This article is part of a series around femtech and the people leading the charge in this growing sector. See the femtech series here.
Femtech Spotlight: Lilly Sparks of afterglow
Even in the sexual health realm, porn carries some baggage.
There are lots of reasons for that, but one comes down to a simple lack of diversity; a lot of porn - probably the vast majority of porn - is made by men. As a result, it often tends to put women in the role of performer, rather than active participant.
Mix that with general societal fear and discomfort around sexual content - especially when it comes to women engaging with it - and you get, well, kind of where we’re at: pornography market that (while changing rapidly) is largely made up of videos designed to get people with penises off.
Women are watching porn in ever-increasing number, though. According to Pornhub’s 2019 Year in Review, 32% of viewers that year were women, up 3% compared to the previous year.
This shift has been happening for years, and it's why Lilly Sparks, the founder and CEO of afterglow, believes she’s founding a porn site for the female gaze at a pivotal moment in the rise of sextech.
Afterglow isn’t the first porn company to create porn that shows women having hot sex, including all the delicious intimacy and connection that resonates with so many of us. What’s different about it is that it presents porn as a component of sexual wellness - and even sex education.
“We create porn that’s realistic enough to be relateable, but hot enough to masturbate to,” Sparks said. “But we also have these pleasure universes of content that help provide a more holistic view of sex.”
Afterglow’s first film, “Lip Service,” is about cunnilingus and includes a partner exercise that viewers can try, as well as a companion article about how people can avoid getting in their head when receiving oral pleasure.
Sparks’ inspiration for afterglow came from her own sex life which, at one point in time, wasn’t fulfilling.
“I wasn’t having orgasms and I felt really alone and really ashamed. I didn’t know where to turn or how to fix it,” Sparks said. “When you don't know how to bake a cake you can go on YouTube, but with sex there’s shame and stigma and we don’t have those resources.”
Well, except porn. And, while there is an increasing amount of feminist porn and porn designed to show sex that’s as complex and connective as real sex is, there’s a lot more sexual content out there that’s performative and stunt-based. It’s a type of sexual entertainment that not everyone finds relatable - and that can even make some people feel inadequate. afterglow aims to be a softer entry point for people who may not have found porn they liked.
“I always really wanted to like porn and enjoy it from a fun, sexy perspective, but I didn’t find things that I really connected with,” Sparks said.
Afterglow is the answer to the porn Sparks was seeking, and it brands itself as “a porn site cultivating unabashed enjoyment of sex through mouthwatering videos, articles and audio.”
Although it’s a brand-new business, it’s off to a good start. In November, it raised $22,000 in a successful Indiegogo campaign. The company has completed three original videos and has plans for five more in the coming months.
That said, producing porn has its challenges, both personally and in terms of scaling the brand. Sparks hesitated to jump into building her brand because she worried about the stigma from people in her life (it turns out, her mom was fine with it.) Now, she faces the same thing on the business side, where her product is banned from most advertising and faces barriers to accessing the kind of funding other startups rely on. (On the day we spoke, she’d just been turned down by a group of local angel investors because of concerns about her content.)
“I expected it as part of what we are doing,” Sparks said. “My philosophy is you don't need to convince everyone; you just need to convince some people. I focus on the people who can be convinced and want to be part of this movement.”
Although Sparks is an experienced founder, her background isn’t in the adult entertainment industry, it’s in natural foods, where she founded and successfully scaled two food brands.
Sparks sees porn and sexual wellness as a way of nurturing ourselves, much like we might with a healthy diet and lifestyle.
“I think pleasure is a huge part of health - I see this so much in my own life,” Sparks said. “Starting a business in a challenging industry is intense and stressful and it can be really hard.”
She credits meditation, breaks, healthy eating and regular “pleasure practices” with keeping her healthy and resilient.
“I feel connected to these ways of nurturing yourself to stay healthy,” Sparks said.
As for sextech, Sparks feels it's basically where organic food was in the ‘90s (in other words, on the cusp of going mainstream.)
“The next sexual revolution is imminent. One in three Google searches are about sex. It’s the first time ever in the U.S. that single women outnumber partnered women; single women have more partners, are more likely to buy sex toys and are more exploratory,” Sparks said. “I love being a part of this industry and I love the innovation.”
(Kinkly readers can check out afterglow and receive a free 1 month trial using code KINKLY21.)
Tara Struyk is a co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Kinkly.com. She’s a content creation and management executive with 15 years of experience working in online media. As a writer, her work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Forbes, Glamour, MensHealth and Investopedia.
Tara is currently the VP of Content at Janalta.com, where she leads the editorial department and directs content production for a diverse portfolio of websites in niche verticals. She has launched several sites from the ground up, and has experience managing sites from pre-launch all the way to maturity. She has deep experience in online analytics, SEO optimization, content marketing and editorial direction.