Rebel Without Clothes

To many people, Nina Hartley would appear to be the embodiment of contradiction: a feminist who's also a veteran porn star and damn proud of it. Further confounding stereotypes, she's a public speaker as comfortable in a college lecture hall as on a strip club stage and a politically aware progressive -- a "third-generation socialist," she called herself in a wide-ranging 1989 interview in Shmate, a now-defunct progressive Jewish journal. She's a 1985 graduate of San Francisco State University with a B.S. in nursing. Magna cum laude, at that.She entered the sex business in 1982, working as a stripper at a San Francisco club while she was in college. Hartley, who estimates she has appeared in 360 movies or videos, made her first film in 1984. She continues to work as a featured exotic dancer. The 36-year-old Hartley also has a small role in the just-released mainstream film Boogie Nights."When I had the opportunity to make an adult movie, I took it. One thing led to another and I found out I like it. It was fun!" Hartley declares in a phone interview.Hartley, who is bisexual, doesn't leave her unorthodox lifestyle behind when she's off the porn set. She's been part of a marital triad -- with a husband, Dave, to whom she's legally married and a "wife," Bobby -- for about a decade and a half. Theirs is an "open marriage" -- how could it be otherwise considering her occupation? -- and Hartley is an unabashed practitioner of the "swinger" lifestyle.In the Shmate interview, Hartley said the arrangement worked "because of our fidelity of the mind and heart, but not of the crotch. What also helps is the constant, open communication about all subjects -- sexual, political, personal, philosophical."Hartley's emergence as one of porn's top stars coincided with a burgeoning public debate over the medium. The Meese Commission, named after Ronald Reagan's attorney general, Edwin Meese, produced a report in 1986 that called for increased enforcement of obscenity laws and other actions to stem pornography. Opposition to porn made for strange bedfellows: The report was supported not only by conservative, anti-feminist Christian moralizers but also by feminist theorists and activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, who support legislation to ban pornography as a violation of women's civil rights.The opinionated and articulate Hartley entered the fray and has become the foremost spokesperson for women working in the porn industry. Unwilling to settle for mere tolerance of her work, she told Shmate: "I believe my work is valid and good and has a lot of things to help people with ... Support it wholeheartedly and promote the use of explicit materials for the education and benefit of all adults." She has appeared on television talk shows and often lectures on college campuses, discussing -- depending on the class -- disease prevention in the sex business, developing self-awareness through the use of erotic imagery, writing and acting or the implications of censorship laws and her differences with anti-porn feminists.She keeps up with politics by reading Mother Jones, In These Times and The Nation and also likes the Utne Reader "when I'm pressed for time.""I find most Americans hypocritical because I deal primarily in the sexual realm and that's where people's hypocrisies really come to the forefront. They're yelling and screaming about it by day and buying it by night," she says. "They don't have the decency to admit that and say, 'O.K., maybe some of our rules and our attitudes about this stuff is wrong.' They have to kowtow to the religious right and kiss their butts because they want to be elected again."In a series of interviews during the last few weeks, Hartley talked about her politics, the sex trade and feminism.Advocate: In an interview in 1989 in Shmate, you described yourself as a "socialist of the heart." Since then, what was known as "actually existing socialism" has collapsed and the media has portrayed global capitalism triumphant. How would you characterize your politics now? Would you still say you're a socialist?Hartley: Absolutely. Because the construction is shoddy does not mean the tools are not good, and I believe the tools of socialism are very sound. But they have rarely if ever been given a chance to work fairly, unencumbered by outside intervention.Advocate: How would you describe the tools of socialism?Hartley: Fairness, workers owning the means of production, social progressiveness, gender and racial equality, a vision of people before profits.Advocate: What issues interest you?Hartley: I try and pay a lot of attention to the environment and health care. They're very important and closely entwined, number one, and number two, without a healthy environment, we're all going to die! We're all going to die if we don't take care of Mother Earth. That just seems pragmatic and practical -- it's not even political. It's like, duh!Of course, having a healthy population that is literate and able to think for themselves and knows how to think, I think is very important. I'm a firm believer in literacy programs and certainly birth control programs because I think people should be able to reap the benefits of sexual liberation, sexual pleasure without having to bring more people into the world before they're ready. I do believe people deserve a sex life free of children if that's what they want and I don't think the trial and tribulation of learning how to be an adult and enjoy sexual pleasure should be held over their head as a bogeyman -- this spectre of pregnancy and punishment for having transgressed certain rules and laws ... Advocate: You've labeled yourself a feminist. What does being a feminist mean to you?Hartley: Being a feminist means that I have the right, the duty and the obligation to live my life to the fullest as a compassionate and independent person. Not living for anybody else but not living just for myself, either. To really try and improve the lot and lives of other people and to build consensus and to help people feel better about themselves.I believe I have the right to self-determination. While I love men very much and I want them in my life, I don't believe I'm nothing without one.At the same time, I'm sort of a New Age feminist. I don't want this antagonism and this horrible anger and bitterness between the genders that I see a lot of the time. It's really quite distressing to me. It takes up a lot of energy. I think it obscures a lot of the real issues. The tremendous class anxiety is really being redirected into a general gender anxiety. It's really a shame.Advocate: You've been a vocal critic of the anti-pornography wing of the feminist movement. Why?Hartley: I think they're very misguided. After viewing them over 20 years and being very afraid to criticize them and very unwilling to see bad in them -- having been in this business and seeing it directed at me and having dealt with them face-to-face -- I've come to believe that the anti-pornography feminist camp is fueled very much by Victorian, very patriarchal attitudes about sexuality, very old-fashioned attitudes about sexuality and has been fueled a lot by individual and personal anger around sexuality of the women involved. They've demonized sex and cut off conversation ... in a way as fierce as any Puritan preacher did back in the Mayflower days.It's tremendous the invective they fling about in a way to obscure the real issues, which is that they have personal deep-seated issues of anger and jealousy and fear and confusion around sexual issues. That there are in this business people who are happy about sex, there are women who are not man-haters, infuriates them no end. They have to brand us as brainwashed, brand us as traitors and they have to brand us as lapdogs for the patriarchy, etc. If you go and look at their arguments on a sheer logic basis, they're full of holes and if you look at them personally, it has to me now become obvious -- I fought this for a long time; I didn't want to say this about them because it sounds so petty -- "Ah, you're just jealous" -- but that is part of what fuels this incredible rage against it.It's not just the realization that men do horrible things to women. People are dehumanized in our culture. Our culture is bent upon alienating people as much as possible, creating unhappiness and then blaming people for it. That's certainly true. But that's not the fault of men. Most men are victims of the patriarchy the way most women are victims of the patriarchy.Advocate: How so?Hartley: Because most men are not influential and powerful. Most men are not part of the Fortune 500. Most men are not part of the 2 or 5 percent of the population that controls 80 percent of the wealth. Most of us are getting kicked in the butts by the powers that be and to spend all this time hating men and vilifying men simply because of differences in sexuality doesn't make sense.Advocate: But isn't it the case that just as the white working class and black working class are both oppressed under capitalism, the black working class is more oppressed -- doesn't a similar dynamic operate under patriarchy?Hartley: Is the general gist of your question that under patriarchy women suffer more than men?Advocate: Yes.Hartley: I think they suffer differently. Statistical analysis shows that men live fewer years than women. The areas of oppression under patriarchy are so different; they're not equivalent. So I don't think women suffer more so much as suffer differently.The fight against pornography all comes down to people who have a very old-fashioned belief that sex is something men do to women. Sex is some lustful beast that takes over people and deprives them of reason and causes them to act out upon other defenseless people -- usually women -- their horrible, horrible lusts. And they're very passionate on this point. They really believe this.And that level of attitude does not come from a rational place. They may try and dress it up in rational language, but the reasoning is not logical. It's coming from a place of pain, discomfort, unhappiness and anger. On that level, I really feel sorry for them ... There's a very good book you should read, Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture by Carol Queen. She has an interesting article on "absexuality," a new word that she and her boyfriend have come up with. An "absexual" is someone who rails against pornography [but is] as obsessed and fascinated with pornography as those who use it for masturbatory purposes. People who just cannot put it down, just cannot get away from it, cannot let it go. So pornography is an obsession in their life... a prism through which they see everything. But they're not using it for pleasure, or their horrified fascination with it is their pleasure ... Advocate: There are, though, some progressives who don't call for censoring or suppressing pornography or the sex industry in general, but they still feel it's an industry that is deeply exploitative of women. How do you respond to people who aren't pro-censorship but have that attitude toward the work that you do?Hartley: These are women who probably have some kind of satisfied sex lives. It really comes down to that. People who hate me -- versus the people who are at least neutral -- people who have hatred invested against me and my friends are people for whom sex is not a happy thing for whatever reason. They're people still in turmoil about their sexuality, their body image, their ability to be intimate with other people, their ability to share erotic pleasure with a partner, people for whom sex is still a big deal, an issue -- it's not resolved....The people who are more neutral about me are more, "You have the right to do what you do but does it have to be so icky?" ... At a certain level it has to do with how squeamish you are. One thing about sex is it's messy, it's sweaty, it's dirty and what turns you on are not things that are supposed to turn you on. But they do. Whatever turns you on, turns you on. If part of what turns you on involves things that make other people go "uuuugh," it's hard to view that. It's hard to view other people's turn-ons. It's so raw, so animalistic, so naked, so exposed that we get uncomfortable because our culture is about hiding real feelings from each other and hiding that part of ourselves and blocking it off. So if you look at a picture of someone in full heat, full rut, it's pretty disturbing. If you watch a movie from a calm demeanor, slowly becoming aroused enough to get into that full rut, then it's not so scary.So are you willing to allow yourself to be taken away by the eroticism of the moment or are you still not able to do that? And if you're not able to do that, the movies are very uncomfortable, they're very difficult sitting through. I appreciate that. But, because when the rubber hits the road, you're discomfited, do you realize that's your problem, not their problem, and you'll have to deal with it? Or do you try and pass a law against what makes you uncomfortable? And that's what a lot of virulently anti-pornography people are doing. They're uncomfortable by its presence so they want to stomp it out, rather than realize their discomfort is their business, it's their problem.We're not doing it to them. We're living our lives and if the fact that we exist really, really puts you uptight, I can't help that. That's not my problem.For women who are more in-between, I say, yes, the business is changing. There are certain people who practice business in a way you wouldn't like to see nor should you like to see. It's not illegal -- maybe it is a little bit -- it's not nice. And then there are people in the business who are the height of scrupulousness, the height of respectful behavior and you just have to know it's more varied than they would think.Advocate: If you talk to people outside the adult business who want to actually improve working conditions -- my impression is you feel the "sex-negative" feminists talk about being concerned about the women in the business but, in reality, you don't feel they are ... Hartley: They voice concerns but their actions do not back them up. One of the things I've learned in my growing up is that there is the act of giving which you do for you, and the act of truly giving which you do for the other.If people are trying to help us without actually looking at us as human beings and saying, "How may I help you? I want to help improve your life as you see it could be improved. What may I do?" they're not putting themselves at our service. They're using us as a whipping boy or icon, as a place to vent their frustration and their anger and we happen to be a happy symbol for that. They look at us the way white racists look at black people: as an idea or symbol, not as people. So I find the majority, certainly, of the sex-negative feminists, who talk about wanting to help, are full of hot air. They are in it to make themselves feel better or to exorcise their own demons, but they're not really in it for us because they won't talk to us, they won't listen to us, they won't believe us ... To those who really do want to help, I first recommend the book Whores and Other Feminists, edited by Jill Nagle. In it is an essay, "Feminists, Sex Workers and Human Rights," by Priscilla Alexander -- who is not a prostitute, never has been a prostitute -- and you need to read her essay, you need to believe it and go to work on it.Advocate: What does Alexander say?Hartley: As long as any woman can be arrested on the belief she's a whore, no woman is safe. As much as many feminists might want to distance themselves from sex workers, we are your sisters and we have more in common than we have differences. She believes we need to remove society's acceptance of harassment of women on that charge.If feminists really, truly wish to improve the lot of women in the sex business they will strive mightily, as strongly as they strove to pass the ERA, to decriminalize all sex work, including prostitution, and stop making a crime out of consensual behavior. Stop making criminals out of people who are providing a service and desperately needed contact and desperately needed information. Stop looking at sex work as this monolithic creature and start looking at us as individuals.If you look at it logically and rationally -- which people can't do around sex -- you will see that decriminalization is ideal. You will save tens of millions, if not billions, of dollars a year on the combined savings in law enforcement and combined revenue from taxation if we'll just get off our high horse about sex work and open our eyes. But it's not going to happen very soon.Advocate: As a feminist porn star, what are your frustrations with your own industry?Hartley: The pay scale sucks.Generally speaking, most people who make the product don't really respect the consumers or the performers, particularly. They're just in it to make a buck. You have to understand that it's not artists celebrating love and eros in their lives. It's businessmen making a profit, making a product to sell. That takes some of the soul and fun out of it ... I'm also bothered by the fact that there are no royalties. We don't own a piece of our work and that bugs me.But there are things to be proud of in the last couple of years. Through the Free Speech Coalition now, if you're a member of the coalition as an individual or a business, you can buy health insurance, life insurance, dental insurance. That's new this past year and that's pretty amazing. The fact that we have survived long enough to become a mature business. We're 25 years old this year.Advocate: Dating from what?Hartley: The Supreme Court decision, Miller, in 1972. Now we're going to a place where there are fewer and fewer rebels. We used to be a home for rebels. Now more and more regular folks are coming into it because adult entertainment, up to and including explicit imagery, is a huge market. Now, with the Internet and the computer being what it is, the middleman's been taken away and any person who is savvy and has business sense can come in and learn the ropes and... become an entrepreneur on their own. At that level of the business, it's rather entrepreneur-friendly if you're willing to work at it. At that level, it's really a great business.Advocate: For the workers or for the ... Hartley: It can be much better for the workers than it is and it's slowly changing as more workers understand how much power they actually have. We won't recognize this business in five years in terms of standard business practices.Advocate: You mentioned the "Miller decision." What is that?Hartley: "Miller decision" is shorthand for the [U.S.] Supreme Court decision, Miller v. California, in 1972 to allow local communities to set standards for adult-oriented material they would allow in their community. It turned the whole country into a patchwork of wildly different standards of what's allowed in communities in terms of businesses or in the library, or in school libraries. That's also generally conceded to be the time that the modern era of pornography started. When we say porn as a business is 25 years old, we mean porn as a legal business is 25 years old. That goes back to the Miller decision in 1972.Advocate: That was about the time that Deep Throat came out?Hartley: That was exactly the time when Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones came out.Advocate: Which of the films that you've been in are you most pleased with? You've said one of your frustrations with business is that it is a business and tends to leave out the potential art that could be in erotica. Of the films that you've made, are there ones ... Hartley: There's very little I've made that I could classify as erotica -- a full artistic experience. I've made some very fun porn -- Debbie Duz Dishes, The Big Thrill and The Secret Life of Nina Hartley. The movies I make for the most part are designed for the experienced viewer of adult material, meaning they're already comfortable with seeing genitalia, they're already comfortable with the explicitness of it. Then they can allow themselves to be open to the humor and everything else.Most of my movies are a little much for the first-time viewer simply because they're very explicit and I'm very unabashed about that and very comfortable with that so I don't shy away from it. But I do know that, except for my sex-ed series and also my movie with Candida Royalle which is out right now called The Bridal Shower, most would be a little intense for the novice viewer. My sex-ed tapes are absolutely appropriate for someone who's never watched these before.Advocate: There seems to be a definitional difference between "erotica" and "pornography."Hartley: "What I like is erotica, what you like is pornography." The question, I think, is a semantical game. This is the same as "is this pornography or adult entertainment?" Adult entertainment is a little more descriptive and a little less punchy but I use pornography or porn or porno because I'm comfortable with it and it's not a bugaboo demon in my life.Erotica versus pornography -- for me the simplest differentiation is that erotica can exhibit artistic merit on more than one level. Pornography exists simply for the graphic display of sexual parts and contact for the purposes of a masturbatory aid. Which is a perfectly legitimate reason for being but means that you can't watch it more than once or twice before it gets really boring because it is so one-dimensional.Erotica deals with sexual themes but expands itself to include better writing, better performing, better lighting, better music, better editing, better camera work -- just a little bit more refined on all levels, as opposed to the one visceral level. You can watch those movies multiple times because they're a full experience, a rich experience. There's always something different going on that you could pay attention to each time and appreciate. Generally speaking, they involve not just the physical act itself but some kind of interaction between the people involved, some kind of emotional depth and resonance that is communicated and appreciated by the maker of it. For most people at home, sex is a much deeper, profound experience with a partner as opposed to just masturbating, so erotica considers itself as a whole being, not merely the sexual.Advocate: People look at the adult business and say, "Gee, it's just got to be rife with sexual harassment, the working conditions must be terrible, there must be pressure -- at least financial -- to engage in unsafe sex." Is that incorrect?Hartley: I'm not saying it doesn't happen. I'll be honest with you. But it's not common and it's not standard.Advocate: What about in the clubs?Hartley: I haven't been a house dancer in years. My treatment by clubs is completely different from their treatment of the house dancers. I really don't have a lot to say about that except there's room for improvement in terms of the contractual agreements between dancers and clubs.Advocate: I read about dancers at The Lusty Lady, a club in the Bay Area, organizing a union ... Hartley: Yes, it's amazing. First one of its kind.Advocate: Would you encourage dancers to unionize?Hartley: I would encourage them to look into how they could better advance their interests. Absolutely. Labor issues are very, very touchy; it's a very big deal. And again, I get treated so differently as a feature, that I'm not in the same league as the house dancers.Advocate: Have you met or talked with any of the dancers from The Lusty Lady?Hartley: Oh sure. I was a big supporter of theirs. But at the same time, I know it's a really hard row to hoe. A very hard road to stick to, because the pressure's against you. Blacklisting and blackballing by the clubs is very, very strong. It takes a lot of nerve and a lot of guts.Hank Hoffman can be reached at


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