It’s probably an understatement to say that Facebook is constantly embroiled in controversies. In recent years, Facebook (and other social media platforms) have received considerable criticism over their advertising policies and restrictions on sexual wellness content, specifically female-oriented sexual wellness content.
Over the past few years, more and more brands focused on sex education and female sexual wellness have found that their advertisements are banned while far more explicit male-centric advertisements are given free rein. Brands that promote wellness products for women have had to manage a delicate tightrope — informing viewers about their products through increasingly vague innuendoes while trying to avoid censorship. In most cases, that’s still not enough.
Of course, the implementation of these policies and restrictions is never cohesive, primarily because the policies are worded vaguely enough that the final brunt of interpretation falls on a varied group of individuals. Even though digital advertising is supposed to be fair and transactional, emerging social media advertising patterns have shown that they’re riddled with real-world biases that shape society in damaging ways.
What do Facebook’s advertising policies state?
“Adverts must not promote the sale or use of adult products or services, unless they promote family planning and contraception. Adverts for contraceptives must focus on the contraceptive features of the product and not on sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement, and must be targeted to people aged 18 years or older.”
That’s a direct quote from Facebook’s advertisement policies. The policy has three major points:
- Advertisements for adult products and services are only allowed for family planning and contraception purposes.
- Advertisements for adult products and services are NOT allowed for sexual enhancement or pleasure purposes.
- All advertisements for adult products and services must be targeted to individuals over 18 years of age.
Clearly, Facebook doesn’t outright enter gender biases into its policies. That would be too simple. However, Facebook hasn’t clearly defined what it means by “sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement.” At first glance, you may think that’s sufficiently clear, but it’s far from clear in practice.
Facebook frequently censors content that includes the anatomical term “vagina” or even medical conditions associated with female genitals, such as “menopause.” Facebook also censors content and images that feature female bodies in a medical or anatomical light. By not defining what “sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement” means, Facebook essentially leaves the task of interpretation to individuals tasked with flagging and blocking content.
So, the question isn’t whether Facebook’s policy is fair and unbiased. The real question is whether Facebook’s policy implementations are biased — are feminine wellness products penalized and censored more frequently than those targeting men? Furthermore, one may also ask why sexual wellness products are banned or censored at all?
Facebook has a murky history of biases in its ad policy implementations.
A quick Google search reveals that several brands focused on female sexual wellness, and just female wellness in general, have had their content censored by Facebook. Estrella Jaramillo, a reputable Women's Health Advocate, brought up a good point on Forbes: “When it comes to the female body, there seems to be confusion when defining what constitutes sexual health as opposed to pleasure.”
That is at the crux of the biases stemming from Facebook’s vague policy guidelines around sexual wellness content. Sexual wellness brands are constantly flagged and pulled from Facebook. But erectile dysfunction medications are allowed free rein without any limitations. Since both of these products are geared towards sexual fulfillment, one may wonder why one is allowed while the other isn’t.
Sure, some may argue that ED medications are a general health concern rather than a sexual wellness concern. We agree. But then why does Facebook also block ads for vaginal dryness treatments geared towards women going through menopause. Is that not considered a general health and wellness concern? Is Facebook suggesting that vaginal dryness treatments promote “sexual pleasure”? They might, but then again, ED medications are meant for sexual pleasure? — why aren’t they censored as well?
We must point out that this article doesn’t in any way suggest that erectile dysfunction advertisements should be blocked. It’s a health concern and should be treated as such. But so should vaginal dryness treatments and female-centric sex toys in general.
The biases don’t just end with sexual wellness products. The biases are entrenched in how Facebook and its vaguely worded policies create an environment wherein female sexuality is only permissible when expressed through the male gaze and not independently. Does that sound like a stretch?
Consider this. Playboy is allowed to regularly showcase women in various stages of undress largely to a male audience. Meanwhile, The Scar Project — a project highlighting women who had undergone mastectomies due to breast cancer — was routinely censored by Facebook until a petition earned over 21,000 signatures.
What’s the solution?
We certainly don’t have all the solutions. But it’s important to be aware of gender biases existing within Facebook’s policies and call them out when they make problematic decisions. It’s important to update policies to be more specific, weeding out the possibility of bases in interpretations. Individuals responsible for flagging content on Facebook must also be sensitized to female sexuality to prevent their inherent biases from creeping into their decisions.
To quote Melissa Maldonado-Salcedo, Professor of Gender and Sexuality studies at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, “Regulations have to be consistently enforced. Restrictions have to make sense and not favor one gender’s pleasure over the other. We need to come to a clear distinction between ‘obscenity’ and ‘personal care.’ Currently, this does not exist for women.”
However, those are long-term solutions. In the meantime, female sexual wellness brands have to manage within this murky environment, using ever-more-creative means of promoting their products without triggering censorship. Some get past the censorship through humor, some play up the medical angle, and some take part in petitions and hope to win enough support to make their advertisements avoid censorship.
Meanwhile, as female sexual wellness brands have to perform complex acrobatics to avoid censorship, male sexual wellness products can skate by with little to no trouble.