At your pleasure

Austin-based sexual wellness brand brings empowering message to the mainstream

Austin sexual wellness brand brings empowering message to mainstream

AJ Brooker works on a line drawing of a nude cowgirl at the Swan Dive during the "Saddle Up" event.
Artist AJ Brooker illustrates the lead of the Afterglow original film, Save a Horse, during its release party at Swan Dive. Photo courtesy of afterglow

One booth at the recent Front Fest At Cheer Ups left all its visitors glowing. It belonged to Afterglow, an event sponsor with Future Front that pursues better-informed sex lives for women, and for all.

The brand’s Glow Bar decorated faces with rhinestones and glitter, handed out sticker sheets with bright, sexy art by Juanita Segovia, and gifted membership cards for its online platform.

There, viewers from around the world can find videos, articles, stories, and walk-throughs that bridge the unconscionably wide cultural gap between entertainment and sound sexual information. Outside the tropes one might expect in any erotic entertainment, topics include developing porn literacy (getting ethics straight as a consumer), discovering personal boundaries, and understanding sex therapy.

When Afterglow founder and CEO Lilly Sparks moved to Austin, she set out to find a network of like-minded creators and, as many do, landed at a Future Front meeting (then called Boss Babes). The group’s executive director, Jane Hervey, was one of the first people to hear about Afterglow, when it was still just an idea for the new Austinite.

At the time, Sparks was dating her high school sweetheart and feeling something missing in their intimate life. She didn’t know who to turn to or where to talk it out, and noticed a need for a community for those conversations.

“There’s so much stigma around sex in our society — especially women’s sexuality — like we’re just not allowed to talk about it or to express it,” says Sparks. “So it’s really exciting to do an event and talk to people and normalize those conversations. People want to talk about it.”

The company has been partnering with influential organizations, bringing it to Austin’s mainstream. This July, Afterglow hosted a release party for its original film, Save a Horse, at downtown venue Swan Dive, in partnership with apparel and country music collective Vinyl Ranch. The event featured a burlesque performance and offered an approachable entry for the community.

Describing the dichotomy of erotic entertainment in city life, Sparks says, “Either sex is this very dirty, seedy vibe, or this sanitized sex ed. It was very much a fun and sexy vibe that was in between.”

Getting the community involved in person has made it easier for Afterglow to engage Austinites in authentic conversations. Sparks makes trips to Zilker Park to hand out stickers and ask questions to passersby. She’s found plenty of people who want to talk, given a safe space. The key is approaching the conversation respectfully, with no pressure to stick around.

Texas has famously been one of the least hospitable states for sex ed and sex entertainment. In the recent 87th legislative session, Texas House Bill 2679 championed “medically accurate, age-appropriate” sex-ed curricula for grade school students that emphasized abstinence but also covered “human sexuality as a normal and healthy aspect of human development.” The bill was eventually referred the the House Public Education committee.

Without such legislation, Texas does not require sex ed to be taught in its public school districts. According to a study by the Texas Freedom Network, more than half of Texas schools in 2015-2016 taught abstinence-only curricula, which often neglects setting a foundation for sexual health, and a quarter didn’t teach sex ed at all.

All these restrictions, of course, don’t mean that Texans have no contact with erotic content. It does mean that trusted sources are difficult to come by, and those who do choose to consume or produce this kind of media may have a challenging time catching up from an abstinence-only starting point. It also means there are a lot of people walking around our state, cruising around its bars, and flipping through its dating apps with unmeetable expectations that came from anonymous, impersonal, or just plain misleading sources.

“Where people learn about sex today is porn. They’re more willing to learn through porn than through talking to a partner, which is not the right way to do things,” Sparks says. “But it’s where we’re at, and we’re trying to meet people and help them expand their knowledge from there.”

Thankfully, a rise in explicit sex ed — like the celebrated subscription service OMGYes and the more burgeoning Masterclass-like library Beducated — means there is a mainstream market for less clinical, more embodied learning. While Afterglow leans more into entertainment, it demonstrates the breadth of the adult content spectrum and invites Austin to join in from unexpectedly central community spaces.

Entertaining content from Afterglow is easily available online, but its community work revolves around in-person connection and collaboration. Sparks stresses a desire to provide “a welcoming space that you really want to be a part of.” That space travels with us. It could be anywhere, so keep an eye out for someone passing out stickers at Zilker Park.