L.A.'s BDSM Power Couple, and Their Sex Dungeon

Porn star Nina Hartley and bondage filmmaker Ernest Greene in their MacArthur Park home
Porn star Nina Hartley and bondage filmmaker Ernest Greene in their MacArthur Park home
Photo by Star Foreman

Nina Hartley and Ernest Greene never have sex in the bedroom. Their MacArthur Park loft has seen more than its fair share of intertwined naked bodies in the 15 years that the veteran porn star and the legendary bondage filmmaker have lived, swung and shot here, but the bed is for sleeping. To see where the magic happens, a visitor must walk through the living room, past the bedroom and past an overflowing walk-in closet the size of a classroom to arrive in the dungeon wing.

Equipment is scattered around the space like board games in a rec room — a cage here, a sex machine there. Racks and drawers hold whips, nipple clamps, fetish boots, gags, collars, butt plugs, dildos (rubber, steel, silicone, Lucite), belts and what Hartley describes as "suction thingies and electrical thingies."

Hartley's favorite part of the dungeon? The bounce wall, made of high-density foam, for people who like to be tossed around. On a humdrum Monday in September, just before dinnertime, Greene throws Hartley against it to demonstrate it for a guest, and she puts on a little-girl voice: "No! No! No! Stop!"

But don't confuse that particular "No!" with a lack of consent. According to Greene, far too many people conflate domination with abuse, often a result of the one cultural artifact that has also, in the past few years, transformed BDSM's reputation from scary or disgusting into normal, even trendy: Fifty Shades of Grey.

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"We've finally become visible after all these years, and this is the form in which we become visible?" Greene asks, exasperated. He speaks in the kind of comically imperious, bass-filled voice you might imagine a jack-o'lantern having, if pumpkins could talk. His face is pale and doughy, punctuated on one side by a droopy earring, and he is almost always wearing black, leather or both.

At 62, Greene is best known for directing movies involving BDSM (bondage and discipline; domination and submission; sadism and masochism). He also has managed a commercial dungeon, lived in Hunter S. Thompson's basement, worked as a police-beat reporter, had his girlfriend stolen by 1960s protest icon Abbie Hoffman and, for the past decade and a half, been at the helm of Hustler's Taboo magazine.

Hartley, 55, hadn't experienced kink until she met Greene, but she has starred in more than 650 X-rated movies in her 30-year career, transforming from a curious blonde with feathered hair to a poised, bespectacled educator and activist, who still looks stunning and performs live on her website once a week (tagline: Experience DOES matter).

Both Hartley and Greene call E.L. James' best-selling Grey trilogy "defamatory." The blurry consent in several sex scenes, they say, has confused both outsiders and newcomers to the fetish community; the latter ardently defend their hero, Christian Grey, in online message-board spats with Greene.

So Greene thought he'd try writing his own, more realistic BDSM novel, especially now that piracy has punctured the market for the kind of feature-length adult videos he used to direct.

The result, Master of O, published earlier this year, is to Fifty Shades of Grey what graduate school is to kindergarten. Set in the kinky underworld of contemporary L.A., the book is a noirish take on the 1954 French erotic novel Story of O. Both burlesque queen Dita Von Teese and bisexual comedian Margaret Cho endorse it.

Before sitting down to dinner, the couple settles in for a pre-meal joint. Nudes and seminudes cover the apartment walls: three decades of photographs, cartoons and paintings of men and women contorted in ecstasy, submission and mischief. There are even a few tasteful, black-and-white shots of the polyamorous couple themselves, in case you have somehow never seen them in their birthday suits.

Greene lights the doobie with their wedding gift to themselves: a replica Alfred Dunhill lighter, designed by a tobacconist in the wake of World War I for a friend who had lost an arm. Properly stoned, Hartley heads to the kitchen to plate the first course — potato pancakes topped with smoked salmon, sour cream and dill.

She grew up in Berkeley, the child of blacklisted Jews who found solace in Zen Buddhism, she explains.

"One of the reasons I got into porn was to honor my feminist right to sexuality on my own terms, and it's taken me 25 years to finally be OK with, like, Andrea Dworkin," she says of the feminist, antiporn activist. She turns to grab a large knife to chop the herbs. "I honestly did try to look at it from their point of view. Was I really being exploited?"

She pauses for a second, suspending the knife in the air.

"But fuck these fucking bitches. Fuck you, fuck you. You're no different from the fucking Taliban." Chop chop chop chop chop. "I have done my reflection, and no, I'm not being taken advantage of, and no, I'm not doing this for the patriarchal privilege and for the male gaze." Chop chop chop chop. "I am a bisexual exhibitionist voyeuristic nonmonogamous queer butch top, nurse and facilitator, and sex is my thang!"

Triumphant, she brings the plates to the table. Talk turns to how they met, and soon they sound like one of the doting older couples in When Harry Met Sally, with a twist of Howard Stern.

When they first became acquainted in the late 1980s, Hartley was part of an unhappy triad marriage with a man and another woman. She wanted to explore her submissive side with Greene, but her partners were judgey about BDSM, so she kept their affair hidden for a few years. Eventually, she went back to them, and Greene spent eight years dating a series of porn stars. After each breakup, he thought of her. They still worked together regularly, as porn was a much smaller world back in the 1990s, and, though they kept things professional, he would often wonder about what might have been.

Then one day she called. "I've left my husband. Are you free for lunch?"

"Yes," Greene replied, "and for the rest of my life."

Cue the Louis Armstrong.

Hartley clears the plates and then brings out the second course: pork loin with gravy, couscous with mushrooms and herbs, and Brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon and shallots.

Conversation drifts from instructional pregnancy-sex videos to their shared weakness for redheads to Showtime's Masters of Sex. They love that show! And how depressing is it, as the researchers on the show learn, that the average sex act in the 1950s lasted only 11.5 minutes? That's certainly not how things go in this house.

"We show up intending to have a good time," Hartley says. "Nothing can't wait 90 minutes."

Finally: dessert. Hartley brings out chamomile tea, delicately scooped Sugar Kiss melon balls and squares of organic dark chocolate. Stories pour out of Greene, full of dialogue, sound effects and juicy details. As he launches into another rollicking tale, the one about his bid to convince the government he would commit treason if sent to Vietnam, Hartley starts to doze off in her chair. Just as he's approaching the climax — "Never forget that somebody on the inside did you a big favor, kid!" — he notices her eyes are closed, and pauses, tenderly saying her name.

Their visitor takes the opportunity to excuse herself, deciding it's time to give L.A.'s most visible and enduring sex-positive power couple some privacy.


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