Phil Harvey made his fortune selling sex toys and adult films through his Adam & Eve mail order business. Since then, he has supported libertarian causes (including the Reason Foundation, which publishes this magazine) and helped fund contraception access efforts in the developing world. He is also the author of a new novel, Show Time (Lost Coast Press), which offers a darkly comic riff on reality TV. In October, Reason TV Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie spoke with Harvey about his new book, changing sexual mores, and why people need violent entertainment.
Q: In Show Time seven people have to live on an island in the middle of Lake Superior as winter approaches. The winner—the survivor—gets $400,000. What brought you to write this book?
A: I’ve always been interested in violence as entertainment, something that we have a great deal of in America and most other cultures. The idea [behind the book is] that violence as entertainment might go beyond a chance of death, as in NASCAR racing, to a point where the producer of a reality show would actually hope for a fatality, where the audience would be sitting on the edge of their seats hoping for something perhaps close to a death.
Q: Are you a critic of violence and sexuality in popular culture? Do you see them as desensitizing or dehumanizing?
A: No, I’m certainly not a critic of violence and sexuality in literature or entertainment. And I’m not either a critic or a fan of reality shows, except that they’re all obviously rehearsed and therefore hypocritical. We need violence and sexuality in our entertainment, I think. Human beings are descended from people who had to deal with violence to survive. Worldwide violence is going down, which is something of a surprise to a lot of people. The chances of anyone dying violently at the hands of another human being are less today then they have ever been in the history of humankind. So we’re becoming a less violent species. But we need it for sublimation.
Q: Are we in a better age, where people understand that fantasy violence and fantasy sexuality play a positive social role, or are we actually moving backward toward more repression?
A: We are not moving backwards to more repression of speech except at Harvard and other private universities, where speech codes have become absolutely ridiculous. But generally we’re certainly not going back to the days when Lady Chatterley’s Lover could be declared illegal. We’re not going back to the days when Ulysses could be banned.
Q: How much of that is changing social mores, and how much is technological change that allows people to route around censorship?
A: It’s a change in sexual mores, I think, that American society is clearly much more open to the idea of good sex. The discussion of sex in most cultures for centuries past has all been about bad sex: what you shouldn’t do, what you can’t do. Sex toys, most of them, are designed to help women achieve orgasm. The idea that you could openly sell things that help women achieve orgasm is pretty new, but it is now widely accepted. The revolution in women’s views about their own sexuality and their right to enjoy a full sexual life is relatively new, and I think all of that is very positive.