Hartley was born in Berkeley, California to a Lutheran father and a Jewish mother whose family was from Alabama. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the youngest of four children, with an older sister and two older brothers. Her parents converted to Buddhism when she was young. After graduating from high school in 1977, she attended San Francisco State University's undergraduate nursing school and graduated magna cum laude in 1985. She is a registered nurse. Adult film career 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 and directed by the veteran porn star Juliet Anderson (better known as "Aunt Peg"), and this proved to be a massive hit. She stated in an interview that she chose the name "Nina" because it was easy for Japanese tourists to say during the time she was a dancer in San Francisco; "Hartley" was chosen as it was close to her own real last name and because she "wanted a name that sounded like that of a real person". She has said that when she got into the adult business, she was blessed with two popular fetish items: "big, baby-blue eyes and that round butt with a high, small waist", with her buttocks becoming her trademark. Hartley considers herself a liberal and an outspoken sex-positive feminist, although for a time she was a socialist activist. 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, before the rise to stardom of Jenna Jameson, had often been called on 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. Hartley crossed over into mainstream Hollywood with an appearance in the 1997 film Hartley is openly bisexual in her private life and describes herself as an atheist. She married Ira Levine (aka Ernest Greene), a director of porn films, particularly BDSM films. They sometimes work together, as in The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women, directed by Tristan Taormino and Greene, and O: the Power of Submission, directed by Greene. In both of these films, Hartley plays supporting roles. The couple consider themselves Polyamorous. Hartley does not have any children due to a combination of a lack of interest and fibroid tumors. She has eight nieces and nephews.