Phil Harvey Provides a Master Class with AVN Show Keynote

HOLLYWOOD, Fla.–The first full day of The AVN Show was rich with sessions that featured great fighters for the industry and free expression, but it was the book-ending of presentations featuring two businessmen who refused to cut a deal with the government that drove the point home that this is a business that creates reluctant, if determined, heroes.

Clearly, Evil Angel’s John Stagliano, fresh off a staggeringly deft dispatch by a peerless legal team of the pitiful best the government could throw at him, is one of those heroes. During the closing session of the day, he and his team of legal lions – H. Louis Sirkin, Paul Cambria and Allan Gelbard – delivered a tight and fascinating glimpse into the making of a significant legal victory. But as great as that presentation was, it was made all the more meaningful by the earlier keynote presentation by Adam & Eve founder Phil Harvey, who opened the day with an altogether different sort of tight and fascinating presentation.

Like Stagliano, Harvey was himself targeted by the government during the mid-80s and into the 1990s, when he finally had enough and turned the tables on his persecutors by suing the Department of Justice, forcing it into retreat and eventual abject surrender. The cost must have been huge, but the determination was nothing if not steely. At first glance, it is difficult to square that proven resolve with the slight and professorial figure who took the stage Friday afternoon, but after he was done with his 45-minute lecture – for that is precisely what it was – no such dichotomy remains. Harvey is steel.

But it also seems that Harvey’s inability to back down in the face of federal bullying is as much a product of his innate sense of orderliness as it is of his core principles, which are many. Famous for his lifelong philanthropy, one could easily see in the 72-year-old Harvey of today the same 25-year-old who worked in India for five years for CARE, where his experience working on large-scale feeding programs for the poor sowed the seeds for his later charitable work. He came away determined to find solutions, and for he most part has succeeded in every endeavor because of the clarity of his purpose and the methodical nature of his character.

All of that was also on display as Harvey, after being introduced by AVN founder Paul Fishbein, addressed three main topics to an audience of about 150 people.

The topics were: industry trends (as seen through Adam & Eve); some thoughts on the legal situation; and a few words about sex. To help illustrate his points, Harvey used a series of slides that contained mostly graphs and charts of A&E business trends that he analyzed with a clinician’s detail. It was clear that after 30 years he still rises to the challenge of managing a large operation, and admittedly, as he poured over the rising and falling trend lines that indicated sales and productivity results over that 30-year span, interpreting their meaning with an eye to sustainability and long-term growth, his boyish wonder became ours, especially his unabashed curiosity about the substantial increase in online sales to women as opposed to their much more modest use of the catalogues that have been Adam & Eve’s staple for decades.

Likewise, when he walked the audience through the intricate coordination necessary to fulfill 6,000-7,000 orders a day, with 95 percent of all orders aimed to be shipped within two days, with calls answered within 20 seconds – “It is an art and it is a science” – the challenge seemed as palpable to the audience as it did to Harvey on the stage. Of the large trends, the internet dominates A&E as it does everyone else, of course, but Harvey’s determination to stay in touch with his company’s data can only continue to serve him well.

“We are almost impervious to business cycles,” he said, and backed it up with charts that showed only a modest fall-off even in the midst of this latest deep recession, and barely a dip during any of the recessions over the past 15-20 years.

During his comments on the law, Harvey focused on obscenity, an issue he knows intimately and cares about deeply. He had attended the last day of the Stagliano trial, the day the judge acquitted the defendant of all charges, and spoke almost self-deprecatingly about his skepticism that all the charges would be dropped. He say behind AVN Senior Legal Editor Mark Kernes, he said, and remembered saying to him, of the decision before the judge, “He’ll never dismiss the whole case; judges just don’t do that,” He was wrong, of course, and told Kernes that he was glad he had not made a bet on it.

But he remained concerned about some of the judges previous rulings during the trial, specifically his decision not to allow expert witnesses, or to require the jury to watch all of the content being charged, as is required under Miller. Though not precedents, he worried that Kernes might be correct when he wrote that other judges down the line might follow the lead of this judge, and further restrict the rights of defendants. It was bizarre reasoning by the judge, he said, and then reiterated his advice for how to avoid an obscenity charge.

“My impression,” he said, “is that the federales will continue to look at the most violent, and then at the kinky stuff. The more violent you go, the more chances of getting the attention of the feds.”

Harvey’s last topic, one he said people even in the business discuss rarely, was about sex. Not so mach as a salable commodity but as a human activity. It turns out that Harvey is still in a kind of awe to our conflict over sex, and our continuing ambiguity about it. As much as we talk about the best sex being healthy and positive, it’s really the dark side of sex that is the most important. He recalled the old Woody Allen response when asked if sex was dirty: "Only when it's done right."

“I think there’s a great truth in that,” said Harvey. “We’re the only animals embarrassed by our procreative activities.”

Why, he asked rhetorically, and replied with another joke that ended with the punch line, “Who else would run a waste disposal system right through a recreational area?”  

He added, matter-of-factly, “I think this contributes to people’s confusion about sex. The seven original swear words were either about waste or sex.”

The other factor creating our strange shame about sex, he said, was the role that religious intolerance has played in the development of our ideas about sex, which he believes is tied up in a need for people to maintain control. The problem, he said, is that sex requires giving up control.

“It is impossible to have an orgasm under control,” he said. That fear of a loss of control, he said, leads people to some very troubling conclusions, and cited Richard Nixon, who condemned the results of his own porn commission that pre-dated the Meese Commission, after they came back with a conclusion that porn was not a threat to the Republic.

“We must draw the line against pornography to protect freedom of expression,” Nixon famously said, clearly not understanding the self-contradictory nature of his comments.

Ever the realist, Harvey mused on the absurdity of the Human Condition as it pertains to sex while also acknowledging that as a businessman he doesn’t want porn to become too acceptable.

“I don’t want to compete with WalMart,” he said, seeming to understand that that was just what was happening. The tide of history is swinging toward acceptance; the outlaw identity that has served the industry so well for so long somehow needs to be maintained, even as we fight to keep the feds off our backs.

In the end, Harvey had no answer to the conundrum. As a pragmatist, he doesn’t seem to need one. As an atheist, he is unencumbered by religious dogma, tradition or guilt. His moral center holds quite well, thank you. It’s as if, as the world swirls and evolves around him, he creates a center of gravity equal to it.

The World According to Phil Harvey.