Nina Hartley likes to refer to her background as a nurse when discussing her lengthy career in the porn industry. Looking at some of her recent work, it's easy to see a connection. Her growing line of how-to videos and books address a variety of topics, including female ejaculation, "foot fun," stripping, anal sex, strap-on sex, and orgies with an authoritative but welcoming frankness. Hartley has a nurturing bedside manner, but she certainly has the experience to be authoritative. She has a personal grounding that kept her out of the porn industry's storied dregs, and a business acumen that was rare in the pre-Jenna Jameson era—her name is a registered trademark. She's appeared in more than 400 films since debuting in the mid-'80s, and become a director and an all-around advocate for the industry.
And what an industry it's become: Adult Video News estimates that pornography brings in roughly $13 billion in annual sales, and some predict it will ultimately decide the winner in the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD format battle, much like it helped with VHS vs. Betamax in the '80s. It's a business built on a transient work force, which makes Hartley's two-decade career especially noteworthy—at 48, she's even enjoying a late-career resurgence, thanks to the rise of MILF porn. In spite of her appearance as William H. Macy's promiscuous wife in 1997's Boogie Nights, Hartley has never really courted crossover success the way peers like Ron Jeremy have. Where Jeremy has become a reality-show regular and frat-boy demigod, Hartley has maintained a serious focus on the adult-film industry and her role as its advocate/spokesman. Just after the release of her Guide To The Perfect Orgy DVD, Hartley spoke to The A.V. Club about the industry, the performers, and Barbie orgies.
The A.V. Club: Do you think it's easier to be in the business now than it was 20 years ago?
Nina Hartley: Yes and no. Twenty years ago, there certainly was more stigma, but you also could be more private about it. They didn't go around and advertise that that was what you did. You could walk around the street, and nobody would know. It was harder to break in. You had to really want to be here, you had to be that kind of person in the first place, who was already a little freaky, already a little unusual, a little more independently minded when it came to sex. Now, since it's more easily accessible as a consumer, and since the mainstream media has been paying more attention to it for 20 years, and everyone knows that the San Fernando Valley is Porn Central, everybody knows there are agencies to go to for this. When I was 18, I fantasized about being in porn. I had just seen my first adult film a few months earlier, and I really wanted to do it, but at 18, I had no clue how to find these people. I didn't find my way into porn until I was 25. Now, people know that at 18 years and one week old, they can go to Los Angeles and find their way into adult entertainment, should they want to do that. And that, I still have mixed feelings about it.
AVC: How so?
NH: The older adult in me says, "Wait, wait, but this is forever." When you are 18 years old, your concept of forever is barely 10 years. Of course, they need to be able to make their own mistakes, fall on their own faces, deal with their own consequences, and realize "Gee, maybe I shouldn't have done that." I'm not advocating some kind of nanny state that protects a poor, delicate 18-year-old. If you're the kind of 18-year-old who thinks that they will be making adult entertainment, some old fogey like me saying, "You might want to wait, little girl, until you have a couple years of living under your belt"—they are not going to listen to me. They're not going to listen to their mother. I recommend maybe be a dancer for a couple of years, maybe do some other kind of sex work. But the camera thing, the permanent record of your involvement here, is forever—and they don't understand how long life can be, and what "permanent" really means. Having said that, by the time you leave the biz, and let your hair grow out to its normal color, stop tanning, and stop getting your nails done so much, you look so different that it's unlikely the average person is going to follow you very far. However, I tell them, "All it has to do is follow you home to your uncle, your dad, or your brother. It doesn't matter if all those other people see you—your family will likely find out what you do, and how will that be? Don't worry about the stranger down the street. What about your mom?" It took my mom 20 years to begin to get over it, and she's still not comfortable with it. But she no longer thinks it's something I did to her, or no longer thinks it's a phase that I'll grow out of.
AVC: You're a big defender of the industry, but what about it do you find objectionable?
NH:Oh, plenty. I've always spoken out against the things I hate about it. I do believe it has a right to exist. I do not believe that it is the end of society. We don't get royalties. We don't get residuals. Ninety-nine percent of the people work as contract day labor. It's very high-paid blue-collar work, like farm workers. After every time I get paid, I am unemployed until the next gig comes in. Less than 5 percent of the players are under contract at any one time, so the rest of us are independent contractors hustling for work. We are responsible for our own health benefits, retirement benefits, everything. We are on our own, so that is an annoyance. You can't have a union, or a guild, when the work population is so transient… There are more 20-year players than ever before, because the business has matured, but most of the performers are out within five years, the women especially. The men can hang on for a long time.
Another thing I hate about the industry is the unreasonable regulatory demands placed on us by the government. We are a legal business, yet we have to keep records to prove, for some reason, that we aren't committing a crime by hiring minors. We're the only ones to have to somehow prove, before any allegation of criminal wrongdoing, that we are not doing something criminal. It's ludicrous, because any determined minor can, and has, gotten a legal U.S. passport from which they can get a driver's license so that they have two forms of ID and can come to a set.
I don't like the fact that, because the business is so stigmatized and marginalized, even though it is a huge moneymaker, that so many sleazy individuals can find a way in here and make a home. I can't stand that. It just bothers me. That is entertainment in general, but that part of it is unfortunate, as it is in any other business. If you're able to be taken advantage of, someone will certainly do it. However, that isn't the business' fault. But I do think that it is because of the very conflicted attitudes this country has.
But the main thing I don't like about the business is the fact that we don't get equity in our work. I do. I am an unusual person, and I work for an unusual company. Most people have no equity in their work. If you're good with your money, you can do very well here, for someone with a high-school education. But most people, as Americans, are only so-so with their money. I'm better with my money, but it wasn't until I had squandered a lot on the usual bad relationships and things. That's not porn's fault; that's just people.
AVC: At what point were you in more control of your own work and able to call your own shots?
NH: Always. The big lie is that every director forces every performer to do something that he or she doesn't want to do, and that's not true. You have as much power over what you do as you claim. So I've always known that I could say no. I've always known that I could say yes. I've had over a thousand sex scenes, but I've had literally fewer than 10 that I remember as being "Eww"—and only two of those were because a director, I felt, was pressuring me. The other ewws were just bad days, or the guy was really a jerk, or something like that. But again, I got in at age 25, when I knew more. I knew, as a feminist, that I had the right to say yes or no. When you're 18, you may know intellectually that you have the right to say no, but how much social bravery do you have? Let's face it, anybody who is in the entertainment field—legitimate, illegitimate, sex, not sex—we want approval, we want to be liked, we want to be accepted. So when you're very young, it's hard to say, "I won't do that," even when you'd rather not, because you don't want someone to be mad at you. And that's not the fault of the business, but it is the nature of the power structure between an adult person who's offering you a job, and you, the person who wants the job.
AVC: It seems like performers are smarter about that now.
NH: It's not just poor, downtrodden young things that end up here; there are also men and women who are very aggressive. They are competitive, aspirational—as that class often is—and they're hardworking, and gosh dang it, they are going to work it. They are going to work it to the best advantage that they know how, given their age and education and exposure to the world. Some of them are very good at it. The other thing—it is the entertainment industry, and we do have our share of Lindsay Lohans as well—party hamsters who are just here for the party. That is to be expected whenever you find large concentrations of people who are 18 to 25. Go to any college campus, you'll find party hamsters as well. So, again, once you're here, opportunities certainly do exist. If you are independent, you can take yourself anywhere you want to go and utilize your abilities to your own advantage, as you are able. Some are more able and more capable than others. The most famous, of course, is Jenna Jameson, who I want to say to any young person reading this article: There will be no more Jenna Jamesons. There will be no more. Stop right now. Stay in school. After your college education, if you do decide that you want to do this, come on down. It will still be here. But there will be no more Jennas. She was an incredible, one-time-only, lightning-in-a-bottle type of thing that ain't going to happen again. She's always held up as someone who's done incredibly well in this business, and made millions of dollars. A lot of stuff went into that, not the least of which was herself. She is a very hard worker, and nothing taking away from her, but it was a person, place, time, and situation, and it will never come around again. So if you think that you are going to come here and be the next Jenna, stay home.
On the other hand, if you are already this way sexually, if the idea of people watching you have sex is a turn-on, if the idea of having sex with people you just met is sexy to you, and you have a good head on your shoulders, and you don't like to party, this may be not a bad place for you. Maybe. That's a lot of ifs. The reason that I've been here 23 years and sober is because I am that person.
AVC: There's always that old myth, too, that people are going out there to get a foot in the door of the entertainment world.
NH: The last person I knew who came here somehow thinking that she was going to find her way into the straight business somehow through porn was 20 years ago. Here's how bad it is in Hollywood: My husband tells the story of a medium-high-level agent at a big agency here, who apparently one time in college made a porn movie. For some reason, that movie made it onto DVD. He came to work one day, and that movie was on everybody's desk. He had done it 15, 20 years previously, but he was fired that day. Now if you're Jenna or if you're Ron Jeremy, you might cross over into trash culture. Ron Jeremy has been on The Surreal Life, he's been on the reality shows, but that's trash culture. That's where trash culture and porn culture intersect—at the very lowest, lowest, lowest rung of so-called legitimate entertainment. I don't consider that crossing over, so I would never do that kind of junk.
AVC: In an old interview, someone asked you if there were any drawbacks to being Nina Hartley. You said "No." Is that still true?
NH: I don't find any drawbacks in being Nina Hartley per se. The drawback of being in the adult entertainment business is that mainstream culture does not take me seriously. They don't take my ideas about sex seriously. They don't take me seriously. They still think that they get to point and judge. They still think they know something about me. Because if you are a conventionally sexual person, someone who is so far off the charts as I am leaves you with no basis of reference to understand where I am coming from. So then you take your own experience and project, and conclude that I must be mentally ill, I must have had a bad childhood, I must be unhappy, my marriage must be a sham, etc., etc., because if they put themselves in my situation, they would have nervous breakdowns, their marriages would break up, and they would be extremely unhappy. But I have a different orientation than most people do. Every one of my siblings is heterosexual and monogamous. They don't understand where I am coming from. They can't. They are not wired that way. It's like asking a gay person to understand what it's like to make love with a person of the opposite gender. I can't imagine not being this way. I've been this way about sex since I first started thinking about sex. Some young girls fantasize about their wedding day, or about "him," and I always fantasized about "them." I never fantasize about him—or it will be him for a day, and the next day it will be a different him, and then a bunch of hims, and then some hers thrown in for good measure.
So I have been having fantasies about group sex and public sex since I started having fantasies about sex. Before I ever saw my first pornographic photo or image or movie, I was fantasizing about non-conventional behavior. I wouldn't have Barbie and Ken weddings; I would have Barbie orgies with no Ken. And I meet a lot of other women in my business, strippers and other professionally sexual people, and they say the same things. They, too, tied up their Barbie dolls. They, too, had Barbie orgies, although some had their Ken dolls involved. So I do believe that the kind of person who is good at adult entertainment does show pretty early.
AVC: You've taken a more educational approach late in your career.
NH: One of the things we do is role-model and educate. So my job is not to speak to other queer people; my job is to speak to people who are more conventional and help them find their own comfort level. Because I want people to have happy relationships; I want people to be satisfied with their intimate relations with their partners. It keeps marriages stronger, which makes mommy and daddy happier, which makes the kids happy, which keeps the marriage together, which is a good thing. So to anyone who says that porn ruined their marriage: Porn did not ruin anyone's marriage. A lack of communication, built-up hostility, etc., ruins marriages. No outside force can ruin a happy marriage. I've been unhappily married, and I've been happily married. And I see when you're unhappily married, the world is full of dangerous temptations that can pull you away from your relationships, because you don't want to face the relationship and handle it. I now have a happy marriage. Those same things that were out there before are not even on the radar. There is just not an option for it, because I have a good strong bond with my partner, and that is a source of my happiness.
Porn is, I won't say "harmless," because it has impact and influence as all media does. But by the time you are really looking at porn, by the time you are well past puberty, your notions of yourself as a man or a woman, your self-being, your self-value, your understanding is all pretty much in place. And that comes from your family of origin and your experiences there. So whether or not you seek out porn, your relationship to your sexuality, your relationship with intimacy, your relationship to the opposite sex, those are pretty strongly built by the time that you are 13 or 14. And that's child development. Pretty much by the time you're 10, you know that your body is yours, or that your body is there for adults to abuse. You know that you are worth something, or you are there to be harangued and harassed by your caregivers. So rather than looking at porn, porn, porn, we need to pay more attention to early childhood experiences and the family.