Nina Hartley, 56, has been performing in porn since the early '80s. Her website tagline: "Experience DOES matter."
I got started in San Francisco in 1982 as a house dancer first at the Sutter Cinema, which is now defunct, and later on at the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre. I was dancing one day a week and going to nursing school five days a week. Dancing was the culmination of a longtime history of public exhibitionism. I'm a '70s feminist, and I was told I had the right to live my life sexually on my terms and the responsibility to do it in a safe manner. For me stripping was that way. That was the place for women to go to be looked at naked while remaining safe.
For two years I struggled with thinking, Could I be a feminist and want to take off my clothes? I came down the path that, yes, I could indeed be a feminist and take off my clothes because doing that was my choice. I was not being forced to or coerced to, and it was part of my sexual identity as an exhibitionist to do this.
I became interested in sex as an idea when I was 12. I didn't have the words "polyamorous," "non-monogamous," or "queer" growing up, but I did have "exhibitionist," "voyeur," "bisexual," and "swinger." I've been in two long-term relationships. One was my first marriage, which was a triad marriage with a man and a woman. I was in that threesome relationship from 1981 to 2000. They're still together. He and I were legally married in 1986, and the divorce was finalized in 2003. She was with him when we met and is with him, still. They were never married. Let's just say it was a regrettable first marriage. If I had not had the outlet of being Nina Hartley, we would have broken up much sooner, but I'm good at compartmentalizing. When I was on set, onstage, or being Nina, they didn't bother me. My personal life was quite a struggle. It was a long time before I recognized what my responsibility to my own life was. I tell women in their 20s now, "If you're unhappy, leave. You get to go now." I'm very supportive of them. The problems I have in my life now — and this is what I tell young people — a few wrong turns in your 20s and it affects you into your 50s. I try to mentor younger women as much as I can, knowing that they're going to make their own mistakes anyway and you can't stop them from doing anything.
I graduated from nursing school in 1985 magna cum laude, and I passed my licensing test on my very first try. I went to nursing school so that I could become a nurse midwife because my feminism was really tweaked in about 1972 when I read Spiritual Midwifery [a classic book about home birth]. My feminism started with wanting to help women reclaim the birth experience as a positive and empowering choice for themselves. If the sex thing in my life had not been turned up so high, I would have been a nurse midwife with a very active social life. I never did work as a nurse though. I wasn't ready for someone to die if I had a bad day.
I don't have children. My joke now is that they forgot to wind my biological clock at the factory. I'm a devoted aunt and great-aunt. I'm the only woman I know without kids who loves kids who did not want her own. I'm very happy not to be a mother.
Going back to why I do what I do, I do it for my own jollies, but also because in our culture, sexuality is sick and sick people need a nurse's care. People are suffering with sexuality, suffering from not being able to be at home in their bodies, at home in their skin. They're suffering from not being able to make human connections with other people on a healthy and safe and pleasurable level. Dancing in a club that allowed full nudity, full penetration, full girl-on-girl sex, for me it was awesome. It really let me see how much pain men are in and how the men were hungry for information. They were hungry for a woman to show them her vulva and say, "Try this with your girlfriend's vulva!" They would sit there in rapt attention with their elbows on their knees, taking in every bit of information and realizing that they're supposed to know everything about pleasing their partner but they know nothing because no one's told them anything. It is heartbreaking.
My first husband found it sexy and fun that I wanted to be a dancer, and he helped me. I always wanted to make [porn] movies. One day in Berkeley, he ran into Juliet Anderson. She was the original MILF before it was a category. She was an older woman who had not starred in movies until she was in her late 30s. So he got her card and we sent her Polaroid pictures and a letter. We heard from her in four days. She put me in my first movie, which was her directorial debut, Educating Nina. It came out in 1984 and, sad to say, because women behind the camera then were so rare, the distribution company chose to withdraw and she lost all her investment money. She never made another movie. It's a little better playing field for women now, but back in 1984, there were no women behind the camera or in the front office. Women were definitely to be seen and not to be done business with.
I am [still shooting porn]. I do a lot of content exchange now. The workers in adult entertainment can finally own the means of production. You can shoot really amazing movies on your phone. It's crazy. Instead of waiting around by the phone to be hired by company A, performers have their own websites, they can cam, they can get together with their peers and create content. There will always be space for the three or four companies that shoot scripted videos or feature videos with a beginning, middle, and end. But I think now most of porn is going to be consumed in bite-size pieces.
There have always been mature women in porn, but it was never a category. The one thing the digital revolution did create for fans was that instead of going through three, four, five movies for one scene of his thing, [it now offers] a two-hour clip of just that thing, whatever that thing might be. We can thank American Pie for making up the word MILF. Porn capitalized on that concept very well and came up with a category. Cougars and MILFs — it's been going on for about 10 years. A lot of decent, middle-age, middle-class married guys are parents, and it creeps them out to watch women who are their daughters' ages. Also, wives have a lot of power over what kind of adult material gets brought into the home. She's not going to have her husband watching twentysomethings, but she's going to be OK with him watching thirty-, forty-, or fiftysomethings. Boomers are aging, and a lot of boomers would rather look at someone who looks more like them!
I have not met ageism in the business, but I have also aged in the business. A lot of fans started watching when I was 25 and they're into Nina Hartley — they're not into Nina Hartley because I'm older. They're just into me. I did pick up some fans when I hit 40 because there are people who fetishize age, and until women hit 40 they're not interested in her.
[As I've become older], I'm very careful about my costuming, because my legs are no longer smooth and sleek. So I'm never on camera without lingerie, a garter belt and stockings, or bodysuits to hide what I consider my flaws. I don't do fully nude scenes anymore. There are plenty of older women who look fine and who are genetically predisposed not to have cellulite. Me, I've got cellulite and it's not going away and I'm not going to stress about it, so I just wear lingerie. I don't do anal on camera anymore either because that's been done and I'm not going to get any better at it.
There will be one day when my vulva is no longer employed on camera, but I will always be interested in being on camera having sex with other people. I'll always be into teaching, writing, coaching, and lecturing. I see myself as a mix between Dr. Ruth and [sex educator] Betty Dodson. I love the idea of helping other people have sex.