- Associated Press - Sunday, August 17, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - 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.

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.

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.”

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