In 1982, during her sophomore year of nursing school, she started working as a stripper at Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater.
She made her foray into the world of pornographic movies during her junior year, in 1984. Her debut performance was in the film Educating Nina which was produced by the veteran porn star Juliet Anderson (better known as Aunt Peg), and this proved to be a massive hit. Since then she has gone on to feature in over 400 first-run adult films, and has become one of the most enduring and recognizable performers in the industry.
She is best known within the adult film industry for her "bubble butt" (often referred to as the "best ass in the business"), interracial scenes and her lesbian scenes.
Politically, Hartley is a socialist and outspoken sex-positive feminist. Addressing other women, she said "Sex isn't something men do to you. It isn't something men get out of you. Sex is something you dive into with gusto and like it every bit as much as he does." Hartley has been an advocate for the adult film industry's right to exist, and, prior to the rise to stardom of Jenna Jameson, had often been called upon when television news programs and talk shows required an articulate, leading adult film actress to support the pro side. She appeared most notably on The Oprah Winfrey Show with fellow porn actress Ona Zee. The two came under hard scrutiny from the mostly female audience, but refused to back down and were outspoken in their support of the industry. She and Ona Zee also spoke out strongly against illegal drugs in the industry.
She was interviewed for Wendy McElroy 1995 book XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography. She relates how she was arrested in 1993 in Las Vegas along with 10 other adult stars (later known as the "Erotic Eleven") for having performed a lesbian show at an adult video industry fund raiser; an undercover police officer was present in the audience. Threatened with 6 to 12 years in prison for felony lesbianism and pandering, she was eventually allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.
In addition to her more traditional roles in porn films, she has also produced, directed, and starred in a series of Guide to... films covering the entire sexual spectrum, from basic sexual intercourse and foreplay, to anal intercourse and bondage.
Hartley crossed over into mainstream Hollywood with an appearance in the 1997 film Boogie Nights in which she played William H. Macy's serially unfaithful wife. She also appeared in the 1996 Canadian film, Bubbles Galore.
Hartley is openly bisexual in her private life, and had what has been described as the longest stable relationship in the adult business, living in a ménage à trois with her husband Dave (whom she met when she was 19), and "wife" Bobby Lilly for 20 years. Hartley has since left that relationship, saying "I was too immature and he was too possessive. It didn't work... It ended up ending because it was the wrong three people involved." She has since married Ira Levine (aka Ernest Greene).
Porn actor Lexington Steele stated in an interview in 2001 that sex with Nina Hartley was undoubtedly the best sex he has ever had.
Nina has won numerous awards throughout her career, from various critic and fan organizations. The following is a list of her Adult Video News Awards.
- Best Specialty Tape - BDSM for Nina Hartley's Private Sessions 13 (2005)
- Best Specialty Tape - Spanking for Nina Hartley's Guide To Spanking (2005)
- Best Supporting Actress - Video for The Last X-Rated Movie (1991)
- Best Couples Sex Scene Film for Amanda By Night II (1987)
- Best Couples Sex Scene - Video for Sensual Escape (1989)
- Best Supporting Actress - Film for Portrait of an Affair (1989)
- Best Actress - Video for Debbie Duz Dishes (1987)