he fed children for CARE. The experience convinced him that affordable, accessible birth control could alleviate more suffering than hunger programs.

At UNC, he sought a way to get birth control into the hands of more people in the developing world. Though a 19th-century federal law forbade sending contraceptives through the mail, he took a risk. He and fellow classmate Dr. Tim Black, a physician with similar family planning interests, launched their condom company to test whether people would buy contraceptives by mail.

They would, it turns out. Ads appeared in college newspapers, and orders streamed in. Soon, Harvey was making money, which he hadn’t expected.

Before long, he had two companies – the business known as Adam & Eve and a nonprofit that sold contraceptives below cost in developing countries. Harvey, who says he was never interested in accumulating wealth, began donating some of his profits from Adam & Eve to the nonprofit.

But selling half-gross boxes of Trojan condoms to fraternities, Harvey suspected, wouldn’t keep Adam & Eve growing. So he tried out more sex-related products – books, magazines, lingerie – and also general merchandise – belts, model ships, digital watches. The sex-related items sold well. The others didn’t. Adam & Eve’s erotic path was set.

What really transformed the business, however, was the video cassette recorder. With the advent of the VCR in the early 1980s, porn movies, once mostly relegated to X-rated theaters, moved into American living rooms. Adam & Eve jumped on the video bandwagon.

Federal crackdown

By the mid-1980s, the company was mailing millions of catalogs a year. Business was growing. Then came the Reagan administration’s porn industry crackdown. Thirty-seven federal agents raided Adam & Eve’s Carrboro headquarters.

Harvey went to trial in Alamance County in 1987 for disseminating obscenity. If you’re writing a history of North Carolina’s most surprising trials, put this one on your list. Jurors watched six hours of porn flicks, deliberated only an hour and then acquitted Harvey. His lawyers didn’t even mount a defense.

But the feds weren’t finished. The government hatched a plan to shut down adult mail-order companies by prosecuting them in multiple jurisdictions. Some of Adam & Eve’s competitors folded, unable to keep defending themselves. That was the government’s aim, says Charlotte attorney David Rudolf, one of Harvey’s lawyers. “It was designed to bankrupt them.”

Harvey fought back. In 1990, Adam & Eve sued the federal government, charging that prosecutors were abusing their power, bullying the company to force it to surrender its First Amendment right to distribute non-obscene materials.

In 1993, Adam & Eve prevailed. Federal obscenity prosecutors ceased their pursuit. Adam & Eve agreed to pay a fine on a technicality – it didn’t use big enough type when it wrote “sexually explicit ad” on an envelope. Harvey details his fight and victory in his 2001 book, “The Government Vs. Erotica: The Siege of Adam & Eve.”

Company of the year

Soon, Adam & Eve again faced opposition, as Hillsborough residents protested its plans to relocate from Carrboro. Once the company moved in, however, the furor died, and Adam & Eve hasn’t weathered a public controversy since. In 2005, it was even named the Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce’s company of the year.

Adam & Eve employs 350 people and does $105 million in annual sales, mostly from its online store. In many ways, it’s a typical corporation. It offers free fitness classes and awards employees for good work. At a recent employee meeting, supervisors gave affectionate descriptions of staffers celebrating work anniversaries.

Some things set Adam & Eve apart, however. If you work there, you need to be comfortable with words your parents warned you never to say. Also, there’s a glass case in the customer contact center that holds a variety of anatomically correct sex products. These are basically reference materials that help telephone operators answer customer questions or make suggestions to encourage a bigger sale.

For years, Harvey led both Adam & Eve and DKT International, the nonprofit he founded. Adam & Eve is owned by 95 employees, including Harvey, whose holding is less than half and set to decline over time at his request. Now 76 years old, he’s retired but remains on both boards. He lives with his wife outside Washington, D.C., and travels regularly to Hillsborough to spend time at Adam & Eve.

“My presence here is kind of optional,” he said during a visit in May. He describes himself as guru and historian, “the person they come to when they want to find out what happened in 1976.”

You’d guess that Harvey was a professor, not a porn seller. Reading glasses perch on his nose, and even when he talks about adult products, he sounds scholarly. (“The popularity of vibrators in America is quite astonishing,” he notes during one interview.)

Connecting all Harvey’s endeavors, says DKT President Christopher Purdy, “is this deep, deep passion for freedom – freedom to choose how many kids you want, freedom to do what you want to do in the bedroom, freedom to lead the life you want to lead.”

One recent venture is the DKT Liberty Project, a nonprofit whose civil liberty-oriented aims include ending the nation’s war on drugs. A self-described libertarian, Harvey is also co-writing a book about welfare reform that advocates for policies, such as the earned income tax credit, that would make it easier for people to move off welfare.

Over the years, Harvey has donated more than $50 million of his Adam & Eve profits to his family-planning work. Marie Stopes International, a British reproductive health nonprofit, estimates that in 2013 alone, DKT International prevented 8.3 million unwanted pregnancies, 12,364 maternal deaths and 1.8 million abortions in 19 developing countries. The agency calculates the impact with a formula that uses demographics and health data.

Harvey can’t be sure how much his work has contributed to falling developing nation birth rates, he says, but “it’s nice to know I’ve been engaged in something that seems to have worked out well.”

He’s equally proud of Adam & Eve and its role in promoting the idea, he says, “that sex is good and fun and healthy and pleasurable.”

Adam & Eve retains sex therapists and psychologists who screen products to ensure material is neither illegal nor harmful. Harvey instituted that policy in 1987 when he realized that several bondage titles had crept into the company’s video and magazine inventory.

Today, the company is “one the oldest and most respected brands in adult entertainment,” says Dan Miller, executive managing editor of XBiz, an adult entertainment industry trade publication.

Mainstream sex toys

The company keeps evolving. Internet porn battered DVD and video sales, which once accounted for more than half its revenue. But the decline coincided with rising demand for pleasure products.

The popularity of vibrators has been growing since the 1970s, when the women’s movement gave birth to sex-toy shops catering exclusively to women, says Lynn Comella, a sexuality scholar at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The vibrator became a powerful symbol of female liberation,” Comella says, allowing women “to reclaim sexuality, take control of their orgasms.”

In recent years, sex toys have moved toward the mainstream with the help of pop culture vehicles such as HBO’s “Sex and the City” and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the best-selling erotic novel. The sex toy industry now grosses $15 billion in annual sales. You can find vibrators on drugstore shelves.

More customers are also willing to be seen shopping for these products. Adam & Eve opened its first franchise store in 2006 to capture part of the brick-and-mortar retail market, still lucrative despite the growth of online shopping. It now has 58 franchises in 20 states, with locations that include Monroe, Gastonia and Concord. The company’s goal: 400 stores in 10 years.

The business offers advantages you don’t encounter with most retail, Charlotte store manager Jessica Guzman says. For one thing, “you don’t really get angry customers.” Your inventory provides pleasure. It helps couples re-ignite their sex lives. The work is fun. It’s even rewarding.

Guzman and her sales associates describe various sex toy functions as easily as Home Depot employees recite paint colors. Lingerie is their best-selling product. Vibrators of all types – dishwasher-safe, eco-friendly, ergonomically correct – run second. The most expensive: a 24-carat-gold model that looks kind of like a computer mouse. It’s $4,800, but the sales staff says it’s got a great warranty.

Store customers these days are mostly couples and women. About half are over 50. Some are widows or divorcees who visit at the prodding of daughters.

Some look uncomfortable when they walk through the door, but “once they get in here, they realize we're not some seedy, dark-lit sex store,” says Teresa Webb, vice president for sales for Sactacular Holdings, the Raleigh company that operates the Charlotte store and 11 other Adam & Eve franchises.

Adam & Eve’s customers generally don’t know its colorful history, but why would they? The company doesn’t advertise it, and Harvey doesn’t think that touting his charitable work, however impressive, would boost sales. “My hypothesis is when people are making a purchase to make their sex lives better, it’s a different part of the brain than the charitable guy.”

On a recent afternoon, several shoppers browsed. After a few minutes, one of them, a 41-year-old mother of three, placed a bustier and two pleasure products on the checkout counter.

“Special occasion?” Webb asked.

Yes, it was. The woman smiled and explained why:

“The kids aren’t home.”