RIP Phil Harvey, Entrepreneur and Philanthropist Who Expanded Human Pleasure and Human Choice

Harvey, who died last week, dedicated his life to supporting human pleasure along with the power to manage it responsibly.


Phil Harvey—erotica and contraceptive entrepreneur, philanthropist, novelist, and supporter of Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this magazine)—died last week at age 83. His work and giving combined an eagerness to help people achieve pleasure with an enthusiasm for helping them widen and manage the choices they could make to live and reproduce responsibly.

Harvey worked for decades in institutions he founded or co-founded that were dedicated to promoting reproductive choice, including Population Services International and DKT International. In 1972, he founded Adam & Eve, a groundbreaking mail order business specializing in erotic literature, film, and objects.

A constant thread in his business and avocations has been fighting government attempts to quash expression and action. He wrote a 2001 book on that topic, The Government vs. Erotica: The Siege of Adam & Eve. As detailed in a review of the book by Nick Gillespie in Reason:

In 1986, Adam & Eve was invaded by law enforcement officials on the hunt for "obscene" materials. Thus began an eight-year battle, in which Harvey fought the federal government for the right to sell dirty movies, condoms, and other sexual aids to willing adults. After winning an obscenity trial in conservative Alamance County (during which prosecutors made a show of entering into evidence a "foot-long double dong" sold by Adam & Eve), Harvey found himself up against the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Edwin Meese.

The Meese DOJ pursued a nationwide strategy, "Project Postporn," in which it filed simultaneous, multiple-district prosecutions against porn sellers. The goal—often successful—was to scare vendors into quickly accepting draconian settlements that allowed them to avoid or reduce jail time by shuttering their doors. Harvey took a different tack: He fought the federal obscenity charges (eventually spending some $3 million on legal fees), and brought a civil suit against the feds, ultimately settling all matters largely on his terms.

That wasn't Harvey's only legal fight for greater liberty of expression and action for himself and others. He got to the Supreme Court in 1977 with a challenge to New York state's laws against nonprescription contraception, Carey v. Population Services International, and won a victory for the free spread and advertisement of contraceptives, even to the unmarried. He also fought one legal battle in the long, twisted fight over the government's insistence that nongovernmental organizations that get federal funding cannot promote or perform abortions.

He fought another legal battle against compelled speech in one of his bailiwicks, an officious government policy demanding that any recipient of government money to fight AIDS must publicly state they are opposed to prostitution. Harvey's DKT International was a philanthropic nonprofit that also believed in healthy business models, not just pure charity, dedicated to selling low-cost birth control tools and knowledge to the poorer parts of the world. The company used both its own income and other private money and some federal funds, which Harvey thought should not dictate he be forced to say something he did not believe. He won the case at first, then lost on appeal, though later a legal challenge from another source finally overthrew the demand in a 2013 Supreme Court case.

As The Economist described Harvey in a 2004 profile, he was a curious combination of fervent defender and provider of "sexual pleasures of the rich" as well as "family-planning and AIDS-prevention problems of the African poor." He insisted his goal was not to lower the birth rate per se, though he acknowledged that evidence indicated giving more contraceptive choice to people of any income level tended to do that. His goal was to empower people to make whatever reproductive choice they wanted.

Harvey was a defender and supporter of free speech and expression in general, and produced movies dedicated to free speech and expression such as Can We Take a Joke? (2015) and Mighty Ira (2020), the latter about the American Civil Liberties Union's free-speech paladin Ira Glasser. He openly regretted seeing some of America's mainline sources of cultural power and indoctrination such as Harvard University and prominent public universities adopting speech codes.

Free expression and matters directly affecting his erotic and contraceptive enterprises were not his only political concerns, however. Most recently, in a 2020 book he co-authored, Welfare for the Rich, Harvey focused on the ways government power and money often end up lining the pockets of the powerful, wealthy, and well-connected, shaking any naive belief that big government is surely necessary to help the little guy fight back against market or corporate power.

As Harvey told Gillespie in a 2016 interview discussing another book he co-authored, The Human Cost of Welfare, he was concerned as well about a disturbing pattern in welfare state incentives for the less-well-off that made people see working and bettering themselves through their own efforts as a high-risk choice, since it meant they risked losing welfare benefits. That dynamic, Harvey thought, vitiates people's built-in desire to accomplish things for themselves and thus build up their dignity and self-worth.

Harvey's work and philanthropy were dedicated to freedom, and to the power and ability to manage those freedoms responsibly; a delightfully and quintessentially American combination that helped bring pleasure, choice, and control to countless people in America and across the world.

A video of Gillespie's 2012 interview with Harvey: