I am always happy to hear about people who grew up watching my movies. At least they are watching a woman who is having fun. For Christian conservatives like Jerry Falwell, I’m their Jezebel, their Devil Incarnate. I’m a Jewish, atheist, socialist, bisexual, porno actress -- Nina Hartley
What makes an adult actress a true superstar? Is it the length of her career? The number of movies she’s made? Or how about the number of Adult Video News (AVN) Awards she’s received? Nina Hartley has made her mark in all three, with a career in porn that spans more than twenty years –- a very, very long time for a female performer -- during which time she has made roughly 475 feature movies and received seven AVN awards, the adult industry equivalent to the Oscars. Each mark remains unsurpassed by any of Nina’s fellow adult performers, male or female.
But Nina Hartley’s career has meant so much more, reaching well beyond the adult industry itself to include Nina’s more recent roles as a celebrated sex educator, opponent of the anti-porn movement, and political and social advocate. She has been called at various times the “Thinking Woman’s Porn Star,” the “Info Nympho From San Francisco,” and a “Feminist for Porn.” She has written academic articles ably defending women’s role in pornography and spoken at countless rallies and seminars about a woman’s right to sexual freedom, all while continuing her work as a film star and exotic dancer. But whatever you call her, or whatever she happens to be doing, Nina Hartley remains instantly recognizable to the thousand of fans she has gained over the years.
And it all started just across the Bay from San Francisco, 47 years ago.
The Darker Side of Dharma
Nina was born on March 11, 1959, in Berkeley, California, as Marie Louise Hartman. She grew up in the ivory tower of Berkeley, the daughter of atheist Jewish hippies who became Zen Buddhists after Nina was born. The youngest of four children, Nina’s upbringing was heavily influenced by her parents’ politics and the radical atmosphere that pervaded Berkeley in the 60’s and 70’s. Nina’s mother, a professor, and her father, a radio journalist, were both members of the Communist Party in the 1950’s. Her father was blacklisted and lost his job in 1957, and Nina’s parents retreated to the academic confines of Berkeley, where they eventually took up Zen Buddhism in 1969.
Young Nina soaked it all in like a sponge, recounting in her web site, nina.com, that “my parents were seekers, and Zen is what they found to be useful for them in their search for understanding and meaning. While I am not a practicing Buddhist, I find Zen philosophy the most useful and practical on a day-to-day basis.” Of the environment on the Berkeley campus, Nina writes
Berkeley was, in the 60’s and 70’s, rather like living on Mars. I have very little in common with others of my age who were raised with more conventional families. I adhere to liberal social and political ideas, though I am not in lock step with any political party or agenda. But Berkeley is a large part of who I am and how I got to be that way.
I came of age during the last time sex was considered to be, overall, more positive than negative. The 70s were not just about lame politics and stupid clothing fashion, but also about thinking in new ways about sex, gender, culture and empowerment. The idea that women could take control over their own pleasure, and should communicate what they needed to their partners, was only one important idea that came of age then.
I was highly influenced by this new thinking.
Despite her liberal upbringing, and unlike many of her eventual compatriots plying the sex trade, Nina’s sexual maturity arrived late (”I necked a bit, but I didn’t fuck anyone until I was 18”). By her own admission, Nina “was very shy socially, although (her) mind was full of sexual thoughts.” She reportedly didn’t date much in high school, although she did participate in the Berkeley High School theater program, where she handled costumes, ironically being too shy to venture on-stage herself. Interestingly, one of her duties in the costume department was to make the toga for Timothy Hutton in his role as the god Bacchus in Euripedes’ classic play, The Bacchae. Obviously, Nina would soon overcome her stage fright.
After high school, Nina enrolled at San Francisco State University, where she took undergraduate and graduate degrees in nursing. Despite graduating magna cum laude and obtaining her license as an R.N., Nina admits that “I have never earned a paycheck as a nurse.”
Instead, it seems that Nina would find her true calling in her second year of nursing school, and, true to form, she would never look back.
In 1983, Nina began working as a stripper at a club owned and run by the Mitchell Brothers, the two San Francisco pornographers responsible for such Golden-Age porn fare as Behind The Green Door and Insatiable. According to Nina, she didn’t start dancing to pay the bills
It was never as much about the money as much as it was about the sexual experience. I wanted to live a sexually free life, and to have sex without having to be “in love,” which, at the time, I had no clue as to what it was.
It was also at this time that Nina adopted what was to become her stage name throughout the rest of her career. She chose the last name “Hartley” because it was similar to her birth name, and because she liked Mariette Hartley, the actress who starred in the Polaroid commercials with James Garner.
She chose the name “Nina” for much more pragmatic reasons. No, it wasn’t in honor of Nina Simone, the sublime French torch singer, nor was it chosen after any meteorological phenomenon. Rather, the name “Nina” was chose for the simple reason that it was easy to pronounce, particularly for the Japanese businessmen who frequented the Mitchell Brothers club in San Francisco and who were responsible for much of Nina’s dancing income.
Given the presence of the Mitchell Brothers and their crowd, though, it’s no surprise that Nina moved quickly from dancing into films. Her first adult film, Educating Nina, was produced in 1984 by Juliette Anderson, better known as Aunt Peg, then an aging queen of Golden Age porn. Nina’s first on-screen partners were Billy Dee and Karen Summers, and according to Nina, she “loved performing from the first time (she) did it.”
She had found her calling.
Around this time Nina also began what was to become the longest-running relationship in adult films, although it would ultimately end badly (“Twenty years of marriage did little to increase my understanding of what ‘love’ was”). Considering Nina’s upbringing and attitude, perhaps it’s not surprising that Nina’s relationship –- a “triad marriage” with husband Dave and wife Bobbi -- was also one of the least conventional.
Nina met Dave –- her soon-to-be husband -- on her first day on the job at the Berkeley Café. According to Nina, it was practically love at first sight.
He struck me as a friendly person. The second thing he said to me after his name was that he was non-monogamous. I was already bisexual. His long-time girlfriend, Bobbi, after a three-year separation, had just moved to California from Detroit, where Dave grew up. I was looking for sexually free people. My philosophy and attitude were very advanced. My experiences at the tender age of 19 were not so positive, but I knew that it could be possible.
The relationship with Bobbi took a bit longer. Bobbi and Dave had been having an on-again, off-again open relationship for the past three years, and Nina, then inexperienced in the ways of open relationships and swinging, was reluctant to meet Bobbi initially. The two women slowly established a relationship of their own over the next year or so, and the three moved in together in 1983. The “marriage” weathered numerous sexual partners and Nina’s soon-to-be burgeoning adult film career for twenty years, finally ending in 2002 for reasons that none of the three seem willing to share with the general public.
Nina Hits The Market
After graduating from nursing school in 1985, and obtaining her R.N. license, Nina walked away from nursing in favor of a full-time career in adult films. And she hit the ground running. Indeed, once Ginger Lynn retired in 1986, Nina quickly became porn’s leading star, and from 1985-1990, she starred in arguably more adult films than any other female star.
It was during this period that Nina received five of her seven AVN awards, for films such as Debbie Duz Dishes, Portrait of an Affair, and The Last X-Rated Movie. Of these films, Debbie Duz Dishes was perhaps the most interesting, and the most amusing. The film’s title is obviously a play on the hit adult film, Debbie Does Dallas.
What is not so widely known is that the film was also an inside joke about Nina’s Jewish heritage. It seems that “Debbie” is frequently the name given to Jewish American Princesses (JAP) in JAP jokes. The video title is based on one of these jokes, that goes something like this
Q: What’s the name of a porno flick about Jewish American Princesses?
A: Debbie Does Dishes.
Why the success? Well, Nina was just plain good, for starters. In an age when porn films were starting to develop “the formula” –- a rote sequence of actions making up each porn scene –- Nina brought her intelligence and imagination to the screen to keep audience interest piqued. To hear Nina tell it
Yeah, things were different when I started. Mainly, the “formula” hadn’t been created yet, so there was a lot more spontaneity in a scene. You fucked in a position for as long as you wanted, and then moved to the next one, until the director said that you were done.
Now, it goes like this:
- oral one way, 3.5 minutes each, hard and soft
- oral the other way, 3.5 minutes, ditto
- vaginal position one, 3.5 minutes, ditto
- vaginal position two, 3.5 minutes, ditto
- anal position one (if applicable), 3.5 minutes (no soft core)
- anal position two (if applicable), 3.5 minutes, ditto
Plus stopping for stills after each feature.
Nina worked in an age when this “formula” hadn’t been set in stone yet, and where someone of her obvious intelligence could make a film better, just by using her imagination. On a somewhat less intellectual level, Nina also owed her success to two body parts: her eyes and her ass.
Her eyes, a startling shade of aquamarine, were riveting. They conveyed in a glance both her obvious intellect as well as her hedonistic desire to just have fun. For any viewer who appreciated a woman’s mind as well as her body, Nina’s eyes brought to the screen a vision of that most elusive dream: a fully sexual, dynamic seductress with brains.
As for her ass, there was simply no comparison, at least not from any of her white female competitors. Perhaps Nina put it best this way
I love my big butt. My butt bought me my new car.
I was born with that bubble butt. There’s a picture of me at seven or eight months of age standing up in my crib, and I have a big round butt and big thighs. I have a Jewish butt. Jewish women are the only Caucasian women who have any kind of rear end.
All Good Things
As they say, though, all good things must come to an end. With the emergence of Victoria Paris in the early 1990’s, and the decline of mainstream porn into the “formula” that put innovative performers like Nina Hartley in a straightjacket, Nina’s film career went into a decline.
At first, Nina found this frustrating. Many industry people thought of her as simply being too “nice” to be involved in the increasingly extreme sex acts that were making their way back into mainstream porn. Nina refuted this perception of her, but to little effect.
I’m no prude. Some say “She’ll only do romance or couples films or girls.” It’s not true. I’ll do a lot. I’ll eat cum, ass-fuck, allow my hair to be pulled. I work with men and women. I’ll do nasty things in a nice way. I’m able to say “Lick my ass” and make analingus seem wholesome. I want to help people be easier on themselves about their fantasies. And if their dreams don’t hurt anyone, and occur between consenting adults, why not experiment?
Nonetheless, Nina found herself in fewer and fewer feature films. As if her 400+ films weren’t enough. But rather than cop an attitude or simply suffer in silence, Nina looked for new, and increasingly innovative, ways to use her sexual experience for the public’s benefit.
Nina first struck out into the untested waters of sex education. Not the kind that tells teenage girls how not to get pregnant, but the kind that helps people have better sex. In 1996, Nina began a series of sex education films for Adam & Eve, generally referred to as her “Guide To . . .” films. These include some of the following:
- Nina Hartley’s Guide to Better Fellatio
- Nina Hartley’s Guide to Cunnilingus
- Nina Hartley’s Guide to Anal Sex
- Nina Hartley’s Guide to Foreplay
- Nina Hartley’s Guide to Seduction
- Nina Hartley’s Guide to Sex Toys
The list goes on. These films have been extremely well received, giving Nina both well-deserved critical acclaim as well as commercial success. In addition to the films, Nina conducts seminars around the country, trying to teach young people the ins-and-outs (no pun intended) of sex, as well as to make them comfortable with their own sexual wants and needs. These efforts reflect Nina’s philosophy of sex and sex education
The way we enforce sexual ignorance! My goal is to advance sexual literacy. Sex is a skill you have to learn by doing, but where can you learn? You can’t watch people, you can’t talk to people.
My interest in sex is unabated by all that I’ve had. I’m always interested in it. Watching it, doing it, helping others do it better, listening to others have it, and lending a helping hand if asked or needed (pass the lube!). There’s always something to learn about oneself through sex, even less than satisfying sex.
Perhaps the most interesting example of one of Nina’s classes is a recent symposium she conducted at Berkeley’s Learning Annex, entitled “How to Break Into Adult Video.” Teetering on platform heels in front of about 40 students, Nina led the audience –- mostly women -– through the pros and cons of a life in porn. To the women, Nina said
Why are you here? If it is strictly money, leave now. Money is the last thing you’re going to get from this business.
She also told the women that “it’s considered bad form to let the crew fondle you, which I think is crazy because I like being fondled.” For the men, Nina offered more practical advice. In response to a question of what it takes to be a male porn star, for example, Nina laid it on the line
If you want to know what it takes to be a porn stud, get ten of your best friends in a circle. Then get naked, get in the middle of the circle and masturbate to ejaculation while all of them point and laugh.
When the guys asked her how big they had to be, Nina responded “a fistful plus a couple of inches.” But she also cautioned that bigger isn’t always better. “I don’t work with horse dick.”
And when a young male attendee actually had the nerve to ask why the guys get paid less than the women, even though –- in his mind –- the guys “did all the work,” Nina cut the guy down to size with an economy of words
You’re a prop. You’re a piece of wood. That’s why.
Although by no means a full-time civil activist, Nina has engaged in protests and political action from time to time, usually as it relates to women’s sexuality and empowerment. In 1993, for example, Nina was arrested in Las Vegas, along with ten other women, for engaging in lewd sexual acts in public. The show was part of a fund raiser for womens’ issues, and Nina, assuming the crowd was adult, and believing that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” agreed to serve as moderator directing the action and giving the crowd a play-by-play.
Well, it turns out that there was an undercover cop in the crowd, and Nina and her companions were arrested for –- get this –- “felony lesbianism and pandering.” I didn’t know such a charge existed, especially in Vegas. The group came to be known as the “Erotic Eleven.” And while the charges were eventually dropped to a misdemeanor, Nina still suffered serious legal bills and harsh treatment by the police. Since then, Nina has been an outspoken advocate against police mistreatment of women arrested for sex crimes.
Nina has also been active in the “Take Back The Night” movement, appearing at Berkeley in 1995 to speak about women’s empowerment and their ultimate responsibility for their own destiny. Amazingly, Nina got through her entire address to the 250-member crowd without a single interruption, a remarkable feat given the vocal nature of Berkeley crowds and the controversial nature of Nina’s own background.
But perhaps Nina’s most remarkable accomplishment has been her foray into the academic world, challenging the works of such feminist firebrands as Andrea Dworkin and Chyng Sun. In a remarkably cogent response to a paper by professor Sun, for example, Nina set forth her philosophy clearly and concisely
Sex isn’t something men do to you. It isn’t something men get out of you. Sex is something you dive into with gusto and like it every bit as much as he does.
Taking responsibility for their own orgasms is the most powerful thing any woman can do. Take responsibility for the timing of lovemaking, the mood that’s set. But taking responsibility requires a generous heart, and women, right now, are very, very angry. Many do not seem to have the generosity in their hearts that is necessary to . . . for want of better words . . . to honor Aphrodite. They are killing their own well of life.
Feminists are so angry at men they will not listen to dissenting opinions, and especially not to men’s pain, their voices or their needs. Women are still just so angry at them and their penises and their need to put it in us. It is a very anti-sexual response.
Whether you agree or disagree with Nina’s position, it’s hard to deny that in Nina Hartley one finds an intelligent, sophisticated woman, willing to go up against the “big girls” of academia despite her own lack of credentials. Heady stuff for a woman some people dismiss as “just another porn queen.”
Nina continues to make adult films, many with her new husband, Ernest Greene. She is the author of an advice column, On Our Backs, and continues to gives lectures around the country on sexual freedom and female empowerment. She's made a brief crossover appearance in a mainstream film, Boogie Nights, arguably about John Holmes' life and career. There’s even been a play written about Nina's life experiences, called “Why Sex, Why Not The Violin?” But whatever the future holds for Ms. Hartley, it’s safe to say that she will find some way to use her mind, imagination, and energy to promote sexual liberty for herself and others.
Winner -- PornQuest 2006
- www.nina.com, Nina Hartley's own website. Useful for some biographical information, but mostly aimed at viewers who want to see Nina's films.
- Nina Hartley, Evangelist for Porn, (www.gettingit.com/article/21)
- Nina Hartley, Feminists for Porn (www. counterpunch.org/hartley02022005.html)
- Interviews with Women in Porn (www.zetetics.com/mac/xxx/chap7.htm)
- The Thinking Woman's Porn Star Speaks Out (www.walnet.org/csis/news/toronto_99/gadm-990424.html)
- Porn Star Used To "Take back The Night" at Berkeley (www.academia.org/campus_reports/2001/january_2001_3.html)
- Porn Star Talks Sex to Students, The Daily Californian (www.dailycal.org/sharticle.php?id=4042