Of course, I'd love to fuck each and every one of my fans, but I'm too busy with my work to take special trips to meet them all, one on one; I'm sure you understand.
-- From the Nina Hartley FAQ on her Web site
I saw the listing in the paper just by chance. It was innocuously placed under "Events," just above an art lecture on New Guinea:
Porn star Nina Hartley discusses the adult video business and how to break into X-rated movies. 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The lecture was offered by San Francisco's branch of The Learning Annex, which offers three-hour classes in everything from How to Clear Your Karma to How to Date Out of Your League. Although I've never really had much interest in breaking into the porn business, I was nevertheless drawn to plop down $49 and hear Hartley speak.
I say I've never had much interest in breaking into the porn business, but having lived for ten years in the San Fernando Valley (otherwise known as the Porn Capital of America), I'd certainly had opportunities. One neighbor, a computer hacker who used to produce porn films in the 1970s, wanted to rent my garage to shoot "tasteful" nudie pictures and wanted me to sell them with him on the Internet. My other neighbor, Amber, did makeup for porn films, and there always seemed to be some silicon-injected Penthouse model double-parked in our shared driveway.
Yet San Francisco has an even greater connection to debauchery. Once known as the "wickedest place in the West," the city has always been a mecca for sinners -- from the Barbary Coast to Carol Doda, the Mitchell Brothers, and beyond -- and has been the backdrop for many, many adult films. So entering the rented meeting room at a fashionable Union Square hotel, I expected to find myself in a crowd of real San Franciscans -- not the yuppie/geeky/condo-converting/just-moved-here-from-Ohio bunch, but the kind of wild exhibitionists this city is supposedly famous for.
Instead, I find myself surrounded by a quiet and quite normal assortment of mostly men, a smattering of women, and a few couples. Where are those avant-garde artistes hoping to find a money-making outlet for their sexual predilections and peccadillos? This crowd could easily be mistaken for a conference of insurance salesmen or high school guidance counselors.
I take a seat at the back of the room, trying not to call attention to myself, as I am perhaps the only male in sight who is neither balding with a ponytail nor wearing a toupee. I pick up a syllabus and a list of suggested reading material (Susan Block and Naomi Wolf are featured prominently) and focus my attention on the front of the room.
Nina Hartley has performed in more than 400 adult movies. Her first screen appearance was in the appropriately named Educating Nina. She also has her own line of successful self-help videos, including Nina Hartley's Guide to Fellatio and the companion Nina Hartley's Guide to Cunnilingus. If, perchance, you've never seen any of those, she had a small part in the hit film Boogie Nights as William H. Macy's wife. Now here she is standing on the podium, thirtysomething, with bleached blonde hair reminiscent of something Cheryl Ladd might have had in a late-'70s TV movie, hot pants, and a top that welcomes staring, with cleavage that could snugly hold a couple of packs of cigarettes. She holds the microphone like a talk show host, and although she speaks smartly and clearly, there's an occasional lisp that pokes through in sentences like, "There are people out there that thate thex."
She tells us you should get into this business if you love sex, want to see naked chicks, and aren't so much interested in making money as having fun. Later, however, Nina warns that "enjoying watching porn is like enjoying eating sausage -- you might not like them so much if you see how they're made."
In fact, for men it's a totally humiliating job, she says. Men get paid less than women and whereas women can always fake an orgasm, guys just aren't built to fake an erection. Nina suggests, if you're a man thinking about acting in adult films, that you gather several close friends and stand naked in front of them while they laugh and point at your little willy. If you can keep an erection under that kind of scrutiny, you are ready to be a porn star.
I look around and wonder how many of the audience members will actually try this. It's making me mildly ill. But then I notice one couple sitting a few rows up. For the entire three-hour seminar, the girl will caress and stroke her boyfriend -- not in a lovey-dovey way, but in a way that suggests coming here was her idea, and that they will definitely go home tonight and start planning, or maybe even shooting, their first amateur porno. I wonder if they'll find someone here -- tonight -- to be their cameraman. I try not to let them catch me looking, and give them any ideas.
Nina continues to regale us with tales of her three-way marriage, of growing up in a commune, and tips on getting distribution for your films. She covers legal and health issues and the old standard -- art vs. commerce. She explains that down there, in Los Angeles, is where the big fish are. Then she corrects herself and calls them a pool of sharks, interested only in the dollar.
Here in San Francisco, however, there is an artistic tradition. It's all about being real. "If you put your heart in it," she tells us, "you may wind up with your own successful Buttman series." Now that's something to strive for.
Nina keeps telling us how much fun making porn movies is and how interesting the people are, but in the next breath she returns to subjects like "How to Deal with Drug Addicts on the Set" and how to make sure you get paid what you're worth, since they are making money -- and these are her words -- "off your misery."
I'm not feeling so much miserable as I am kind of bored by this point. She hasn't said anything to convince me that my future lies in adult films -- either in front of or behind the camera. But suddenly, the stage erupts as Nina loses her voice and starts a coughing jag that last about two minutes. She calls for a break and a fan rushes to the stage with some throat lozenges. Nobody takes advantage of the break to talk amongst themselves, and soon Nina has lost the redness in her face and takes questions from the audience.
The first question, from one of the toupeed audience members, deals with how to find actors. Nina suggests putting an ad in the paper seeking nude models. The crowd scribbles furiously in their notebooks. Quickly, however, the topic turns to gossip: Everyone wants to know what Randy West and Rocco are really like.
Again I scan the room and can't imagine anybody paying to see anybody in this room naked, much less having sex. But maybe I just don't understand. Nina says you should find what turns you on and make a movie of that -- "Go where the wet is!" she proclaims.
But I'm feeling awfully dry, so I pack my notes and head out to the nearest watering hole. After wetting my lips with a cold beer, I figure I could have learned just as much about the porn business watching Boogie Nights again. It would have cost me just $3.99, and I still could have seen Nina Hartley.
Then again, I might have learned just as much about pornography at the New Guinea art lecture.
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