Years ago, Lasharia Holman was at church with her daughter, who was in grade school at the time. The pastor referenced the biblical story of Adam and Eve.
“My mommy works for them!” the girl blurted out.
“I think she saw my badge,” recalls Holman, who handles customer calls for the adult industry behemoth at its headquarters in Hillsborough, North Carolina. “We hadn’t yet had that conversation about sex or what mommy does for a living.”
Her daughter has since been enlightened, though Holman is still not ready to talk about it with any neighbor or fellow parishioner. But Holman, now 42 and pregnant with her second child, says she enjoys her job. She was a special education teacher but found the hours too demanding after her daughter was born. Also, taking calls about cock rings and vibrators pays the same as teaching. Besides, Holman still feels like an educator. For some callers in conservative areas, a talk with a phone rep at a sex toy conglomerate is their only resource to improve their sex lives. “I get calls from people saying, ‘My spouse and I have been married for 20 years and the sex is dead. What do I do?’” says Holman.
She is one of about 350 North Carolinians who work at the headquarters of PHE Inc., the parent company of Adam and Eve, nestled in Hillsborough (pop. 6,388) thousands of miles away, geographically and culturally, from the adult industry epicenter of Southern California. Since its inception in 1971, as a mail-order seller of condoms, Adam and Eve has been tucked away in the Bible belt, and it has flourished there, despite the occasional grumbling of local evangelicals and a long court battle on obscenity charges that the federal government angled into counties with conservative jury pools (including one right next door).
According to a chart in founder Phil Harvey’s office, revenue ascended from $7 million in 1980 to $125 million in 2016. Even after the internet disseminated the market for x-rated videos, once 85% of Adam and Eve’s revenue, its growth continued, thanks to an influx of female customers and new bread-and-butter business of sex toys. Throughout its existence, the company has been in continual search for larger office space, moving several times within Orange County and most recently expanding its warehouse space by 30,000 square feet. It has also become perhaps the largest private employer in the unusually artsy former mill town of Hillsborough.
PHE runs neck-and-neck with another online distributor in town, a sportswear company, in employee count, says Steve Brantley, director of the business group Orange County Economic Development. Both hire seasonal workers, so the numbers are hard to pin down. (Adam and Eve hires temps in the winter, says marketing director Chad Davis, when gift-giving December holidays, Valentine’s Day and cold nights spent in drive up sales.) But with a roster of 350 to 400, “it’s one of the largest employers in town,” Brantley says.
“[T]here is a fair number of people in town who know someone who has worked there,” says Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens. “I celebrate it. They’ve been good corporate citizens. They don’t hide what they do, but they don’t push it in people’s faces.”
Marked only by a sign with the name of the parent company, PHE, Inc., the company’s headquarters sits on a country road, curved around an artificial pond, a road it shares with a veterinary clinic and a senior home. Within is almost the entirety of Adam and Eve’s operations, save for its in-house porn brand, based in California.
Among the local workforce, PHE recruits warehouse packagers, call center operators, web designers, copywriters, content reviewers, and executives. Each day, they all walk into one of the world’s largest stockpiles of lube, pornographic DVDs and sex toys of every type, size and purpose.
The office space at Adam and Eve looks like every other office space in America, except if everyone had just got done indiscreetly masturbating at their desk. Next to sales reports and framed pictures of children and spouses sit sex toys and DVDs cases with buxom, topless women. But the atmosphere is quiet and professional. Typing occasionally interrupted by small talk. Here work the company’s executives, web developers, designers, and marketing professionals.
Lucas Fenske is a copywriter. “I have the ultimate guy’s job,” he says. “I get to sit around and watch movies.” Fenske transitioned from writing for the student newspaper at the UNC Chapel Hill, where he was a history major, to scribing copy about porn DVDs and toys, both those of the company’s in-house brand and others.
Movies demand much of his time, because each scene requires its own description. The trick is to summarize the action while avoiding language that would get Adam and Eve flagged as straight-up porn site by Google. (It does offer streaming video, but one has to log in and pay.) “You can say, ‘Dropped to her knees and opened wide,’ but you can’t say ‘blowjob,’” says Fenske.
Cindy, the merchandising and marketing director and a demure middle-aged woman, has perhaps the most eye-catching office. (She requested her last name be withheld.) Shelves are stocked floor-to-ceiling with boxes of toys of every shape, size, variety, price, and point of bodily entry. They also hang from a wall mount that faces her desk. She’s responsible for scouring trade shows and working with manufacturers to expand the company’s line beyond rabbits and wand massagers, to stuff like the Jimmy Jane Hello Touch Wearable Vibrator and the Tryst Multi-Erogenous Massager.
“We might take an existing product that sells well and embellish it with a new brand and shape,” she says. “It might blow puffs of air or have new technology to it.”
The products themselves are stored across the building in the PHE warehouse. The bestsellers are kept on the outer shelves, giving the “pickers” who put together individual customers’ orders easiest access to them. The basic dildos, vibrators, lube, and anal toys tend to stay there. Occasionally, a DVD makes it to the outer shelves; “Latina Lovers” is apparently selling well. But most movies are stored on the inner, less accessed shelve—next to the more oddly shaped insertables, men’s toys, and lingerie. Occasionally, trends affect placement. After 50 Shades of Grey, ben wa balls became an outer-shelf commodity.
Christal Small, a 42-year-old grandmother with silver streaks in her hair, has been working in the warehouse for 10 years and plans to stay until retirement. Small doesn’t hide where she works from people, except her nanny for a few months. “It mostly goes over well,” she says. “People perk up and are interested.”
Across the building sits the call center, where representatives take customer inquiries. The most frequent, says Lasharia Holman, are: “How will this appear on my bank statement?” and “What does the package that comes to my house look like?” The answers: as a purchase from PHE, Inc., and in a normal-looking, discreet box or bubble envelope.
Some customers call in orders from catalogues, which the company still prints and mails. Often, this is to keep Adam and Eve out of their browser history, says Holman. Other callers simply want to know how the gadget works. This is why customer service reps have regular meetings with product specialists, at which the toys are explained and passed around a table. If they need a reference while on the phone, next to the rows of computers with headsets is a glass case full of mostly phallic-shaped items reaching up to the ceiling.
Phil Harvey, the 79-year-old co-founder of Adam and Eve, sits in his office, beneath a tin replica of an ad for condoms he placed in college newspapers in the ’70s. (“Contraceptives for Men by Mail,” reads the headline.) An assistant brings in a new issue of Playboy. “I re-subscribed when they brought back the nudes,” he says. “I guess they were trying to be respectable. That’s always a mistake.”
Harvey has spent a lifetime un-respectable to many and deeply respectable to others. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Slavic languages, he worked for an aid agency. A mission to India convinced him many societal problems stemmed from overpopulation and begat his life’s work: spreading the means for family planning. Much of his own money from Adam and Eve goes to the nonprofit he founded, DKT International, which establishes distribution channels for condoms in the developing world. Harvey has trotted the globe, touting contraceptives to everyone from military officers to brothel madams. He’s also fought the federal government in court several times: over mail-order “obscenity” laws and over stipulations mandating how U.S. foreign aid agencies approach sex work and abortion.
Though Harvey is originally from Illinois, he’s the reason Adam and Eve is in North Carolina. He and late co-founder Tim Black were earning master’s degrees in family planning at the UNC Chapel Hill when they started selling condoms.
They advertised in college newspapers across the U.S. They knew sending sex-related products in the mail was illegal under the century-old Comstock acts. “We tapped into a million-dollar market no one was touching,” Harvey says, “and we figured if we spent a few years in jail it would be good for publicity.”
They rented a storefront in Chapel Hill and printed catalogues, adding lingerie, and soon everything else that was in your parents’ locked bedroom drawer. As revenue grew, the company stayed in Orange County, moving through a series of ever-larger spaces.
“There was never any reason to move it” to another area, Harvey says. “We always had plenty of skilled workers locally.”
North Carolina has been an evolving state, politically. Since George W. Bush twice won it by more than 10 points, an influx of young, educated transplants into cities have made it a swing state. Yet it has recently been on a bender of regressive sexual politics: Its legalized anti-gay discrimination, anti-trans “bathroom bill”, and retrograde definition of rape have shocked blue-staters.
Hillsborough, however, stands apart from native cultural forces. It’s like some artsy New England inlet shoveled up and transported piece by piece down I-95. The town has attracted a cluster of noteworthy authors and downtown has an art gallery, artisanal sandwich shop, independent book store, and a center for holistic wellness simply called “Elsewhere.” Each day, the Weaver Street Market food co-op fills up at lunch time.
Homes and businesses show their divergence with the bent of national and statewide politics with “Love and Tolerance Practiced Here” yard signs and “Y’all Means EVERYONE” bumper stickers, showing the state’s shape made from colored hearts in a rainbow spectrum. Both are local IRL memes. Orange County is a dark-blue dot in a purple state; Hillary Clinton won it by 73%.
“We get a lot of residents who commute to Chapel Hill, which is a bastion of liberalism,” Mayor Stevens says. “Hillsborough is right at the center of the county. That being said, I’m not sure ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ really describe the way people think. I think it’s more libertarian and independent-minded.”
When PHE relocated in 1994, the town was hurting economically. “Like most of North Carolina, this was a mill town and all the mills closed,” Stevens says. Hillsborough tried to fill that space with distribution centers. The empty lot of land PHE chose had already been zoned for a warehouse.
“There were some rumblings in the newspapers,” Stevens recalls. Evangelicals picketed the place on arrival, recalls Harvey, but both say that Adam and Eve has gelled neatly into the local economy. In 2005, it was named Business of the Year by the Hillsborough-Orange County Chamber of Commerce, a distinction still celebrated with a banner in the lobby.
Adam and Eve sometimes makes its presence known through philanthropy, Stevens says, adopting a highway and giving to local causes. Hillsborough has a past dating back to colonial times, dotting it with historic homes and inns. At the fundraisers to preserve such places—black-tie get-togethers for the business community—the company often donates a basket for the silent auction sometimes wrapped to only identify the contents as goodies from Adam and Eve.
“It gets some snickering,” Stevens says, “but someone always takes it.”
It’s not always been so easy for Adam and Eve to just exist. From 1986 to 1990, the company was involved in an epic legal battle against the Justice Department, which pressed district attorneys in conservative areas where it had shipped to indict them on obscenity charges. Orange County’s DA refused, calling it “a total waste of time and law enforcement resources,” according to Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right by Whitney Strub. But the feds found an ally in the district attorney of Alamance County, one county over.
Federal agents raided Adam and Eve’s offices, corralling employees into the parking lot as they ransacked the merchandise. Prosecutors tried to shock an Alamance County jury with hours of porn screenings, but they still acquitted.
The Justice Department sought other conservative counties where Adam and Eve had shipped in a multipronged approach to bankrupt the company with legal fees. Harvey was indicted in Alabama and Utah. He remembers plane trips taken just to go to small-town sheriff’s offices on orders to be fingerprinted. He filed a civil lawsuit against the Justice Department and only pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor.
The trials have had a lasting effect. Adam and Eve still doesn’t send videos or catalogues to some rural, conservative areas.
It also defended itself on the grounds that its products “promote healthy sexuality” and every DVD it sells is prescreened by that standard. The company avoids any video meant to even appear non-consensual, it refuses the “barely legal” label, and fetishes are usually depicted as garnishes to sex, as opposed to focuses.
“It has to be healthy, happy people having consensual sex,” Davis says. There’s a five-page standard manual screeners use.
But DVDs are only about 15% of its sales these days. Sexual stimulation devices had always been offered in the catalogues, but since the advent of the internet, they’ve become the core business, tilting customer demographics from 90% male to about 60% and 40% according to Harvey.
“It still surprises me,” he says, but “thank goodness there is such a demand for dildos and vibrators and things that shake and buzz and give people orgasms.”
Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who has contributed to Nerve, The Village Voice, Mental Floss, Men’s Health, Slate and Vice.
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