Sexual Health Companies Confront Business Obstacles From Social Media Advertising Bans
Kris Fretz, founder and CMO of Emojibator, has been banned from promoting content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Pinterest since her sex toy company’s first day of business in August 2016. Even when she uses non-explicit images like eggplant emojis in place of vibrators, its Facebook ads are rejected before she even submits them for review.
Leah Callon-Butler, chief impact officer for Intimate.io, a cryptocurrency company for the sex industry, encounters similar problems. She’s been prohibited from executing paid advertising campaigns on Twitter for no other stated reason than “a policy violation by one or more users.” She says that “not being able to run paid ad campaigns has made it very difficult for us to reach a broader audience and grow our social following.”
It’s not just individual posts that get banned. Daniel Saynt, founder of the sex club and digital agency The New Society for Wellness (NSFW), lost his company’s Instagram account, which had 52,000 followers, due to an invitation to a BDSM event. “Facebook Messenger and Instagram DMs were major inroads for brands reaching us for partnerships,” he says. “We’ve missed press opportunities, which are invaluable to a small company.”
In a digital commerce ecosystem heavily dependent on Facebook and Instagram ads, social media restrictions can be tough on the bottom line of companies coping with them. “From a startup standpoint, this makes it tough to accelerate growth for sexual wellness brands,” says Rebecca Story, CEO and founder of clean period and sex product e-tailer The Bloomi. “People can only find these types of companies via organic word of mouth and when others re-post. It sucks because companies like Facebook will send us notifications to advertise with them. Then, when we do, they don’t approve our ads.”
Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains social media platforms have policies that are stricter than legally necessary likely because it’s difficult for algorithms to distinguish between legal sexual images and illegal ones. A blanket ban on nudity, for example, is easier than figuring out how to detect nudity specifically involving minors. Contacted for this story, Facebook responded, “Ad review is done individually.” The firm detailed, “We look at the landing page, the image/video/creative, and the text in the ad.”
There’s been an uptick in forbidden posts since the passage of the 2018 Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA/SESTA), according to Olinda Hassan, a policy expert who has worked with Twitter and Spotify. The law was passed to curb online sex trafficking and makes companies vulnerable to lawsuits if sex trafficking takes place on their sites. Its language, though, is vague enough to penalize general sex-related content, leading social media companies to take cautious stances.
Beyond hurting sales, sexual health brand founders argue bans hinder their missions of providing sex education. “Not being able to see ads from sex-positive brands means that the conversations about female sexual health continue to be taboo and limited,” says Story. “At Bloomi, we are ultimately addressing a public health concern by promoting intimate products that not only meet our clean criteria, but empower womxn by offering them a variety of hygiene, period and sex products that they may otherwise not see.”
“Our products purposefully use emoji culture and humor to make a typically taboo conversation about female masturbation much more approachable and educational,” says Fretz. “Our mission is to create a society that celebrates pleasure, and it’s extremely difficult when we cannot reach the millions of people consuming daily content on Facebook and other social platforms.” Saynt chimes in, “We see revenue for our sex education events go down when we can’t talk to our followers on Instagram. The New Society’s mission is to spread positive messages about sex. We can’t do that when we’re constantly blocked on two of the largest social networks on the planet.”
The impact is broader than sexual health companies. Facebook’s policy on sexual content has led to the prevention of posts from women’s health startups, bra marketers, and non-profits like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, says York. The social media policies disproportionately affect women’s health startups, she stresses, pointing out they compound the lack of sexuality resources available to women.
“Not being able to see ads from sex-positive brands means that the conversations about female sexual health continue to be taboo and limited.”
Fretz agrees that posts related to women’s sexuality are more likely to be barred, citing the New York MTA’s ultimatley reversed decision to permit ads for erectile dysfunction meds, but not vibrators. “This message reinforces what young women are currently taught by media, entertainment and non-modern educational environments, that it’s ‘unladylike’ for women to enjoy sex, seek pleasure or explore their sexuality without shame,” she says. “Men’s sexual wellness products can be advertised publicly because they solve ‘health issues’ that men face, versus it being a ‘luxury choice’ for women who buy vibrators or any other sexual wellness product.”
Saynt says that, because people of marginalized sexual identities like members of the LGBTQIA community often turn to the internet for information, they’re disproportionately affected. And York thinks social media bans on sex education may contribute to young people’s reliance on porn for sex education. “Right now, it’s easier to find porn in some cases than it is to find good information on sexual health,” she says. “This is sometimes even more true when it comes to LGBTQ+ sexual health content. Certain search terms are more likely to bring up sexually explicit content than key health information.”
“Sex ed is so broken right now,” says Callon-Butler. “People of all ages and backgrounds and lifestyles are naturally curious about sex and, until we can be wholly open to these conversations, we are going to have generations of shamed, confused and unsatisfied people.”
In a relief to sexual health companies, Hassan believes a policy shift to stave off the unhelpful banning of sex-related social media content may be on the way. She points out there’s a precedent for platforms responding when people object to policies. Instagram reinstated a photo by artist Rupi Kaur showing menstrual blood was taken down after people complained. Group campaigns like the protests by drag performers that urged Facebook to change its real names policy can also push platforms to change their rules.
Hassan emphasizes that getting a more diverse group of people to create policies will help. She says, “Just like it was important to make sure policy teams have women, Muslims and other marginalized groups, we may also see a day where advocacy groups will be consulting on policy teams on how to better police for sex traffickers without banning any brand or individual that is sex-positive.” She elaborates, “Transparency is important when it comes to policy implementation. People should be able to understand what the policies are of the platform they use, and when they may get in trouble, and if they do, how to get back on the account.”
Saynt believes a key step toward transparency would have include an increased number of human moderators to make certain posts receive thorough reviews. He advises platforms to certify accounts by sex educators to prevent them from being banned on social media. Fretz suggests Facebook allow its users to opt out of ads involving sex rather than ban them altogether. The targeting options could allow content to be seen exclusively by people 18 and over.
Making discussions of sex accessible may require a broader change in societal attitudes. “There will always be someone clicking the report button. So, until there’s less stigma around polarizing topics, folks will have a hard time moderating such content so that it’s fair for all users,” says Hassan. “Women still struggle to talk freely about these topics, and we need to empower them and normalize it in society. This takes open conversation and education for all genders to make valuable impact.”
- Sexual health companies aren’t given the same leeway on social media as companies in other categories. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram ban their advertising.
- The social media bans are destructive to the bottom lines of sexual health companies, which are forced to find alternative means of spreading the word about their offerings. In addition to sales, brand founders argue the prohibitions are detrimental to sex education.
- A 2018 law intended to curb online sex trafficking has made matters worse for sexual health brands. Social media platforms enact blanket restrictions rather than drill down on what’s happening on their platforms to allow for appropriate sexual content.
- There could be relief on the horizon for sexual health brands. With uproar growing over the bans on their social media content, pressure has been put on the platforms to change their policies to permit suitable sexual materials.