by Furry Girl
The Government vs. Erotica: The Siege of Adam & Eve
by Philip D Harvey
Published in 2001
In an alternate world, Phil Harvey would be a better-known first amendment crusader. Far from the bombastic, abrasive persona of Larry Flynt, Harvey is an adult retailer who seems like he could be your friendly libertarian grandpa. Throughout the book, Harvey maintains a sort of innocent patriotic optimism, and in spite of his own dealings with malicious encroachments on his rights, he seems pretty shocked that the government of the United States of America would ever do anything underhanded.
"The Government vs. Erotica" is a look at the series of coordinated obscenity prosecutions of Philip Harvey, his company, Adam & Eve, and many of his employees. The government's strategy was to indict Harvey and others in multiple districts around the country, bleeding them dry through a series of costly legal battles over bogus obscenity charges. It's the kind of thing that has killed smaller companies with less means to defend themselves.
From the first raid on their North Carolina facility, and along a journey of nearly 8 years and $3 million in legal fees, Harvey covers his cases in detail. He also writes more broadly about porn, class, taste, fear of sexuality, freedom of expression, and the nonsensical nature of American morality laws. I'm sure both areas of the book would be equally interesting to some, but I found Harvey to be a more engaging writer when he's focused on the big picture, rather than the minutiae of his drawn-out battle.
But what a battle it was- Harvey spent from May 1986 to December 1993 fighting off wave after wave of prosecutions around the country. Before we internet pornographers had to wonder if some conservative enclave in Utah or Alabama would find our porn obscene by their "community standards", Harvey was fighting in such places on behalf of his mail-order company. For that, I can't help but respect the guy, even though we disagree on other issues.
My favorite chapter of the book was probably "Pornography and Class", where Harvey muses on what defines the line between that which is considered to have artistic merit, and what which is mere obscenity or trash. Some passages from that section I wanted to highlight:
Judge [Robert] Bork would have us believe that today's popular culture is "more vulgar than at any time in the past." He looks back fondly on the 1930s, when performers sang about "the way you look tonight," with a warm smile, a soft cheek, "nothing for me but to love you." But public lynchings were sometimes popular "entertainment" in the 1930s, too, a phenomenon that strikes me as a lot more coarse than any form of rap.
Class-based views of pornography take many forms. "Once upon a time," observes a New York Times writer, "obscenity was confined to expensive leather-bound editions available only to gentlemen... One of the questions asked by the crown prosecutor [in the trial of the publisher of _Lady Chatterly's Lover]... was: 'Would you let your servant read this book?'" Indeed, one of the earliest common-law decisions involving obscenity reflected this elitist attitude. The Queen's Bench rules in 1868 that, to be obscene, material must have the power to "deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.
In American culture, this phenomenon is exemplified by Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine... As writer and sociologist MG Lord observes, "Hustler's scatological fantasies have less to do with penetrating women than with the rage at having not penetrated the privileged classes." Laura Kipnis adds, "The catalogs of social resentments Hustler trumpets, particularly against class privilege, makes it by fat the most openly class-antagonistic mass-circulation periodical of any genre." [...] Hustler, contrariwise [to Playboy and Penthouse], goes out of its way to harpoon the upper crust, to denigrate those PhD elitists, to fart on the pretensions of the ruling class, or anyone pretending to be holier than thou.
In another strong chapter, "What are We Afraid Of? Sexuality and Censors", he interviews Dr Marty Klein:
There are a lot of people who don't want sexual experimentation going on in the world. It reminds them that they have desire themselves, desires that they are scared by or feel ashamed of or guilty about. Unapologetic sexuality opens up the possibility of a form of freedom - a choice - that sex-fearful people don't want to have. Rather, they try to shut down those sexual activities out there that they're scared of wanting to do themselves.
In the end, after a lot of stubbornness and struggle, Harvey and his legal team accepted a truce deal with the US government, which required that Harvey "throw a bone" tothe state of Alabama. He wouldn't plead guilty to any speech issues, so after much searching, his team found out that they once probably mailed materials into Alabama using 8 or 9 point fonts rather than the 12 point fonts mandated by law on certain mailings. It's a bit of an anti-climactic ending, but one that no doubt saved Harvey many additional years and millions of dollars.
Now, onto my two tangents of criticism that don't really have to do with the quality of the book.
Harvey raises my blood pressure when he repeatedly reminds readers that the porn he was selling featured only mainstream adult content. I'm bothered by the false dichotomy set up in sentences such as "...depictions of positive sexuality between cheerfully consenting adults, without violence or degradation." It's the consenting adults bit that matters, not whether the performers are giggling or sobbing during the scene.
For non-industry readers, I can see how Harvey is trying to make himself look extra "upstanding" by refusing to carry porn that features anything "too dirty", but he does the perv/porn community a disservice by dividing adult entertainment into "good" and "bad" based on whether or not it's kinky, rather than by standards such as the labor conditions under which it was made. Anyone with any sense of sexual sophistication knows that "violence" and "degradation" are not mutually exclusive to "positive sexuality".
Here's the other irksome issue: it takes awfully big balls to sling mud at kinky "degrading" porn because of one's vague personal concern it's possibly unhealthy for viewers, when one can buy from Harvey's company such products as "Adam & Eve Vaginal Tightening Tightener Cream" or "Adam & Eve Anal Easy Lubricant" (which numbs your ass so you have no idea if you're being hurt! fun!), fake breast enlargement pills, fake penis enlargement pills, and of course, a load of toxic mystery jelly sex toys. "Positive healthy sexuality" fail, Harvey.
Adam & Eve doesn't sell anything that's more obnoxious than other mainstream adult retailers, so I'm not trying to single them out too much. I do genuinely respect Phil Harvey for going to bat for everyone's right to enjoy and sell porn, I just wish there was a greater sense of ethical consistency in place of throwing folks under the bus who like their porn (and by extension, their sex lives) with more kink.
Buy The Government vs. Erotica through this Amazon link and a portion of the sales price will go to SWAAY.
Furry Girl: a good time not yet had by all.
- I operate SWAAY.org, an accessible sex workers' rights site that educates the general public about our lives and our issues.
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