American Phil Harvey (pictured) and a friend from university began selling condoms through the mail back in the late 1960s. Business took off. Today, evidence of Harvey's surprising success is apparent in Cambodia with the Number One and OK condom brands.
T he hippie 'free love' era of the 1960s was tailing off when university students Phil Harvey and Tim Black began selling condoms through the post, a practice considered "obscene" and illegal under American law at the time.
"We decided to go ahead and take our chances," said Harvey in a recent interview. "As a result of the fact that no one else was doing this, the orders just poured in. Tim and I had no idea what to do."
What they did was carve out a lucrative market in mail-order adult products, now known by the name Adam & Eve, while using the profits to pioneer family planning techniques in the developing world.
The entrepreneurs founded Population Services International (PSI), best known in Cambodia for distributing the Number One and OK condoms as well as range of other birth spacing devices.
While PSI is careful to point out that their present operations are dedicated to the serious business of improving reproductive health options among the poor and are separate from Harvey's other interests, it was the hot trade in erotic material that kick-started PSI back in the 1970s.
"We tried to get our customers to buy leisure wear, shipbuilding kits, belt buckles, model airplanes... but they just yawned at that stuff," said Harvey. "Every time we put something with erotic appeal in the catalog, the bells would ring."
Adam & Eve has become the largest mail order and online retailer of sex toys and pornographic films on the planet, shipping around $70 million worth of product annually to over four million customers around the globe.
The company goes to great lengths to offer a positive portrayal of sexuality, with a panel of psychologists and sex therapists reviewing titles such as Naughty College Schoolgirls 32 and 'Stud Hunters: A Hard Man is Good To Find'.
Adam & Eve prides itself on offering high quality products and pushing the industry to new standards, with their latest enterprise, Temptation Parties, described as a sort of Tupperware party for vibrators.
Selling sex to the rich to protect the poor. It may sound like a slightly warped take on a modern age Robin Hood, but Harvey's success in the porn business is matched by his commitment to helping people.
His "youthful enthusiasm to save the world" crystallized after working with aid agency CARE in India after he missed out on a place in the Peace Corps and was drafted for a brief stint in the US Army.
"I was in charge of the pre-school feeding program. Every year we would increase the beneficiary rolls and every year we'd sit back and realize we were farther behind than when we started," Harvey told Nerve.com in an October interview.
"It became very clear to me that shipping food from the US to India was nuts, that if the industrial world really wanted to be helpful to countries like India, voluntary family planning was the way to do it."
So Harvey returned to America to complete a masters degree in family planning at the University of North Carolina, where he met Tim Black, who now heads Marie Stopes International, a reproductive health organization that also operates in Cambodia.
With education under their belts and a mail order business taking off, Harvey and Black put into practice what they term "social marketing," or using commercial techniques to convince people to do something that's good for them.
They believed that instead of distributing condoms for free, placing a small cost on them - a pack of four Number One condoms usually costs 500 riel on the streets of Cambodia - would imbue them with a sense of value as well as include shopkeepers and other distributors in the market.
Harvey has even written a book, Let Every Child Be Wanted, to explain in his words why social marketing is revolutionizing contraception use around the world.
At age 64, Harvey sees no conflict between the way he makes his money and the way he spends it.
"I sell products that provide sexual education and sexual pleasure. Period," said Harvey. "And I must say that in 25 years we have never, to my knowledge, lost a grant or donation because of my work with Adam and Eve."
Not everyone sees things the same way.
In 1986, armed federal agents raided the North Carolina headquarters of Adam & Eve, part of a government crackdown on erotica that would drag Harvey into an eight-year legal battle.
Eventually ending with a not-guilty verdict, the ordeal is described in another of Harvey's books, The Government Vs Erotica.
With this kind of controversy surrounding him, it's perhaps understandable that the current management of PSI is keen to make a distinction between Harvey's adult shop and their current operations.
For the record, as well as heading up Adam & Eve's parent company PHE, Harvey is president of DKT, a non-profit organization started in 1989 that specializes in distributing condoms, pills and other contraception devices to the poorest parts of the world.
According to The Economist, Harvey takes around $2 million from the profits of Adam and Eve to contribute to DKT, which has an operating budget of $31 million and has a four-star rating from Charity Navigator.
Last year, Harvey resigned from the board of PSI because of unease over his presence within an agency that receives most of its funding from aid agencies. These days, PSI and DKT even compete against each other in some markets, such as central India.
Those at PSI Cambodia are reluctant to talk about their colorful founder, preferring to focus on the job of providing contraceptives and malaria protection to poor Cambodians.
"One of PSI Cambodia's principal challenges will be to maintain a relentless focus on achieving correct and consistent condom use in commercial sex outlets while remaining flexible enough to address emerging vulnerabilities to HIV risks," said Andrew Boner, country representative for PSI Cambodia.
So far, their success has been staggering.
PSI Cambodia estimates that in 2003 their products prevented 3,171 HIV infections and 151,000 unwanted pregnancies - achievements they expect to exceed this year.
Since they started work in Cambodia in 1993, PSI has continued to move with the times, tailoring their product range to the needs of the community.
One of the early priorities was to stop the spread of HIV among sex workers and their clients by heavily promoting condom use in brothels. PSI's distribution surveys tell them that Number One condoms are available in around 97 percent of brothels and national statistics indicate the HIV infection rate has dropped from 3.3 percent of adults in 1997 to 2.6 percent in 2002.
Recognizing that almost half of new HIV transmissions take place from husband to wife, PSI Cambodia has launched its OK brand of condoms, with branding and gently humorous advertising aimed at married and 'sweetheart' couples.
The sophistication of "social marketing" has come a long way since the 1970s, and so has the booming business of mailing out discreetly packaged erotica.
For Phil Harvey, what started out with condoms in the post and high ideals has branched into the two very different and very successful endeavors of philanthropy and porn.
Strange bedfellows indeed.