By now, who hasn’t heard of legendary porn performer Nina Hartley? She made a strong impression from the start when she entered the industry in the early eighties, and has been on a roll since! Her accomplishments extend to both the porn industry and well outside of it: This blonde Berkeley-ite is an eight-time AVN award winner, published author, accomplished sex educator, and former registered nurse. When I mentioned online that I had the opportunity to interview her, even my own eighteen year old brother called me, completely gobsmacked, and had to know what she was like. Her impact has spanned generations and the impact she has had on sex education is unprecedented. I had the privilege of finding out how she got to where she is, and where she’s going next!
Do you feel like growing up in the Bay Area had an impact on your initial decision to get involved in the sex industry?
The time and place had a huge impact on me being able and willing to join the sex business. I was born in 1959, so during my formative years it was the tumultuous sixties and the anything goes sexual seventies. My parents were already alternative: my father was blacklisted in ’57, so I grew up with my mother as the breadwinner and my father as the house husband. They were trying all kinds of different therapies during the sixties trying to figure out how to save their marriage, which was in crisis. And when I was ten years old they discovered Zen Buddhism and started studying seriously. Within two years my mother had taken retirement and they became full-time monks and eventually my mother became ordained. Both my parents were ordained as priests. So I grew up in a time and place where discussion, examination, and exploration were very much part of what was going on and sex, sexuality, sexual expression, and sexual politics were very much part of that.
It was a whole new way of thinking about sexuality was in the air growing up. As a queer kid, but not having that word, and [as a] polyamorous kid, but not having that word, and as a future sex worker, [but] not having that word…it all made sense to me because the idea that my body was powerful and that I should learn about it. That the idea of the sacred prostitute or the temple goddess; the temple priestess was really compelling to me. And so if I had been the same biological organism in a different part of the country like in the Midwest, I might have had a very different introduction. It was very much the time and place that gave me the idea, gave me the opportunity, and more importantly gave me the mental and emotional freedom to think about what I wanted to do with my life.
[With] young people today, there’s lots more information. There’s a wonderful amount established of forty years of tradition of sex positivism and personal empowerment around your body, which is wonderful. Well, yay! So certainly, the sixties and seventies made me possible; I don’t know what I would have done in a different family situation. What if I would have been Christian? What if 645 I’d been from the deep South? What if I was from anywhere else but San Francisco? The only comparable place at that time was New York City. And I’m so grateful, SO grateful to my parents for coming to Berkeley and finding a good, tolerable religion like Zen Buddhism.
I think it’s so interesting that your parents sound so radical for their time, and it’s interesting to me that even now that a lot of if it is still pretty radical. Obviously there’s a bigger community, for sex work and sex positivity, but it still is on the outside.
The idea that we can actually be autonomous sexual being is still very radical because, don’t forget, one of the reasons I got into porn was specifically for recognition as a whore. I liked the idea of it, but I’m so bad at trying to figure out who the cop was; I’m just much too middle class and too girlish for that so luckily porn was legal where I was. [Now] the anti-sex argument around porn has hardly changed at all and what really astounds me is that the part of the brain, the lizard parts of the brain (bring, stand, feed, fight, fuck, flee, flog). The middle part of the brain (feelings — anger, love, devotion, bliss, fear, attachment, hate, all the feelings make us mammal) was the second part to evolve, and the third, of course was our forebrain which has to tell stories and so both the anti-sex religious folk and sex-phobic feminist folk are having the same feeling that sex is icky and scary and somehow not okay. But the story that they tell themselves of why their feeling is appropriate changes from culture to culture. But, as you know, as a sex worker I don’t care if you’re anti-pornography feminist or an anti-pornography Christian, the energy coming at me is the goddamn same. The laws that you support are the goddamn same.
So what astounds me is when one of the smacks is when feminism is used against sex workers is that we’re left off for the patriarchy or [agents] for the patriarchy, it’s like, no, the patriarchy has always feared whores. The patriarchy has always feared the sexually free woman, so you, Miss Anti-Porn Feminist, are a tool of the patriarchy. We are still the tool of subversion, the tool of revolution, because all authoritarian and totalitarian personalities and systems fear sex because sex [and] desire are anarchic; they are anti-order.
Since you’ve been in the industry for so long is, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen since you’ve started to now? What do you think is the most notable, not achievement, but change that you’ve seen happen over the course of time?
The biggest change is that workers’ means of production, which means that individuals, sex entertainers can own a camera, a computer, a modem and an internet hookup. The biggest is that now someone can be their own bosses through the use of camming and private personal erotic services, which should have been decriminalized twenty years ago… but anyway. The biggest change of course is the internet, which changed everything for the production, distribution and consumption of explicit material. On the one hand, it has helped lead to the destruction of the industry as I knew it, but what that does permit is the entrepreneurial opportunity for young people to be their own bosses and to carve out their own niche in entertainment using camming and live streaming shows. That’s a positive thing. If you still have to work in conjunction with a website it takes some of your money, but as a cam boy or cam girl your income goes home safely where no one knows where you are. And no one knows your address unless you are stupid enough to tell them, and yet you are dealing with your consumer one on one or many but in real time, which is awesome. And so that is a positive side effect of the internet. Other than that I can’t think of a lot of things.
The second positive thing is that it allows sex workers to communicate with each other and it allows marginalized youth to find community. But other than that, I really am more against the internet than for it in terms of its destroying journalism, its destroying all kinds of creative fields because “Hey, I’ll do it for free!”, cause I know some blogger who’ll do it for free. So it’s one step forward, one step back. Marginalized people now have a voice, but on the other hand anything gets put up there and can be promoted as factual without any backup. So I think it’s a very mixed bag, truth be told. So that’s how I feel about it! (laughs)
Understandable. This actually leads perfectly into a question from my co-worker Donia, who I think you met at Woodhull too; she wanted me to ask about the rise in popularity of queer porn. Obviously heterosexuality and heteronormativity are still dominating mainstream porn, but there has definitely been a shift. What are your thoughts on watching that change happen over the course of your career and how it has affected the kind of work you do?
Yes, again, this one of the positives of the internet. Subcultures can now create materials by and for themselves. That’s a fabulous thing, that’s wonderful.
I’ve been queer all along and hiding to heterosexual/heteronormative people. Most porn is heteronormative because most people are still heterosexual. Even if you say that 20%, even 30% are some kind of queer, it’s still 70% of the people are straight. So most of the porn is going to be straight.
It’s just that if straight folk would stop hating on queer folk we could all get along. We don’t have to like the same thing in bed, jeez. But you can stop fearing me, I can stop hating on you and we can have parallel play. We can be sexual next to each other. (laughs)
It’s wonderful that queer folk can now have their own porn companies and their own material and they can find themselves, just like anybody should go and find people like themselves and watch movies about people like themselves made by people like themselves for people like themselves. This is only a positive. This could only be a positive. And the internet has certainly made that possible because you don’t have to sell as much to keep paying a bandwidth, you don’t have to sell a physical product.
Definitely. I think this segways perfectly into, you moved from just being a sex performer to being a sex educator which is one of the benefits we brought up when talking about the internet. For you, what do you feel like has been your biggest success as being a sex educator? Do you feel like one in particular project has been the shining light, that has had an even bigger impact than you anticipated?
The thing I’m most proud of, of course are my educational takes from Adam and Eve. I’m very, very proud of [them]! There’s 38 of them off of Adam and Eve and there’s they’ve spawned a host of imitators; Wicked Pictures had a sex ed blog now with Jessica Drake and Vivid-Ed had an affected series with Tristan Taormino. And there can never too much sex education because sex is such a combination of things, from the physical, biological, then there’s the social and emotional and when you combine those and the right balance for you is something that each person has to do. I’m most proud of the educational material, [and] the advocacy work not just for the sex workers but for the sexual labor consumers. For a long time, there was this thought that there’s this loser who can’t get the real thing, etc, etc. Porn viewers had a lot of shame and embarrassment about “needing” to look at this material.
So, if I’ve done anything, my work as an advocate and educator is my crowning achievement. And also one of the things: I’m a nurse, and in nursing school we are taught among other things. [We were taught] to be an advocate for your patient, to be a role model, and to be an educator. I educate about sex because a healthy sex life is a very strong component to a mental and emotional health, and I role model with my own life how it can be done. It’s possible for every person to do that if they put in the time, the sweat, and the tears and the effort, which is really where it’s at.
You’re younger so you may have had less bullshit to overcome, but we–all God’s children–got bullshit, of some kind or another. (laughs) And so how do we work our way through it? Some use prayer, some use therapy, and I use whatever you want plus getting back in touch with your body and what gets you off. When you claim what gets you off even if you alone in a room, already your power has magnified a hundred times because the way the culture does to keep us scared and alone and isolated and fearful is to cut us off from our sexuality and what gets us hot and them makes us feel bad about it, about what it is we want. And this works on all genders, on all gender orientation, on all sexual orientation.
I also wanted to ask you about a well-known problem in the industry: Sex worker and sex educator burn-out. You’ve been involved in the sex industry for so long. How do you manage to combat that?
Thats a very good question. The primary reason I’ve avoided burnout is that I really believe in what I’m doing. It gives me the energy to talk and help people about sex, to see the light bulbs go off, it gives me energy to talk about sex to have someone come up and say me you helped me so much thank you, that thing you said or did 20 years ago, ten years ago, 2 weeks ago really, really helped me and that really gives me energy because I know that as comfortable with sex as you and I and our friends are, how uncomfortable most people still are.
The fundamental proof of the importance of sexual health has never left me and I make sure that I have plenty of time alone with people who I care about and that I have a very active personal sex life that I find fulfilling, that’s very important. I always tell every sex worker, make sure to have the sex that you like in private; no money, no camera, just because you like them and they like you. That’s really, really, reaallly important. If I was going on the road two week a month and sleeping in hotels, I might burn out. I haven’t had a big problem with burnout mainly because I don’t travel so much as some of the other educator do.
That’s something that’s not talked about enough in terms of, for both of sex workers and sex educators, especially sex workers about maintaining personal relationships. I don’t think that’s discussed as much even inside the community, it’s a very vital part of self-care.
Of course! Have a massage; have a glass of wine; get laid; cuddle with kittens; go to the movie; get a pedicure; turn off the phone! It’s very hard for caregivers to put themselves at the top of the list, especially when (I used to be guilty of this) the hardest thing to say is that I, they say this in the airport, put your own mask on before helping someone else around you, eventually you have to do the equivalent of putting your own mask on first. And each person has a different need for that kind of self-care and a different frequency for that, but everyone has to do it. You must choose to care for yourself before you take care of others or you will burn out. Because the cultural need for sex education, for sexual healing is unending. It’s a huge gaping want, need and ignorance, and pain and isolation.
That ties into a great question that Sabrina Morgan brought up: Even if you take care of yourself, it’s really hard to stay focused and motivated and hopeful in the face of political and cultural setbacks. How do you stay focused and motivated with those setbacks coming up and what would you recommend for other people to maintain that type of positivity and the kind of drive that they need? I think some of the burnout is really common for it to be about personal life things, but also always feels like we’re fighting an uphill battle.
The forces of [those] against us are very, very high. Now if I put all of my time in the political arena, I would have a lot more burnout, because instead of helping a person get the “Aha!” moment, or a group of people in college get the “Aha!” moment, which is very gratifying, working on the legislative level is really [difficult]. If I were a dealing only with the legislative and political process, I would be burnt out all the time, would be very high. I’d just have to go in a cave.
Some people love the political battle, they love it; they get energized from it. As a sex educator, or a sex advocate, it is helpful to seek out your best area, where you’re best used. For some people are terrible one on one! “I don’t want to hear about your fucking personal problems, ahhh, but I want to go to the state capital and legislate for against this law!”
Each person who advocates for sexual freedom is well advised to find the area of battle that suits their personalities and energies best. And especially over time. As I get older and crankier maybe more legislative stuff doesn’t work for me. My problem is that if I come up against a certain kind of political intractability around sexuality, sex expression, like strip clubs, and sex clubs and sex workers, etc, unfortunately I get a cold, murderous rage and that’s not good.
That’s why Ricci Levy, from the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, is a saint in my book. She sits down with people that I just want to strangle and can find some common ground. She has patience…that I’m just astounded and impressed and wowed by. Golly, Ricci, how do you do that?
So, I only don’t burnout because I’m not in the trenches of the politics every single day.
So I am sure your fans want to know: What are you working on now? What’s your next big project?
The next project (I just finished it) is going to be from Filly films. I just finished Nina Hartley Unscripted, because I got tired that much of the people I work with are much younger than me. I got tired of pretending to be their aunt/professor/boss/step-mother/cousin/cool officer/doctor/authority figure and poor acting. And I’m tired of pretending…the fact is, I’m older, I like banging chicks, and young chicks that want to bang me, I want to bang them back. So this is a lovely four scene movie with two three-way scenes and two two-way scenes with young women who really wanted to be there with me and I really wanted to be there with them. It is unscripted; we just did what we wanted. It was a lot of fun, lots of orgasms, everybody is immensely attractive, but there’s no harm in that (laughs).
I am also going to work with Pink and White Productions; I was going to do a scene for them but we [had to reschedule because of the moratorium].
Mainly I look forward to finding a way to interact to fans more directly and for me intercourse on camera for me these days is pretty boring. I will say, it’s been done. I’ve done it a bunch of times and porno intercourse with bio dudes is hard to make different. Hand jobs are something else, so I’ve found a way to do a hand job series for my website. Hand jobs are safe and they’re low stress to the guy and you don’t have to worry, there’s many more people that I’ve said yes to in private, I just see how culture has worked on them as well. Lots has been written about how commercial pornography has affected women’s self-image, but very little has been talked about how it affects men’s self-image. Because men in porn these days are very good looking and they go to the gym and they have nice bodies and their penises seem to work all the time and so I get more men apologies for their bodies and apologizing for their penises than I would like. It’s like, “My golly, seriously, sweetheart? Oh poo.” So the joke is that there’s daily dick, and special occasion cock and the difference is five inches and my day rate. (laughs)
I’m sure your fans are happy about that too! For the last question, what’s your ideal dream for sex industry and sex education. In your ideal world…
In my ideal world, the sex industry would be completely decriminalized for consenting adults. Ideally, there would be no stigma or shame, or negative social consequences attached to becoming a sex worker. Because people who are meant to be sex workers get to be sex workers. The same way people who are meant to be doctors get to be doctors, etc. And in sex education, I’d like for there to be age appropriate, universal, comprehensive, sex education mandated [in schools].
You can find out more about Nina and support her work at her website. Support her many endeavors by keeping up with her work and finding out where to pay for it properly (you know you want to!) on Twitter: @Ninaland