For my piece in the current issue of The Economist, I had the pleasure of talking to, among other people, the equivalent of Meryl Streep in the porn industry: Nina Hartley. She is 50 and says she loves sex more than ever, on camera or off. She has been at it (the camera part) since 1984.
A somewhat unfortunate part of my job, as I am increasingly discovering, is that the most interesting parts of my research and my conversations often fall well outside the realm of what can make it into my articles. Yes, of course, readers might care about how the porn industry is doing. But they’re human so they must also be curious about, well, sex. After all, it’s not everyday that you get to talk to somebody who does it for a living.
In my case, I was just a tad shy for the first few moments. It helped that I have never “consumed” Nina’s “content” so I had no visuals to distract me. Still: How would I talk to somebody who views having sex as I view writing?
It turned out that Nina was very easy and very interesting to talk to. The conversation ranged just as it would have ranged with anybody else. Our health care debate drives her “mad.” California can’t govern itself. That sort of thing.
Performing sex on camera, she said, is
a highly paid form of blue-collar work… sort of like farm labor.
Everybody is an independent contractor and there are no benefits. No benefits. It’s important in such a conversation not to reach for the double entendres.
About the porn industry, Nina was somewhat nostalgic and sentimental. In the 80s, when she started, it was apparently a glamorous sort of thing. The product was hard to get and had rarity value, the production took place in a subculture that considered itself revolutionary. There was a frisson, a pioneer spirit, a certain excitement.
Now it’s seedy, cheap, everywhere. She wouldn’t start again today if she were young now.
So why is she still in it?
In large part because she actually likes the sex, she told me. She thinks that women increase their sensitivity in middle age. At least that is happening to her.
My enjoyment of sex has increased, but for most [performers] it goes down, especially the men.
I asked her if she meant that doing it on camera makes people “numb.” Sometimes, she says. Many performers stop having sex in their private lives altogether. The men basically have to, since they couldn’t have private sex, then perform as well the next day on camera, and any hint of “having trouble” might kill their career. But they also genuinely lose interest.
Nina sees her role now as “mentor” as well as actress, so she counsels the young performers not to let that happen.