Biography: Hartley was born to a liberal Jewish family, though her parents were Zen Buddhists when she was a child.
Hartley attended San Francisco State University's undergraduate nursing school and graduated summa cum laude. She is a registered nurse. In her sophomore year of nursing school she started working in the adult entertainment industry by dancing in strip clubs, including Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre in San Francisco.
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 recognisable performers in the industry.
She is best known within the adult film industry for her bubble butt buttocks (often referred to as the "best ass in the business") and her anal and lesbian scenes.
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.
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 strongly out against illegal drugs in the industry.
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 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 threesome with her husband Dave (whom she met when she was 19), and "wife" Bobby Lilly for 20 years. Hartley has since left that relationship and has married Ira Levine (aka Ernest Greene).
Politically, Hartley is a socialist and outspoken sex-positive feminist.
Lexington Steele, one of the most beloved performers of recent years, stated in an interview that sex with Nina Hartley was undoubtably the best sex he has ever had. This is according to an Excaliberfilms interview.