In 1984 VHS ruled the day, the phrase “feminist porn star” was not yet part of the cultural vernacular and Ronald Reagan announced his intention to appoint a presidential commission to study the effects of pornography. (Its conclusion? Porn is bad.)
1984 was also the year porn star Nina Hartley made her adult film debut. Twenty-six years, 1,000 on-camera sex scenes and one honorary doctorate degree later, Hartley, 51, is a legend in her industry with unmatched staying power and success.
Much has changed over the course of Hartley’s long and illustrious career. Today, porn stars regularly grace the red carpet. Their memoirs sit atop the New York Times best-seller list. Pornumentaries are standard television fare, and the number of “crossover” performances, including Hartley’s memorable turn as actor William H. Macy’s wife in 1997’s Boogie Nights, continues to grow.
Hartley put the “intellectual” in “porn star” long before the description became an effective marketing strategy for a cadre of up-and-coming porn performers. An outspoken feminist, sex educator and advocate for sexual freedom, she has been described as a guiding force for a generation of feminist porn stars and directors. Her accomplishments, it is safe to say, are unsurpassed.
On a recent Saturday afternoon at Las Vegas’ Erotic Heritage Museum, just hours before she was to receive an honorary doctorate degree from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, I spoke with Hartley about her trailblazing career and longevity in an industry where most female performers retire, or burn out, after only a few short years.
Hartley—who graduated from college magna cum laude with a degree in nursing—began working in porn at the height of the feminist sex wars, those rancorous debates about pornography that pitted feminists against one another over the value of the genre itself. On one side were anti-pornography feminists who argued that pornographic images are inherently harmful and degrading to women, resulting in physical violence and even rape; on the other side were sex-positive feminists who countered that sexual images are just that—images that could titillate, educate and empower men and women alike. It was sexual freedom versus censorship, female empowerment against the patriarchy. The battle lines were drawn, and Hartley had a front-row seat.
Growing up in Berkeley in the 1960s and ’70s, feminism was a constant in Hartley’s life. “For me, feminism is ‘My body, my rules,’” Hartley said. “They told me that in 1970. And then when I had rules they didn’t like, they all got up in arms about it. I thought feminism, in addition to social justice—equal pay for equal work, on-site child care, parental leave—was about my choices and my life.”
According to Hartley, the feminist debates around porn are more ruthless—and personal—than ever before. Hartley doesn’t conceal her exasperation or disgust as she describes the treatment she has endured from anti-porn feminists. As we talk, she turns to a longtime friend, sexologist Carol Queen, and asks, “Do they want you dead? Do they want to shoot you with an AIDS-infected bullet?” Queen shakes her head. “An AIDS-infected bullet? That’s sisterhood for you,” she replies with more than a hint of sarcasm.
“The idea that owning my own body is somehow dangerous for other women just astounds me,” Hartley continues. “I am grateful that I was raised at a time when feminism told me that I had a right to my life on my terms. For me, feminism has been an amazing gift of mental and physical freedom.”
Hartley describes herself as a “lifer,” someone who chose a career in porn in large part to advance her own sexual self-interests. A self-described bisexual, swinger and exhibitionist, she knew porn—first and foremost—was where the naked women were. “Porn gave me easy access to women without having to date them or have a relationship,” she says. “I wasn’t into drama. I just wanted to go to work and know that I was going to get the activity and contact I wanted. I love that about porn.”
For Hartley, sexuality is her métier, and the world of pornography, perhaps more than anything, has given her a platform to talk about sex in a society deeply conflicted about sexuality.
“People have such guilt and shame and worry about sex,” she told me. “To have someone they admire—i.e., me—hold them and look them in the eye and say, ‘You are fine and you can do this’ makes all the difference in the world. And that is my greatest pleasure now—besides any girlies that I get to fool around with.”
When I ask Hartley to describe the key to her longevity and success, she does so easily. “I have had a point of view the entire time,” she says. “When you look at all my scenes—my thousand scenes—there is a drumbeat of commonality between them: I am having a really good time.”
That Hartley is having a good time on camera is not lost on her legion of fans. “I knew early on that men look for nuances and feeling, and that they want information,” she explains. “They want feedback. They want to be better in bed and show their partners a good time. My fans have always responded to, and recognized, my love of what I do. I am having such a good time. And that allows them to relax watching me. And they’ve watched me age from 25 to 51, and they are still my fans.”
Hartley is cognizant her age makes her a rarity in the porn industry. “Now I work with women who are younger than my breast implants,” she quipped as she accepted her honorary doctorate. (Her implants, for the record, are 20.)
It is important to Hartley that people still see her being sexual at 51. “Cougar Town notwithstanding,” she tells me, “we don’t see many images of older women being sexual. Boomers are aging and we are not giving up our sex lives. We are not our mothers who, back then, were happy to give up sex.”
And there you have it: Dr. Nina Hartley, the Florence Nightingale of sex, says to keep on keepin’ on.