GLOBE AND MAIL
Saturday, April 24, 1999
The thinking woman's porn star speaks out
Feminist Nina Hartley is proud of her 475 skin flicks, and a massive middle-class adult-video market agrees
'I love my big butt. My butt bought me my Chevy!" Nina Hartley announces this with a raw enthusiasm that makes you throw your head back and laugh. And before you catch your breath, she bounds ahead to talk about a great meditation book she's reading, the dangers of Zionist policy in the Middle East, and some fascinating details she just learned about sex education in the 1930s.
Hartley is wearing black leggings and a purple turtleneck, with a heavy silver chain laden with new-agey pendants jangling against her chest, and she blinks owlishly behind the pink, metal frames of her glasses. There is no hint that she is the World's Best Loved Porn Star, except perhaps for her habit of grabbing he cantaloupe-sized breasts for emphasis when she wants to make a point.
Tonight, Nina Hartley will be on stage at Mississauga's Club Deja Vu ("All Showgirls! All the Time!"). This afternoon Nina is also on stage, although the stage is a bland Holiday Inn room where she's settled in eagerly for some girl talk. The air is redolent with stale cigar smoke, and she makes a breezy apology for the mess a teddy bear, a stack of books, some clothes and a large plug-in vibrator are strewn on one of the two double beds.
Hartley is famous for two things: First, there are her estimated 475 porn films (including such classics , as it were, as Debbie Duz Dishes), which have won her the most AVN Awards (the Oscars of the porn world) of any star and a crossover passport to "real acting" with a bit part in Boogie Nights. Then there is her impassioned feminism and fiece anticensorship campaign she's been taking on antipornography feminists for 15 years.
In her latest incarnation, she is a missionary for sex education not the don't-get-pregant kind, but the do-it-more kind. She is on a cross-Canada tour, from Thunder Bay to Kamloops, dancing in strip clubs, doing meet-and-greets in adult video stores and giving "seminars" to promote her eight how-to videos on everything from oral sex to lap dancing ($40 each).
"The way we enforce sexual ignorance!" she sputters, smalls tearing at her wispy blond hair. "My goal is to advance sexual literacy. Sex is a skill you have to learn by doing, but where can you learn? You can't watch people, you can't talk to people."
But Hartley can. She says she loves the "face time" with fans and, no, she doesn't mind having them touch her, or posing naked, straddling their laps, for snapshots. After all, "I've spent 15 years making men want to sleep with me!"
Hartley's industry exploded in the 1980s with the proliferation of VCRs, which gave vast new groups of people access to illicit entertainment. Since then, sex films have lost much of their stigma; today adult tapes form an estimated third of all video sales and rentals in North America. There were $5.9-billion worth of sales and rentals of adult videos in U.S. stores last year, which doesn't include the enormous, unquantified mail order or Internet businesses
NINA From page C1
'The Info Nympho from San Francisco'
Randy Jorgensen, president of Canada's largest adult-video distributor, estimates the Canadian market to be worth $600-million. Obviously, that's not just the pocket change of a pathetic minority. "Everybody thinks it's autoworkers," Jorgensen says, but sophisticated demographic tracking tells him that his average customer is aged 35 to 45 and married, with two kids, a dog, a cat and a car-and-a-half and a mortgage. "The largest penetration," he says, without the least hint of a laugh, "is in the 'affluent and wealthy' category."
Jorgensen opened the first Adult Only Video outlet in 1987. Since then, it has grown to 56 stores, from Kingston to Vancouver Island, and will open five more this year all "consumer friendly," clean and bright, with helpful staff. Jorgensen knows his market: "The big trend is more and more females in the stores, a huge number of couples, and they want a better product, better scripting, acting, editing, a better sound track."
Mark Kerns, features editor of the industry trade magazine Adult Video News, calls this the new, quiet sexual revolution.
"The main thing the VCR has done is bring other people's sexual acts into people's homes," Kerns says. "People watch the tapes and they see there's no rape, no abuse, and every time that happens, or rather doesn't happen, they become a little more skeptical about what they've heard about depictions of sex, and so they try new things."
And porn stars like Nina Hartley are their guides. A few dozen of them have become merchandise empires, with their own clothing lines, and sex toys moulded on their body parts. Hartley, however, has even bigger ambitions.
Club Deja Vu is not a glamorous place. A boxy building in a strip mall near the Pearson International Airport, its exterior walls are painted in gold leopard-print, and at dusk on a weekday afternoon, it is far from full. One young woman in stilettos gyrates mechanically on the central stage, another sits in the door of the dressing room, struggling to tug her bikini panties back on over her platform heels.
Under bright florescent lights in a "private dressing room" backstage (in fact a nook between two offices) Hartley has doffed her sweat pants and is debating between a choice of sequined bras. The glasses are gone and now streaks of copper eyeshadow rim her pale green eyes. Her hair has acquired cascading curls and her eyelashes are an inch in length.
Then the DJ introduces "The Info Nympho from San Francisco," to wild applause, Hartley bumps, grinds, and writhes across the stage. Through it all, she grins and pouts and, in visible contrast to the other young dancers, is clearly having a grand time.
When the music and the cheers die down, she grabs the microphone, and lights come up and, naket but for her stilettos, she takes questions fromthe audience (a T 'n' A Q-and-A, if you will). She compares her cordless microphone to the members of various of her co-stars, chats about cunnilingus and, when asked if she has ever had sex with an animal, responds, "Only Ron Jeremy!" The reference to the hirsute and pudgy male porn star has the audience roaring.
The best question of the night wins a grey-bearded fellow in a leath vest a Polaroid with the naked Nina: " If Martha Stewart wanted to get into the porn industry, what advice would you give her?" Hartley laughs and assures him there is a niche even for Martha, then otters off the stage with a parting exhortation to be generous with the other dancers, who work only for tips: "Let's keep the girls in school and off welfare!"
Hartley grew up in Berkeley, the daughter of atheist Jewish hippies who became Buddhists when she was young. She is a registered nurse and a socialist, with an enormous vocabulary and an enthusiasm for ideas that makes her bounce in chair like an eight-year-old. She is bisexual and had been in a three-person marriage for 16 years long enough that she refers to both her husband and her "wife" without hesitation.
She started stripping while a student at San Fancisco State University, more to explore her exhibitionism than for money. Before long she appeared in her first porn film, and while she graduated magna cum laude, it's been sex work ever since. She does the dance tours to make money; they pay better than porn flicks, and says that at 38 she's also a victim of the ageism and the "newism" of an industry that manufactures a disposable product.
But for years she also has been a loud voice from within the sex industry, taking on the antiporn orthodoxy of the women she calls the MacDworkinites (after writers Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, standard-bearers for the antiporn camp. To their classic argument that Pornography is the theory, Rape is the practice, Hartley responds, "Your lust doesn't harm me, it's your physical activity against my will that harms me."
Women in the sex industry, she says, have more choice and power than critics think, "but not as much as I would like. But where else can a woman with a high-school education make hundreds of dollars a day, and not sell drugs or work as a prostitute on the street with all the dangers that come with that?"
Hartley sees herself as a mentor, and has made an information video for would-be porn actresses. (Says trade-paper writer Kerns, "She'd like to be the whole world's mother.") Revolution against capitalism is her ultimate social prescription but, in the meantime, she wants sex work destigmatized. "I would love there to be only women in the movies who love what they do, but I'd like that to be true of every job. Lots of people hate their jobs."
Surely, though, it's one thing to hate slinging fries at Burger King, and quite another to hate having sex with several strangers in front of a camera for $400 a day (and, incidentally, no royalties or residuals)? "Hey," says Hartley, "it's how you you feel about sex work. I love group sex, as a matter of fact. It's my favourite thing to do."
Nina Hartley will be speaking at the Holiday Inn Yorkdale in Toronto on April 27, at the Winnipeg Charterhouse Hotel on May 5, and at Vancouver Holiday Inn Center on May 6.
Created: May 5, 1999
Last modified: January 31, 2001
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