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I’m the Internet’s Kink Pioneer

I was selling BDSM porn online in the dial-up days—back then, brutal download times were part of the punishment

As the internet’s first premium BDSM site, has spent more than 20 years as one of the most popular (and lauded) kink sites in existence. Of course, like any good entrepreneur, the site’s founder/producer/director Colin Rowntree had no idea exactly what he was getting into when he launched it as a sexy leather goods emporium in 1994. And while plenty has changed in the two and a half decades since, one thing remains the same: Rowntree still updates Wasteland with new BDSM content three times every week. We recently asked him to recount the site’s origins, how it’s stayed relevant in such a constantly evolving business and what’s special about his kind of kink.

Wasteland started by accident. My wife Angie had a Celtic and occult jewelry mail-order catalog at the time, and I tagged along with her to the Boston gift show. (We live in a small New England town surrounded by pumpkin patches and apple orchards.) I was the typical bored husband there, wandering around aimlessly when I came across this booth of leather fetish clothes. I really liked the clothing they manufactured so I asked if we could make a mail-order catalog of their line. The guy said absolutely and gave me 24 8-by-10 glossy pictures of beautiful women in leather corsets and bustiers to use as advertising. They were nice product photos, so we used them for our first mass mailing.

Not long after our launch, I asked my wife, “What do you think if we put these pictures up on this new internet thing, and see if we can get people to order catalogs?” We found a way to very primitively scan the photos and host them to a web page with contact information for people to have the catalogs mailed to them. As it turned out, nobody was ordering any catalogs, but they sure were visiting the site and looking at pictures of pretty girls in leather.

The bandwidth charges at the time, however, were very expensive, so about two months in, I said, “What if in order to see the full-size pictures, they need to pay us $10?” I launched the new pay plan on a Friday afternoon, and by Saturday morning, we woke up to $300. Faxes were coming in, and people were emailing their credit card number right away. It was like, “We might be onto something!”

We let that model roll on for maybe six months. That’s when the money became so good that I decided to up the price to 50 bucks for a lifetime membership. Doing that pretty much quintupled sales overnight. Next, my wife, who is a very good photographer, and I began getting some local Boston models to take original photos.

Back then, we literally had like a keypad in the office. This was before internet commerce was widespread and accessible. People would mail or fax in their credit card numbers and we punched them in one number at a time. We kept track of their membership with an index file system. It wasn’t very sophisticated at all. By the late 1990s, e-commerce started to evolve, so we hooked up with a company called CCBill. They showed us the ropes, and somewhere around 1999, we began the recurring billing subscription system that we use to this day — where it chargers subscribers monthly, every three months or every six months.

That same year, Angie said, “You know, there really isn’t any porn for women.” She and a group of women put their heads together and developed the first premium porn site for women called Sssh is still thriving today. I pretty much stay away from all of the creative parts of Sssh, because it’s totally the vision of Angie and the women who work with her. They’ve got a very specific philosophy and paradigm, and I don’t want to introduce my testosterone into what they do.

Prior to Wasteland, I was mostly interested in BDSM from an artistic viewpoint. Angie and I would go to BDSM parties and stage performances, but we weren’t active players. I come from a performing arts background, and I just found BDSM a fascinating art form in and of itself. The very first male dom we began working with is my friend Simon Blackthorne. He’s an experienced male dominant from the Boston fetish scene and BDSM community, so he became Wasteland’s male dom for the first three or four years of our existence. I learned the ropes of conducting myself in these environments from watching him work and having conversations with him.

These days, my favorite films to shoot are our features. We generally do two or three feature films that run about an hour and a half per year. I love them because we get to do all the interesting filmmaking stuff — like location scouting and casting calls. I also enjoy shooting the 20-minute scenes that we do — we make quite a few of those per month. In preparation for these shorter shoots, I talk through the basic sequence with the dom and submissive and figure out what’s agreeable to everybody. After that, I sit back and make sure we’re getting the best quality video while the dom directs the scene. Rob, our director of photography, shoots the scene. He’s been with us for many years. Same for a lot of our performers.

A couple of years ago, we upgraded our equipment from HD to Ultra HD. We now use Red cinema cameras and shoot in 5K. The cinematic quality of our content is a key differentiator between us and other sites. And needless to say, our stuff is in a different realm visually from most of the crap you see on the tube sites.

When the tubes came along in a major way around 2008, that decimated the industry. It’s still crippled it to this day, and it’s probably the biggest “game changer” we’ve experienced since launch. We’re constantly trying to find ways to provide better quality video than what you can see on the tube sites. Luckily, it turns out that people are happy to spend money on better content if you can just show them enough of your goods to get them interested.

Most of our subscribers are from the United States, followed by Germany, the United Kingdom and then Australia and Canada. In terms of the member suggestions we get, nothing shocks me anymore. Yes, we do occasionally get subscriber requests for things we cannot and will not do. Poop seems to be the most common one from Germany and the U.K., kinky buggers! When we get requests like this that cross what’s acceptable legally or to the credit-card processors, we send them back an email letting them know we don’t shoot those kind of activities. We also thank them for being an active participant in our process and to keep in touch with any other requests for specific content.

That’s another thing that separates Wasteland from other BDSM sites: We’re authentic. When I say authentic, I mean that we work with people who are part of the kink community and consider BDSM part of their lifestyle. Our performers often shoot with their real-life scene partners. Some of them are married. That all shows in their scenes, and the real BDSM lifestyle folks totally sense that right away. This is opposed to some of the rough sex sites that pretend to be BDSM sites, but are mostly creations of what I call the “flog and fuck” school of filmmaking — where guys just hire some porn stars, and have them spank and beat each other with whips until one of them cries. Real BDSM people can spot these posers from a mile away.

As for me and Angie, we’re still working together. In fact, Angie’s mother died recently, but before that, she helped us out with a lot of our international customer service correspondence because she spoke fluent German and Italian. Otherwise, though, our business changes daily. We stay afloat by doing what you do in any other kind of business — looking at new trends and staying one step ahead of the curve when it comes to new technology and new techniques. Of course, since the 1990s, BDSM and kink culture have gone very mainstream. We went from participating in what people considered a deep, dark, dirty secret to just becoming part of the American sexuality paradigm.

Over the years, we’ve also been active in the Free Speech Coalition on a variety of initiates that it’s taken on. As strong believers in the First Amendment, we’ve always felt secure that what we and the adult industry produce is constitutionally protected free speech. We do, however, keep a wary eye on new legislative measures, and when new laws and regulations go into effect, we comply with them completely. We also still tend to keep what we do for a living on the lowdown. We live in a rural community, and at the end of the day, you just never know how people feel about porn.

—As told to Tierney Finster