Red, White and Femme: Beauty From The Ashes – Up Close And Personal With Adult Film Icon Nina Hartley0 Comments
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Unless you live under a rock, or were raised in a Big Love-type compound, then you’ve probably heard of adult film star, sex positive activist, author, hottie, feminist, and nurse, Nina Hartley (or at least fawned over her ass, unknowingly). She was a guest on SuicideGirls Radio earthier this month, and was so astoundingly on-point about sex and sensuality, that I couldn’t help but probe her some more. She’s been in hundreds of adult films, played William H. Macy’s wife in heat in Boogie Nights, and appeared on Oprah in defense of blue movies; but what stands out most is her eloquence. Listen in as Hartley describes open relationships, commodifying oneself in the name of success, and where Jenna Jameson may have gone wrong.
Darrah de jour: I read that you said, when you got into the adult business, you were blessed with two popular fetish items: “Big, baby-blue eyes and that round butt with a high, small waist.” Your butt become your trademark – one of my career goals, I can’t fail to mention! But what caught me, was your use of the word “items.” How much do you have to commodify yourself when marketing you in the adult industry (not unlike show biz)? Are you detached or disembodied ever during performances?
Nina Hartley: No more or less than any other entertainer. It’s helpful to understand one’s impact on the target audience. In my case that was going to be heterosexual men. I understood that eyes are the feature that men notice first and I’ve long known that “big baby blues” are considered a positive, feminine feature to possess. I went blonde because our culture views blondes as “the prettiest,” and I wanted to stack the deck. If I had had big, brown eyes I’d have gone for a dark auburn color. I didn’t have to commodify my ass, as that’s done for me by men’s unbidden reaction to seeing it displayed nicely. I find it sweet and cute, as they seem to regress to teenagers around it, and I have compassion for all those frustrated young men. Like any woman I can find “fault” with this or that aspect of my physical appearance but I also know that others don’t share my issues. So, if I just shut up about it they never notice. It’s been a good lesson.
Ddj: Jenna Jameson co-authored a book, How To Make Love Like A Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale. Subsequently, during an interview with Anderson Cooper, Jenna said that if her daughter wanted to be in porn, she would “tie her in the closet. Only because this is such a hard industry for a woman to get ahead and get the respect that she deserves. I fought tooth and nail to get to where I am, and it’s not something that I would want my daughter to go through. It’s not something that any parent would choose for their child.” I understand you didn’t have an interest in having children, but can you sympathize with what Jameson is saying?
NH: Absolutely! The life of an entertainer is very hard, and the life of an erotic entertainer even more so, as there’s no social benefit to that career choice. Jenna is, financially, the most successful woman ever to make adult movies and it came at a very high cost, both public and private. It’s a stigma that never leaves you and her kids will have to deal with it. It will make their adolescence very challenging, though they’ll come through it enough to appreciate her in the long run. I make porn because I’m queer, which Jenna is not, and because I have a bigger message about sex that I needed to disseminate, which Jenna never did. She wanted to be famous and she got it, but I don’t know if it made her happy or not.
Ddj: Jameson wrote in her book, “I was willing to do anything to be someone who everyone loved. Looking back on it, it was just a new type of insecurity replacing the old one, and I was giving myself away to the needs and expectations of the public instead of the needs and expectations of the men in my life. It was just a new form of dependence developing. And it was equally detrimental to any sort of emotional stability.” Do you think sex work can be an addiction?
NH: I don’t believe anyone can be “addicted” to something that is not chemical. I know it’s unfashionable to say so, but I come from an older, medical model. So, no, I don’t think sex, or sex work, can be an addiction. That doesn’t mean it can’t be dreadfully harmful to those who do it.
I think any behavior can be used to avoid or ignore deeper emotional crises or conflicts. Work, drugs, drink, shopping, exercise, eating disorders, compulsive (fill in the blank), and, yes, sex, can, and are, used to stuff feelings, avoid responsibility, do self-harm, be an acting out of deep emotional issues of anger, alienation, rebellion, loneliness, etc.
When one’s life is out of control it doesn’t matter about the what. It does matter about the how and the why.
Ddj: Jameson also wrote, “I never take the time to feel the effects of my choices. Maybe it’s because I would be ashamed, maybe afraid. I realize I have avoided my pain for as long as I can remember. As life goes racing by me, all the while my soul goes on with sickness. Yes, sickness. It feels like it’s ailing. Because the one that should be nursing it is too busy trying to succeed and be accepted. I’m certainly scared that if I try to fix what has broken in me, so long ago, I may not succeed. So I go on faking that I am whole, proud, and strong…” Do you feel like you came into the adult industry feeling healthy and strong? Do you think that wholeness can be fostered there or is hard won?
NH: I did come into the industry feeling healthy and strong. Don’t forget, I was a full seven years older than she was when she started. I came from an intact family. I grew up in a time (the ‘60s and ‘70s) and place (Berkeley, California) that gave rise to second wave feminism so I had exposure to those ideas, as well as the new thinking about sex, sexuality, and sexual expression. I had a college education, as had my parents and my grandparents. I was never beaten. I did well in school and never missed a day. You get the picture. I was more self-aware than most who stumble into porn by accident. My low self-esteem was manifested by my unhealthy relationship off camera. On camera and on set I was strong. It was only when I went home that my life was BS.
Ddj: How serious is substance abuse in the adult film world?
NH: No more than the entertainment industry as a whole. Some are sober. Some are casual users and some have problems with over-use.
Ddj: Despite Sharon Mitchell’s valiant efforts with the now defunct AIM, before it closed, there were several HIV scares, one as recent as 2011. How much anxiety did you have going into the industry, and at various times in your career about the risk of contracting an STD?
NH: I didn’t have a lot of anxiety about STDs, as I know that they’re a risk for any sexually active person. I was sexually active before I got on camera and would have remained so if I had never made a movie. As a nurse and a practical person I believe in the risk-reduction/harm mitigation approach to sex work. There is probability and possibility and I decided, in 1984, given how porn is shot, that the risk of contracting HIV on a set was acceptable to me. I just made sure I didn’t engage in known high-risk behaviors: letting men ejaculate inside of me, doing needle drugs or having sex with those who did, working with gay or bisexual men, refraining from anal sex, making sure I didn’t work if I had vaginal abrasions, etc. If I had been super-scared about STDs I’d not have made movies in the first place. STDs are a risk for any sexually active person and I accept that. I mitigate my risk in other areas by not smoking, making sure to wear seat belts, not drunk driving, not sun tanning, eating healthfully, etc. In the end, we’re all going to die. My favorite bumper sticker: “Life: Sexually Transmitted and 100% Fatal.”
Ddj: Adult film crossover star Sasha Grey stated that her guest starring role on HBO’s Entourage was not wholly unlike filming on a porn set. There was just more blocking. Let’s talk about your role in Boogie Nights. How was that experience for you in general, and how was it similar or different from making an adult film?
NH: Ms. Grey is correct. A movie shoot is a movie shoot is a movie shoot. It’s simply a matter of budget. When I did Boogie Nights we sometimes had as many as 15 takes of one scene. In porn we’re lucky if we get three. We have a snack table, Hollywood has multiple catering stations, etc. Even the micro-budget movies, where the stars do their own makeup, etc., still have two to three weeks to film. The average full-plot feature (as differentiated from gonzo or scene-by-scene shooting) is still only two to three day’s worth of shooting.
Ddj: I’ve noticed that a lot of adult film stars – Sasha Grey being one of them – are devoutly atheist. On the SG Radio show, you said that you are atheist as well, and I wonder, do you think somebody could be in the adult industry – in any facet – and be spiritual or religious?
NH: Many adult performers are believing Christians. I know some company owners are members of their church or temple, and many are raising their kids within a religious tradition. I’m not quite sure how the Christians mentally balance the monogamous/adultery aspect of making movies, but the one couple I know who publicly claim their faith manage the mental gymnastics by saying that work is not love, and that they only love their wife/husband. OK, if you say so. There are lots of performers who claim to be “spiritual” though. Lots of them do yoga, etc.
Ddj: You are openly bisexual – yay, so am I 🙂 And you’re in a polyamorous marriage. I am very interested in how you’ve negotiated this with your husband Ira Levine?
NH: His nom de porn is Ernest Greene, just so you know. We just both knew that, when we got together, that being open was part of it. We met in 1989 when he was the assistant director (AD) to Sharon Cain. I liked him right away, for many reasons. We had an affair from ’91 to ’92, when I broke it off to go back and “work on my marriage.” I already knew it was dead but wasn’t ready to face that fact and break it off. If I had to do it over again I’d have gone home the first day I met him and given notice to my exes. Oy.
Ira’s and my first sexual encounter was as part of a threesome. He was politely watching Ms. Cain and me fool around on the living room floor (very unusual for Ms. Cain, as she preferred gay men). I saw him discretely masturbating and said, “Would you like a blowjob?” Being no fool he said yes, and we enjoyed ourselves very much.
What makes Ira perfect for me is that he has a complete lack of jealousy or sexual possessiveness. Our having an open relationship was a prerequisite for becoming a couple, as I had decided that I’d be single for life and have cats and lovers before I’d ever mate again with a jealous person.
I don’t think I own my partner’s genitals and I can’t have as a partner anyone who thinks s/he owns mine. We’re one of those very rare couples that play together with others as well as having solo play dates with our friends. I know his romantic life is with me but there’s a lot more to his inner life than romance and it’s important that all of his sexual nature get to come out and play, even if it’s with someone else. The sex we have alone when he’s been with someone else previously is smokin’.
Ddj: You had a really funny quote that you are now working with women younger than your breast implants. How are you treated differently now that you are in the MILF category versus ingénue?
NH: If I’m treated differently it’s because I’m a veteran of many years standing. I usually work with young men and women because the genre likes playing with extremes and contrasts: skin color, age, size, etc.
Ddj: Has your sex drive waned over the years, or remained strong?
NH: Since most of my sex drive is in my head, it’s as strong as ever. I’ve rarely, in my life, been genitally horny. When I’m alone I rarely masturbate but if I have a potential partner who wants to get sexual, I’m interested right away.
Ddj: When did you have your sexual peak?
NH: For the past 28 years, I suppose. One reason porn has been good for me is that I don’t fit into any box that society has for me: Woman, wife, young, middle-aged, monogamous, etc. I guess I was most active between 25-40, when I did movies, stripping, and went to a lot of swinger conventions.
Ddj: Earlier this year The Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance requiring condoms to be used in all permitted adult films shot within their city limits. Adult actress Lorelei Lee has called this a “mistake” and a “misguided” decision. Many speculate that the West Valley, my old hood, also known as Porn Valley, will simply lose its porn hub status, being replaced by New Hampshire (the only other state where filming porn is legal) or go further underground. What do you think of the condom-mandatory ruling?
NH: It’s a politically motivated disaster. Unenforceable. Driven by greed, hubris and megalomania on the part of Michael Weinstein, of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Condoms should be voluntary, with no one losing work because they prefer to use condoms. That, unfortunately, is not usually the case. Most performers strongly prefer bareback scenes with a tested partner and external ejaculation. It’s the long history of external ejaculation that has kept HIV out of the porn and swinger populations for the past 30 years. The two confirmed cases on on-set transmission both resulted from anal “cream pie” scenes, where the male performer ejaculates inside the receptive partner, the highest risk act that there is in porn. Let me ask this: given a choice would you prefer to do a condom scene with a partner who was HIV+ or whose HIV status was unknown to you, or with a tested partner who ejaculated on your breasts? I thought so.
Ddj: I interviewed Tristan Taormino last year. She is active in the poly community and you two worked together on The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women. She considers herself a feminist pornographer. What is different for you about feminist porn versus regular porn?
NH: As a general rule “feminist” porn tries to create a good work environment for the performers. As well, it seeks to portray sex, even rougher sex, as consensual, not to portray the women as bimbos or sluts, etc. Some of it has more involved story lines. Some of it includes GLBTQ performers (“straight” porn is notoriously gay-phobic) who don’t conform to mainstream notions of what “sexy,” “masculine,” “feminine” are supposed to mean or look like. Feminist porn is made by those men and women who have strong ideas about sex, sexuality, and sexual expression, and who want to get their ideas out there into the wider marketplace. Feminist porn tries very hard not to dehumanize or overly objectify the performers, not to insult the intelligence or integrity of the consumer.
Ddj: Do you think porn teaches boys and men bad sex habits and false ideas around intimacy and women’s orgasms? For example, in many films a woman comes two minutes into cunnilingus. The average women comes after about 16-24 minutes, according to my internet research, ahem.
NH: If all of the information about “how sex works” is garnered from commercial porn, then, yes, it showcases bad habits and promotes unrealistic ideas about female pleasure (male pleasure, too, as most men can’t last 40 minutes). If a person can’t/doesn’t/won’t pay attention to his or her actual, live partner, then porn isn’t going to make it worse. The cunnilingus they do show is bogus and lame, as real cunnilingus doesn’t show much of the vulva or clitoris, as that’s all happening under the lips. This is a MOVIE, folks. Your mileage may vary.
Our whole system does a piss-poor job of teaching our young people about healthy sexuality. It’s sad that people are reduced to looking at an entertainment medium for nuggets of usable information. My teaching tapes address this directly, if a viewer learns something useful from most movies, it’s almost an accident.
Having said that, I always used my time on screen to role model good sexual behavior, as well as effective techniques for oral and hand sex. Why? Because I knew people were using porn to try to learn about sexual behavior – this was before I started my educational series with Adam&Eve.
Ddj: You played Hillary Rodham Clinton in Who’s Nailin’ Paylin?, a porn parody. How do you feel about Sarah Palin? Should she be feared by liberals?
NH: I think she’s a poor excuse for a politician, though she seems to be a very savvy self-promoter who was able to tap into the anti-liberal zeitgeist. She’s not smart or educated enough to be president, though she has a native cunning about her, I dare say. She’s ambitious, and Americans have always been uncomfortable with naked female ambition.
Ddj: Tyra Banks is very vocal about her anti-sex work ideology and Dr. Drew has said sex addicts are attracted to and stuck in sex work. You appeared on Oprah in defense of porn. Would you appear on national TV again? And, if so, what would you say to detractors like Drew and Banks?
NH: I’d ask them to please stop painting all of us with the same old, tired stereotyped brush. The notion that sex work is always bad, and that sex workers are always unhappy/abuse survivors/victims is simply old puritanical ideology about “proper” female behavior/desires/roles gussied up in modern, feminist language. I find Dr. Drew annoying, condescending, judgmental, very vanilla in his outlook – non-traditional sexual expression skeeves him out – and fairly ignorant of the lives of most sex workers. If all the sex workers he meets find their way to him because of addiction issues, why does he ridiculously extrapolate that small sample to be representative of the experiences of all sex workers? Has he ever bothered to talk to a control group of sex workers who, gasp, like their jobs and find them fulfilling? Oops. That would be a negative.
Tyra Banks is just another woman who is also skeeved out by “sluts,” and “skanks,” and thinks she knows how to save them from themselves. I find her “analysis” to be shallow, based in assumptions and judgment, and insulting on the face of it. Sex workers are a varied population and each worker has his/her own reasons for doing the job. Some like their job most days, some hate it most days, and some wish they could find a way out. So, help those who want out to get out,if you can do so without shaming them – hard to do for the mainstream culture. And help those who like their jobs to do it more safely. The best thing to do for sex workers, if people really wanted to help, would be to decriminalize consensual sex work. It would free up a lot of legal space to actually go after sexual predators and criminals, and would let women work together for safety.
Ddj: You’ve won more accolades, I think, than any adult film star. Is there any category that you haven’t won in that you are still hoping to land a golden trophy for?
NH: I haven’t won an award in many years. Community Service would be good, but my husband deserves that much sooner, as he was one of the founders of AIM [a clinic which was set up to test adult performers for STDs] and has been completely overlooked by the powers that hand out such things. I doubt I’ll get an award for MILF of the Year, but I’m OK with that.
Ddj: There are many men that will hypocritically get off to porn, but then call the women who are in the videos “sluts” and “whores”. What is your feeling about this Madonna-whore complex that seems inherent in many men?
NH: On one hand, fuck ‘em. On the other hand, it’s such a deep part of the culture that one can hardly blame them for absorbing the rhetoric about it. If a man disses a woman for having sexual knowledge, then she should show him the door without apology, and then hold out for a man who appreciates her skill and understanding.
I don’t know what it would take for this to be rooted out. We have a religiously based legal system that assumes that women are pure and sexless, guardians of home and hearth, and that men are bestial and primitive. For many years prostitution was promoted as a way for men to express their baser urges on fallen women, so they wouldn’t subject their delicate wives to the ugly male desire.
Ddj: Should women be as responsible as men are for their orgasms? How do we claim our orgasm’s equal importance after a man has achieved his?
NH: No one gives any one an orgasm. All we can do is to assist our partners in finding their own. If he finishes first and she still needs more she can: kick him out, claiming an early day and then masturbate alone; she can recline in his lap so he can play with her boobs while she masturbates to a finish; she can masturbate during sex so she can have an orgasm before him. I always come after my partner, as my orgasm is very hard to achieve, and trying too hard during intercourse just takes me away from the moment. I can come whenever I want, so not coming during sex is not a big deal to me.
Ddj: How much of a problem is unwanted pregnancy resulting from adult film work?
NH: More than you’d think, as many women aren’t on birth control! I’ve heard of at least four pregnancies during the course of my career, and I’m always flabbergasted that a woman would fuck men without using birth control.
Ddj: Are there any sexual fantasies that you haven’t fulfilled yet?
NH: Well, there are the various celebrities that I think are hot, fucking in zero gravity, fucking underwater, as a mermaid, not in a scuba mask, fucking on the 50-yard line during halftime with the action being displayed on the JumboTron. That kind of thing.
Ddj: Who are your heroes?
NH: Maya Angelou, Margaret Sanger, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Betty Dodson, Carol Queen, Robert Lawrence, Annie Sprinkle, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, to name a few. I’m sure there are plenty more.
Ddj: What’s next for you?
NH: More writing, developing myself as a pundit and public speaker, spoken word performance, making my website more profitable, leading workshops on sex, sexuality and sexual expression, being a great-aunt to my amazing great-nieces and nephews, continuing my role as educator.
Ddj: Last, your most famous quote (and one I’ve pasted to my fridge) is: “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.” Have you always loved sex?
NH: I’ve always loved the idea of sex. It took me many years to actually love it in real life. It took a lot of practice and experience in order for me to say, now, “I never have bad sex any more.” I love sex as an idea, an activity, an expression of desire and passion, as political speech. I loved sex long before I ever even kissed a person. It just always was the most compelling thing to me.
Post-feminist sex and sensuality expert Darrah de jour is a freelance journalist who lives in LA with her doggie Oscar Wilde. Her writing has appeared in Marie Claire, Esquire and W. In her Red, White and Femme: Strapped With A Brain – And A Vagina columns for SuicideGirls, Darrah takes a fresh look at females in America. Twice a month, she also co-hosts SG Radio on Indie1031.com. Subscribe to her blog at Darrahdejour.com/, friend her on Facebook, and Listen to her wax sensual at WingGirlMethod.com/.
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