Legendary Porn Star Defends Bareback Sex And Shaved Vulvas

We were so impressed with porn star Nina Hartley's appearance in the documentary Exxxit, we had to talk to her more. After the jump, her thoughts on condoms, shaving, and why Who's Nailin Paylin was a victory for feminism.

Hartley was as fascinating on the phone as she was in the film, and she had a lot of thoughts on the state of sex in general and the porn industry in particular. She sees 1990-2005 as the industry's heyday, when "it was a full time job for a lot of people and you could make your living as a porn performer" — or even a packer or shipper of porn. Many of the performers featured in Exxxit seemed to have gotten into the business for easy money, but Hartley confirmed that times have gotten harder. She explained,

The legal pornography business in California is in a state of semi-disarray and major shrinkage. My business is down 50%, it's almost impossible to avoid piracy, to make a video before it hit the streets. By the time your video hits the release date it's been on a dozen or more porn sites or pirating sites. It's just really hard to make the sell anymore in business and more and more companies turn into online live streaming [...] The conventions are getting smaller and it's just a whole new ballgame now. Up until 3 years ago, if somebody said "I want to get into porn" I knew what to tell them, and now, I don't know what to tell them, because it's so in flux, we just don't' know what the shakeout's going to be, who's going to be left standing in the end. And we don't know how we're going to be making money at this anymore.

When I noted that this sounded a lot like, say, the market for books, she pointed out that the Internet had harmed a lot of industries:

My husband, who used to be a pretty good early adopter of technology, said he wishes he could turn the internet off. It's killed journalism, it's killing pornography, it's killing writing, it's killing a lot of things because everybody, anybody can write a blog now and thinks their opinion is worth as much as facts are. If you talk about intellectual degradation of the country, the Internet has helped a lot. On the other hand, that poor gay kid in Podunk no longer has to think he's the only one like him. So for me the Internet is an extremely mixed bag.

Also enemies of the porn industry, according to Hartley, are those who seek to mandate condoms. She said that the length of on-camera sex scenes — and male performers' members — make widespread condom use impractical: "by the time you've had 30 to 90 minutes of condom friction on your tender bits, there is abrasion, there is soreness, sometimes there's a little swelling, it's tender, it's not comfortable." And she argued that the industry standard — a combination of universal testing and external ejaculation — is better for performers' health anyway. She said that in straight porn there have been no HIV-related deaths in the last 15 years (gay porn is, unfortunately, another matter, though condom use is the industry standard there), and that the rate of HIV among porn performers is actually much lower than that among residents of Los Angeles County in general. Hartley argued that the drive for condoms is "not about our health at all, it's about politics, as always," and that some people who advocate for it really want to bring the porn business down. She added,

People get hysterical about sex. They want pornography to do the job that they themselves are not doing, which is educating our young people how to be safer. Unless a pornography movie is advertised as educational [...], it is not educational. And the fact that people are reduced to looking at an entertainment medium to find out about sex is sad. It would be less sad if it wasn't so tragic. Watching pornography to find out about how sex works is like watching a James Bond movie to find out how spies do their job.

When I asked about whether porn had influenced American beauty standards, she was equally opinionated. She argued that porn actually embraced a wider variety of body types than the fashion or mainstream film industries do: "We have tall and thin we have short and thick we have boxy-waisted, short-legged, long-legged, flat, big big butts, small butts, bit of a tummy. Women who are actually not the standard of beauty get work in pornography who would never get work in mainstream Hollywood." And, she added, "I have two words for you-April Flores."

Then there's what she called "the shaved vulva thing." She said those who claim shaving encourages pedophilia are barking up the wrong tree: "for a pedophile, a grown woman with a shaved vulva is a grown woman with a shaved vulva." Really, for her, shaving is about seeing all the ladybits:

[P]eople who like women like looking at women's parts and when they shave it's visible. And actually people who don't look at a lot of vulvas like I do don't know that they're incredibly diverse. They all have the same parts, you know all faces have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but every face is different. Every vulva has two sets of lips, and a clitoris and a clitoral hood, but every one is different. So for me, shaving it is like "ohh, there's that one, there's that one, pink and dusky and purple and light pink and dark pink and bright pink and all the different ways that they are-they're wide and they're narrow and they're big and they're small. They're fantastic and they're amazingly varied."

Rather than harming women, Hartley contended, porn can actually show how far we've come. When I asked her about her role as "Hilly"/Hillary Clinton in the Sarah Palin porn parody Who's Nailin' Paylin, she said,

Now, women are more equal with men because now female power figures are lampooned in porn the way that male power figures have always been lampooned in porn. Always the authority figures are made fun of — the priests and politicians and lawmakers and judges are the male figures in porn, and have been made fun of since time immemorial, going back before God. And now women are getting lampooned too.

Hartley had a lot to say, plenty of it controversial, from her thoughts on condoms to her contention that "if a woman feels pressure in her private life to conform to what's going on on screen, in terms of grooming and behavior, then that's a stressor in the relationship. Porn is not doing anything here." But one of her complaints resonated deeply:

As a sex worker I am outraged and infuriated by the lack of respect given to us and our experience. As a feminist I'm infuriated. No one seems to be listening to our voices.

Whatever we think of what she and other sex workers have to say, it's clearly time to start listening.

Earlier: Exxxit: Lust, Labia Trimmings, And The Lasting Stigma Of Porn