Porn Star on a Mission to Educate: An Excerpt from The Feminist Porn Book

By Nina Hartley

When my father discovered what I do for a living he asked, Why sex? Why not the violin? I didnt have an answer for him at that moment. I know now that I'm sexual the way that Mozart was musical. I'm just wired this way and a life of public sexuality has, from my very first time on stage, been as natural to me as breathing. This is true even now, nearly three decades into my career. 

When I started in adult entertainment as a dancer in 1983, I didnt think of myself as any kind of pioneer. My goal was never to be a trailblazer, but to carry out my true lifes work: to speak about sex, sexuality, and sexual expression from a place of practice and not just theory, so that I might be helpful to others. A byproduct of that pursuit was my ability to make a living, which gave me the financial security to be able to devote my life to this work.

At the most visceral level, I got into porn because thats where the naked women were. I came here for the sex. I wanted casual, no-feelings-hurt, no-U-Haul sexual contact with women without the attendant complexities. I wasn't looking for lesbian romance, or romance of any other kind. Porn offers all the fun of dating with none of the hassle. I know some people find this attitude disquieting at best, disgusting and immoral at worst, but it very much suited my temperament. I also wanted easy sexual contact with men, but had no time or patience for the mating dances of the club or bar scenes, places where people have to pretend that sexual contact could, should, or would evolve into romantic relationships. I have never liked being with people who are drunk or high or otherwise partying simply because they can't admit to themselves that they just want to get laid. In porn, I discovered, I'm not subjected to a partners projections of guilt and shame over their own desires that leads them to call me whore and slut, while assuming no responsibility for their own behavior and motivations. My desires and proclivities dovetailed nicely with the job requirements for a porn performer, to my benefit and, admittedly, to that of those who hired me.

But beyond providing a perfect playground for my hedonistic indulgences, I saw and continue to see porn as a means by which to share my deeply held ideas and opinions about sex, pleasure, love, and intimacy with other like-minded folks. I'm scientifically minded, and porn gave me a laboratory where I could conduct my experiments, a diverse pool of enthusiastic subjects, a reliable subsidy for my research, and feedback from the end users as to its efficacy. I already had a degree in nursing from San Francisco State University. Our culture sees much of sexuality as deviant and sick, and sick people need a nurse's care. Most people I've met in the course of my career are in some way wounded around their sexuality. They need to talk to someone who can give them perspective about their situation. In taking on that position, I would become a role model of healthful behavior, advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, and educate people about sexual health and literacy. While people may be advised to talk to their healthcare providers about health-related sexual issues, many of those professionals are, themselves, deeply conflicted about sexuality and pornography (as is the greater culture), which makes going to them with one's sexual problems highly fraught. I can't sleep with all of my fans personally (though I'd dearly like to), so I hope that my sex-education videos can inspire them and give them the necessary tools for sexual fulfillment.

I admit that I also love performing. I can't sing, dance, act, or play an instrument well enough to make a living at it (at least partially answering my fathers question about the violin), but as a porn performer I can express myself as both artist and scientist. Sex is my subject in both realms. The choice to pursue my work in this manner does not come without cost. Once you start showing your naughty bits on film, what you create is by definition pornography, with the stigma, limitations, and freedom that come with doing so. If I had no other mission than to make myself happy by engaging in sex as performance, the fact that doing so makes it nearly impossible to be taken seriously in any other context wouldn't be particularly bothersome. My work, after all, is the ultimate full-contact improvisation exercise. We arrive on the set, where, as characters, we create a sexually themed story, or parable if you will, enact it, and then we go home. Some days are longer than others, but the work itself never gets old because the varieties of sexual desire and expression are infinite and never take the same form twice.

However, having always brought my broader philosophical mission to a medium relentlessly focused on commercial entertainment, I've had to subvert that medium to my own ends more often than not, and I would be the first to admit that I have not always succeeded. At best, I like to think I've avoided allowing the industry to use me to its ends to the detriment of mine.

While I'm not particularly spiritual, I identify strongly with the Jungian archetype of the sacred prostitute and her vital role in sexual healing. I fantasized about inhabiting that role more literally when I was younger but did not dare work as an actual prostitute. Laws against sexual commerce only hurt women and all consensual sex work should be decriminalized now, but until it is, confining my incarnation of that archetype to the safe environs of a legal porn shoot has been the only way I felt comfortable performing that healing function, even if only in the abstract. In this way I touch more people at one time through the entertainment products in which I participate, but cannot touch them literally. Actress Cornelia Otis Skinner said, Woman's virtue is man's greatest invention. That phrase is both true and telling: everyday men and women both carry the heavy load and pay the cost for this retrograde notion of virtue. Female sexual agency remains a contentious subject that sparks fierce debate and displays of moral outrage, bigotry, and murderous violence. Our culture continues to punish women for their sexuality, from woman-on-woman slut shaming, to continuing attempts by local, state, and federal government agencies to limit access to effective family planning. Our country's honor killings--ranging from the murder of abortion providers to the killing of a partner in a fit of jealous If-I-cant-have-you-then-nobody-can-have-you! rage--are almost always connected to women's sexual autonomy and/or health.

To those who ask how I can still enjoy what I do after so many years, the answer is simple. I've held firm to a core principle: if I don't do it at home for free, I won't do it on camera for money. Fans notice my enthusiasm and I repeatedly hear, "You really seem to enjoy what youre doing," said with wonder and gratitude. I do not do that which I do not enjoy. I do not believe that just because something appears in a pornographic picture it will be welcomed by either men or women as actual practice in their own bedrooms, nor should it be. But I do believe some porn, particularly porn that is most focused on mutual pleasure in whatever form--including those that challenge conventional notions of pleasure, like consensual BDSM--can be of instructional value.

Despite the rancor directed at men and their sexuality throughout the 1970s and continuing into today, I've found that by and large men are eager students. They want very much to be good lovers and for their partners to enjoy themselves in bed. As a dancer with full freedom of expression while on stage, I found that all it took was a naked woman speaking her truth about sex, without shaming or blaming, and they were all ears. I lost a lot of my fear of men in that first strip club where I danced when I saw how they, too, were victims of antisex conditioning. It was just different from the antisex conditioning that women have traditionally received. Men and women are both wounded by our cultural constraints on sexuality, and have been falsely set up as adversaries when they're meant to be allies in life and love.

I picture my work as a sex educator continuing long after my career as a sex performer has become more a hobby than an occupation. I expect to continue delivering the good news I brought with me when I came in. Its a simple enough message, but so important to a happy life: sex is good for you and the more you know about it, the better it's likely to be. 

This piece is excerpted with permission from The Feminist Porn Book (Feminist Press.)