RCL Exclusive

What Happens When Women Run the Porn Industry

Porn star Harriet Sugarcookie on how women can make a career on content they alone control.

Women By

“I’m currently in Budapest,” Harriet Sugarcookie said. Which makes sense: that’s where Harriet moved her company. Born in Vietnam, Harriet grew up in York, England before heading to London. She started a small “single girls’ blog” that morphed into a “successful online men’s lifestyle magazine” called Sugarcookie.com, with content including film reviews, relationship advice, and “porn for geeks.”

Eventually, Harriet decided to leave the U.K.: “There’s a lot of models in Budapest who are available, so I don’t have to fly them to London all the time. It just made sense to move the whole thing over here since it’s kind of a hub for the industry within Europe.” (Los Angeles is the undisputed capital of American porn—Harriet said it has three equivalents on the continent: Budapest, Prague, and Barcelona. She selected Budapest by virtue of it being “the only one of the three I’d been to.”)

While the move only happened a year ago, they’re firmly established in their new home: “I have an office space in Budapest. I have a full-time video editor. I have the marketing manager. There’s a whole team of people that aren’t full time but help do the developing side of things. I have a couple of freelance writers who write articles.”

The Budapest operation continues to grow—“I’m working towards building the team up. I’m on the lookout for a full-time editor for the magazine side of the website”—but Harriet’s set her sights on a distant shore: “Sugarcookie.com is definitely going to come to America at some point.” Indeed, she already has an American publicist and has hired performers and a director to make videos for her here, telling them, “Watch how we do things: can you do that for us?” (Harriet is relatively pleased with the results so far but acknowledged there’s a “big learning curve.”) She will physically be in the states for both the 2018 XBIZ and AVN Awards, with nominations including “Web Star of the Year” and “Mainstream Star of the Year.”

Harriet’s career in the adult industry started “way, way back” when her “housemate posted a picture of me on Reddit.” By “way, way back,” she means four years ago. (“I’m only 22 and it feels like forever.”) Beyond the speed of her rise, Harriet’s unusual because she hasn’t appeared in a video she didn’t control: “I’ve never worked for another studio and I don’t plan to.”

This is a look at how one woman stumbled into porn stardom on her own terms, as well as why her path may be challenging (but by no means impossible) for other women to follow.

The Photo

“I was really unpopular in school—I think that’s a normal story you hear from girls in the industry,” Harriet said. “I really was. I was just this geek that had these big glasses. I was overweight. I was kind of doing the whole angsty emo thing. I was really antisocial, socially awkward.”

Then her roommate posted the photograph. (It was on an “Asian-specific forum” called “Next Door Asians.”)

While “Woman Discovers Man Posted Picture of Her Online” is the beginning of many an internet horror story, this one had an unexpectedly happy result. For one, the photo was fully clothed and fairly innocuous. For another, it was well received. “I got some really nice positive responses,” Harriet recalled. “Like, ‘Oh, she looks cute.’ ‘Must be nice to have a nice-looking housemate.’ I went, ‘I’ve never really got these comments before.’”

Over a few months, more photos were posted. At first, they were “very casual. Just, ‘Hey, it’s me doing whatever.’” Soon they became “more and more teasing.” Finally, “I did post a couple of nudes.”

Then Harriet moved on to camming. (The New York Times has described camming as a “kind of digital-era peep show.”) It was a “bit of a jump, being that I was going fully naked on camera.” She avoided getting “paid per minute” and instead used the option where people “who watched it and enjoyed it tipped me.” Harriet said taking this approach helped make it an easier transition: “It wasn’t like, People are paying me to do this… It was like, ‘Wow, people are paying me. So generous!’”

The next step soon presented itself: “A lot of cam girls post videos or sell videos of themselves. I had a lot of requests to make videos. I thought, If I’m going to do it, I don’t want to just keep it on my computer and then sell it every now or then.”

Harriet decided she wanted it all in one place: “Which is why I made the website.”

Sugarcookie.com Begins

Harriet discovered a friend had similar ambitions: “When he said, ‘Hey, you want to make a porn site together?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not? Let’s make a sex tape. Let’s do something silly.’ I don’t think either of us thought of it as anything other than a bit of fun.”

They decided to move ahead despite a budget of “maybe $100”: “We just went, ‘We have a hundred bucks. Let’s buy a camera. Let’s buy a domain. Let’s try it out.’”

She combined it with a more personal, idiosyncratic element: “I was writing about things I was into at the time. Movies, video games. It was a blog that also had sex tapes.”

Somehow it worked, both from a technical standpoint (“I look back at what our first website looked like and I’m pretty sure that it was held together by our hopes and dreams”) and in a larger sense: “People really liked it. And I really liked doing it.”

To this day Sugarcookie.com uses a business model where articles are free while the “porn stuff” is found “on the subscription-based side of things.” Indeed, she said that now if you go to the site “there’s no nudity or anything like that, you can read all the articles at work or in public.”

Harriet unexpectedly realized she’d gone global when, in the site’s first year, friends told her she’d been nominated for an AVN Award. (“I was just like, ‘What?’”)

Before getting the nomination, Harriet treated the site as almost a hobby: “I was on the beach half the time. It was just a really fun lifestyle.” Attending the AVN Expo and Awards Show in Las Vegas, however, gave her a new perspective. “I met all these people and I was really inspired by them. I thought, I’m doing quite well for someone who’s kind of doing it accidentally. I thought, How much better could I do if I really focused on it? If I really worked on it. If I took it seriously.”

Even if it occurred accidentally, Harriet had discovered a career path that many in the industry would envy. When I interviewed the porn star Eva Lovia, she discussed working for a variety of different studios. She described those experiences as ranging from “awesome” to disturbing. (She had a particularly troubling experience when, after she rejected a director’s demand she perform an act she hadn’t agreed to in advance, he threatened not only to withhold her pay, but to make sure that no one else on set got paid either—ultimately another woman agreed to do it.) The result is that she decided to convert her popularity in the industry into control: she currently only shoots for herself.

Harriet found a measure of success without ever working for anyone else. This wasn’t by design: “There’s not many production companies in England.” She feels she didn’t really take an “alternative route” so much as the only path that presented itself: “I didn’t know what the normal route people took was.”

Today Harriet continues to follow a course taken by relatively few women in the industry—at 22, she’s already more concerned with what happens off camera.

“I know people are, ‘Oh, you’re a porn star! You’re filming every day!’ But actually I film once a week at most, maybe less.” Harriet’s days are occupied by less erotic matters: “I mostly spend my time working on the business side of the company now.”

The site’s success continues to delight and baffle her. “I’m only able to run it because it’s doing well. I would not be able to do the things I do if it hadn’t done so well. Sometimes I’m still in shock: I can’t believe it worked!”

Why Sugarcookie.com Worked

Harriet had some things working in her favor. The timing was perfect. The longtime “comic-book nerd” happened to launch at a moment when “being geeky is in fashion.” There was some pure luck: as she noted, from a tech standpoint it was a minor miracle the site worked at all in its early days. Throw in the utterly unforeseen recognition from the AVN Awards and Harriet was fortunate in ways most launches aren’t.

Yet it wasn’t as if it was free of setbacks. Harriet said ideas that seemed sure-fire sometimes failed. For instance, she tried creating a fantasy football league for her and her fans. (She noted us Americans would call it a “fantasy soccer league.”) It didn’t take—she underestimated how much time it would require and how much she’d already committed elsewhere: “All those business management books say, ‘Time is your most valuable resource!’ I really get that.”

What the site did have was Harriet’s complete commitment. Once she recognized it was viable as more than a pastime, she devoted herself to it. While Budapest office hours are officially 9 to 5, her days can last much longer: “Since a lot of our business is in America, I’ll do calls way past 5.” Then there’s social media—“Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube”—and the general chaos that comes with running a site, particularly when the normal schedule is thrown off by a shoot: “A 9 to 2[am] workday isn’t too weird for me.”

She invested more than her time: “Any money I can spare, I put back into it. For me, it always comes down to the question of, ‘Do I want a designer bag or do I want to hire an employee that will help us expand?’ Or ‘Do I want to go out for a nice meal or do I want to fix this thing on our website? The pop-up’s a bit glitchy.’” (While she is reluctant to discuss specific figures, she made a “guesstimate” that “a million” had been sunk into company during its lifetime.)

Obviously, not everyone who suddenly has access to healthy sums of cash at an early age handles it well. (Eva said many young porn stars fail to hold back money for taxes—countless articles have been written about how pro athletes, who can be millionaires at ages when many people have yet even to enter the work force, still have an unfortunate tendency to go broke.) Harriet credited her unwillingness to squander money to her early childhood in Vietnam: “My family were way below the poverty line. I remember thinking, Okay, are we going to have more than a bowl of rice for dinner tonight? I guess I learned the value of money from a very young age.” (She said one of the few things she’ll spend money on besides the site is her family, in particular paying for English lessons for cousins: “I think that’s how you help them.”)

Harriet believes much of her success is based on recognizing when corners shouldn’t be cut. While small studios may be relentless about finishing shoots as quickly and efficiently as possible to maximize budgets, she feels a key to her videos is that the models are genuinely having a good time: “I’ll go on dates with them. I’ll go on cocktail tastings and escape rooms. We just do really fun things. We have nice meals out. And then we also have sex and we’ll film the sex, obviously.”

Still, she acknowledges one question is never too far from her mind: “Am I gonna make money from this?”

And that’s why Sugarcookie.com is looking to make friends.

Next Level Connections

While Harriet has declined to shoot for other companies, she’s quite willing to work with them on the business side: “With the companies I’ve been reaching out to, it’s, ‘How do we promote each other? Let’s do advertorials together.’”

This includes MindGeek. For those unfamiliar, MindGeek is a Luxembourg-based company and they own a large number of tube sites and studios. (As David Auerbach pointed out in Slate, MindGeek is so big and diverse that porn producers owned by MindGeek may wind up fighting with aggregator sites also owned by them over videos one branch of the company allegedly pirated from another.)

Harriet has attended conferences with them: “I talk to MindGeek all the time.” Is there something paradoxical (or even troubling) about someone who’s always controlled her content dealing with a company that literally owns a huge chunk of the porn industry?

Harriet said no: “If you look at other industries and you start tracing who owns who, generally there are a couple of big giants who own most of it.”

Indeed, Harriet felt even the most independent porn stars doubtless needed someone else at some point: “When I was camming, the way I see it is that I wasn’t completely independent because I was working on the platform. The camming site takes a cut.” It goes beyond that: she “would have never gotten that popularity” necessary to launch Sugarcookie.com without them.

Ultimately, the test seems to be not whether female porn stars can thrive all alone, but whether they can make it without men taking over.

Why Porn Needs More Women

Understand: there are plenty of women on the performer side. But it’s still all too rare that they run things: “I don’t think right now there’s huge representation of women in leadership roles. As owners.”

This has real consequences for how the industry operates. The male porn star James Deen has been accused of abusive behavior by both costars and ex-girlfriends. Yet as Eva explained, he continues to work—and get nominated for awards—because he has his own company. (“No one’s going to fire him from his own company.”)

As has been documented in many industries recently, when women aren’t represented in leadership positions, it’s all too easy for them to be abused. On the performer side at least, porn is the rare business where females make more than their male equivalents. Yet men still dominate in many ways. Recently Natalie Portman made headlines when she pointed out the “all male nominees” for Best Director at the Golden Globes. The AVN Awards feature dozens of categories. These include Best Web Director, Best Director—Feature, Best Director—Foreign Feature, Best Director—Non-Feature, Best Director—Foreign Non-Feature, and Director of the Year. Women directed or co-directed six of the films in the Feature category and earned five of the Best Director nods—this gets less impressive when it’s noted there are 15 nominees. For Best Web Director, it was just one of 15—better than Hollywood, but that’s not saying much.

Until more women are actually in charge, there will still be a sense that they are, as Eva put it, a “dime a dozen.” She said almost every woman in the industry has had at least one miserable shoot: “It’s an unfortunate rite of passage.”

Harriet’s career suggests that grim ritual can be avoided. She believes there’s reason for optimism in general for the industry, feeling the number of women in leadership positions is growing. She hopes to serve as a model for performers to come. She has no problem with women working for studios—“You can and that’s great”—but said they should recognize they have the ability to set their own course: “You can do it yourself and be independent and successful.”