Sssh's Angie Rowntree on the Future of Erotic Storytelling

“Storytelling is our obligation to the next generation.” — Laura Holloway

Angie Rowntree is the founder of Sssh.com, the web’s premier “porn for women” site and winner of the 2015 XBIZ Award for Best Alternative Website and 2017 Best Adult Site – For Women. She’s been inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame Founders Division and has been named as one of the industry’s top female power-players. Angie was the first member of the adult industry to speak at a Sundance Institute event, and in March 2018, spoke at SXSW about using Explicit Sex as a Storytelling Element. Angie is also a member of Women in SexTech. *Links contained within this article may be NSFW.

photo: Ssh.com
Photo Courtesy of Sssh.com: Madeline Blue

Origin stories are kinda my thing. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a kink, but man do they make me happy! I absolutely love learning how old heads came to be in business for themselves; the challenges they overcame, what sustained them through difficult times, how their businesses grew and evolved with the world around us, where they discovered opportunities to lead the way and forge new paths — all of it!

So, when Sssh founder, and industry veteran, Angie Rowntree agreed to chat with Reuben and I on our upcoming podcast about all things pleasure and business, I was thrilled. While the podcast has been delayed due to COVID19, Angie was kind enough to answer a few questions for us in the meantime — thanks, Angie!

Sherri: I’m sure you’ve told your origin story many times before, but for the sake of those who have not yet heard it, can you please share with us briefly how you found yourself in the business of erotic storytelling and adult film making?

Angie: To make a long story short, my husband (Colin, the founder of Wasteland.com) and I were part of the first wave of adult websites to come online, back in the early/mid-90s.

Something I quickly noticed about the adult content on the market at the time was that everything was geared towards a male point of view: men’s fantasies, depictions of male pleasure, with very little or nothing for us. No depictions of female pleasure or women in charge of their own bodies and desires.

When I asked why, no one had a good answer; They all just told me there was “no such thing” as women who wanted to watch porn, or pay for it for that matter. I thought they were wrong and decided to put my theory to the test with Sssh.com.

There is such a need for female-driven stories. My vision was to create cinematic narratives centered on compelling storytelling and depictions of sex which are both hot AND realistic all from a female perspective.

20+ years later, I’d say the continued existence and growth of Sssh suggests there was something to my notion that women would happily watch porn.

Sherri: As someone newly venturing into the adult space, also with their spouse, I have to ask, what was it like starting a business in the space with your husband, and what’s it like having had worked in the space together for so many years now?

Angie: It was (and has continued to be) great having Colin as a peer. I think one reason it has worked out so well for us is that we keep our businesses completely separate. We do share certain things, like office, studio space, and other physical resources, but Wasteland and Sssh are very different sites from very different companies that offer very different kinds of content.

Like most couples, we talk about work – and the beauty of it is, we have a deep and shared understanding of the difficulties, triumphs, obstacles, and joys that our line of work offers. We don’t have to explain a lot of things about our work to each other because we’re both tackling the same challenges and working out similar solutions. We respect each other’s boundaries, vision, and work-autonomy.

Sherri: Having myself personally come from a hyper “religious” background where I was constantly criticized and shamed for expressing any kind of sensuality, and then noticing that many people in the sexual pleasure and wellness spaces also come from similar backgrounds, I’m always curious to learn more about people’s upbringing and how much it played a role in their career choice. How, if at all, has the way you were brought up played a role in your career choice as an adult filmmaker?

Angie: My family was always quite open about sex and there was no sense that sex was something bad or shameful. My parents do know what Colin and I do and are very supportive. In fact my mother, who speaks 5 languages, used to help us with translations.

Where religion was concerned, my parents encouraged me to explore all the different faiths out there and find one that felt right to me – or, if I discovered that none of them felt right, that was fine as well. They looked at religion and faith as a very personal thing and I’m very much the same way.

I feel very fortunate that my family, friends, and community are so supportive. And on a fun note, working in adult makes for some very interesting dinner conversations.

photo: Sssh.com
Photo Courtesy of Sssh.com: Delirious Hunter & Ava Mir-Ausziehen

Sherri: You’ve talked about how in your early days people in the industry would tell you there was no market for adult entertainment with a female perspective because “women don’t watch porn.” What gave you the confidence to ignore the gatekeepers and trust your intuition?

Angie: What gave me confidence was the fact that so few people seemed to have tried to market erotic visual content to women at that point, so it made no sense to me that anyone would conclude there was “no market.” Why would I believe them when they hadn’t put the question to any sort of real test? It was nothing but a hunch on their part, in essence. Honestly, in retrospect, I wonder what gave them their confidence.

On top of the practical considerations, of course, there was the part of me that was stubborn, as well as slightly offended by the short shrift I thought the adult industry was giving to women as potential consumers. That part of me badly wanted to prove them wrong. I don’t know if their resistance to my ideas gave me confidence, so much as it inspired my determination.

Regardless of one’s opinion of porn, there’s a lot of it out there and it does have an impact on our society. It’s important that we (women) are a part of that conversation.

Sherri: What is it like, having yourself been in the business of female pleasure for over two decades now, to suddenly see women’s pleasure not only become more publicly recognized but embraced and even celebrated?

Angie: It’s amazing. Even though I was confident there was a market for adult content among women, I’m not sure I expected things to change as much as they have over the last 20 years. Of course, there’s still plenty of resistance to the idea of celebrating women’s pleasure or even discussing women’s sexuality, but we have come a long way.

One of the developments I’m most pleased about is the increased diversity in the adult entertainment business, both in front of and behind the camera. Being a woman in adult is no longer an oddity, but rather the norm. There are now far more women in creative and ownership positions and a lot of performers run their own businesses, controlling every aspect of how their content is produced, packaged, and presented. That’s a huge improvement over where the industry was back in the 90s.

Sherri: There are still people who will hear the words “ethical”, “sex-positive”, and “feminist” in the same sentence as porn or erotica and automatically scoff at, and dismiss it as clever marketing aimed at tricking women into consuming their content. In your opinion, what makes ethically produced, sex-positive, or feminist adult content different from mainstream adult content?

Angie: Those are all very loaded terms. and can mean very different things to different people. To me, they define the way we do business and that we are creating an alternative to mainstream porn.

Can porn be “feminist” without being “ethical”? Some people act as though those things are entirely synonymous, but if you’re producing porn with a sex-positive message that emphasizes women’s pleasure and offers a feminist message, but you’re mistreating or exploiting your performers or crew in some way, then you’re not creating ethical porn. To be clear, I’m not saying that’s the case with anyone out there who is producing adult content; I’m just saying we need to be careful with labels and intermixing them. I believe all porn should (and can!) be made ethically – and I think ‘mainstream’ porn can be both non-feminist and ethically produced.

Those terms are also a bit of a catchphrase and many mainstream companies are using them to capture another segment of the market. It’s very misleading. It’s also business. To those companies, “ethical”, “sex-positive”, “feminist” and even “porn for women” are nothing more than a keyword.

All we can do is represent our content honestly and leave it up to the consumer to decide if we have the movies/ethos they are seeking.

photo: Sssh.com
Photo Courtesy of Sssh.com: Ava Mir-Ausziehen & Malcolm Lovejoy

Sherri: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced, or continue to face as an adult business in the digital space? And where have you seen the biggest improvements, if any, over the past 20 years?

Angie: Overcoming prejudice.

This might sound kind of odd given what I just said above, but the biggest improvement I’ve seen over the last 20 years is the reduction in the very prejudice I just mentioned. While paternalistic and misogynistic attitudes are still present in the adult industry, they’re greatly reduced in both prominence and scope compared to back when I first started – and I think it’s only going to improve in the future, as the industry and its customer base become increasingly diversified.

Sherri: What are some of the unique ways in which you’ve overcome these challenges?

Angie: I don’t know if it’s unique, but what it boils down to is a combination of hard work, constant learning, and a sort of “tunnel vision,” for lack of a better term. As much as possible, I’ve screened out the noise, ignored invalid criticism (while trying not to screen out constructive, helpful criticism), and stuck to the task at hand of making the best films I can, staying true to my own creative vision.

Sherri: You mentioned in a recent interview that you want to present “thoughtful, intelligent, films where sex is part of the narrative.” When I think about the future of porn, that is exactly how I like to envision it. I’d love to see erotic films become a mainstream genre of their own, standing side-by-side with other indie and big-budget films at award shows, film festivals, etc. Do you think this will ever be a possibility?

Angie: I think it’s a possibility, sure – especially with the growth in streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. Those platforms all have a constant need for new content - there’s a big audience out there for high-quality erotica. The only thing really holding the streaming companies back from offering erotic content is the stigma attached to porn and not wanting to associate their brands with adult content because of it. I think this stigma is being reduced over time though, so some sort of breakthrough with erotic content on a major streaming platform seems like it is bound to happen, eventually.

Truth be told, we have in-fact shot for two Netflix shows and NBC. The “R” version of Invictus is available on Amazon Prime and we are hoping our new series will find a home on either Netflix or Amazon.

photo: Sssh.com
Photo Courtesy of Sssh.com: Raven Riley

Sherri: What advice do you have for the new generation of erotic storytellers venturing into the space as a professional and/or business for the first time?

Angie: I’d give them the same advice I’d give anyone, regardless of their profession: Be passionate about what you do and stick to your guns. If you do what you have a passion for, then you’ll face every challenge with more determination and gumption than you will if you’re just working for a paycheck or going through the motions.

For people in creative mediums, erotic or otherwise, I believe it’s crucial to be true to the vision of what you want to create. There will always be a temptation to compromise, especially when some practical obstacle gets in the way. But you can’t give in to that temptation, because therein lies the road to mediocrity, at the end of which you’ll merely find utter dissatisfaction with your own work.

Sherri: What’s one thing you wish you had known when you first started your career, that still applies to those starting out today?

Angie: When it comes to shooting porn, it’s just not as easy as it looks. For instance, we have no budget. When Hollywood talks about shooting on a shoestring budget, we don’t even have a fiber from a shoestring, in comparison.

We’re also discriminated against when it comes to looking for locations because people don’t want their businesses, property, or brands associated with adult films. I can’t just go shoot a scene in a coffeehouse somewhere, for example, even if there’s no sex in the scene, unless I were to deceive the people who operate the coffeehouse about what kind of film I’m making, something I’m just not going to do.

You have to wear many hats and be skilled in numerous areas of filmmaking. I may be the director, but I’ve also operated the audio boom, cameras, been script supervisor, art designer, the prop department, assistant editor…you get the point.

There’s an upside to these challenges, though; they force us to be more creative and think outside the box, to make the most of the resources we do have.

Sherri: With production on hold due to COVID-19, how is the Sssh family passing the time and staying connected with each other? Any cool projects currently in the works?

Angie: We definitely have some cool projects in the works, but I’m going to keep the details of those under my hat for now. We are still paying our full-time staff, editor, and DP and even though they’re all working from home right now, we speak daily. We’re keeping (very) busy with post-production on content we’ve already shot, including one new series, three features and several short films.

We’ve also started a project in which we’re working with performers who can self-produce content safely at home while sheltering in place. There are several other studios with similar efforts underway, as we all look for ways to help adult performers ride out the hold currently in place on the more ‘traditional’ manner of adult content production.

For our members and fans, we are giving away sex toys. While so many people are locked down, either self-quarantining or sheltering in place, we want to do our part to help people focus on their own pleasure and escape, even if it’s for a short time.

photo: Sssh.com
Photo Courtesy of Sssh.com

Rapid Fire Questions:

One thing you carry with you at all times?

A camera.

Fill in the blank: If ___________ didn’t exist, I’d be out of business in a day!

Creative collaborators (staff, crew, performers, writers, etc.)

Number one marketing tip for adult businesses?

Understand your customers – and don’t just assume that you understand them. Interact with them and seek their feedback in an honest, authentic, and humble way. Engage with your fans and audience and give them a feeling of ‘ownership’ that goes beyond merely holding an account and downloading content.

If wishes came true, and you could wish for one thing that would make your “adult business” life easier, what would you wish for?

There are actually two things, which go hand-in-hand. I would make it the norm for consumers to pay for porn again and abolish piracy. Piracy has really taken a serious bite out of the revenue of companies that produce porn – and mine is no exception to that.

Angie / Sssh Online:

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