According to a new report from the New York Times, more than 60 companies that focus on women’s sexual health and pleasure say ads for their products and services have been unfairly taken down from Facebook — not because of safety or issues of medical inaccuracy, but because they were “adult products and services.”
Some of the ads, you’ll note, were for products like a breastfeeding workshop, comfortable postpartum pants, and menopausal health products to alleviate pelvic pain. Two other rejected ads from a company called Love Matters, which educates about sexual and reproductive rights, offered information about consent education and living with HIV. The reason allegedly provided by Facebook? They were “promoting an escort service.”
There’s nothing particularly monumental about social media platforms applying rigorous content moderation standards. But the companies who spoke with the Times say their ads are being targeted by double standards that aren’t applied to sexual health products catered to male users. They say their own ads follow Facebook’s complex minefield of ad guidelines for sexual wellness products, which, per the Times, include:
“Facebook provides examples of ads that are not permitted (“buy our sex toys for your adult pleasure”) and those that are (‘new moisturizing lube to relieve vaginal dryness on a day to day basis’ and ‘practice safe sex with our brand of condoms’).”
Facebook also doesn’t have a “blanket ban on words like ‘menopause’ or ‘vagina,’” but considers the context of each ad, a Meta spokesperson told the newspaper.
The platform’s asymmetrical policing of ads — allegedly allowing ads targeting male users for condoms that promise “pleasure” and an erectile dysfunction pill for a “wet hot American summer” — is almost to be expected at this point in a society that imposes such pervasive, unresolved, gendered shame primarily on women and people with vaginas when it comes to talking openly about bodies.
A Meta spokesperson may have fessed up to the New York Times that it sometimes “makes mistakes in enforcing its advertising policies.” But truthfully, there’s nothing accidental or mistaken about a culture that allows an ad for lubricant marketed as “lotion made just for men’s alone time” to be permitted on social media, but not for a menopausal health device that’s inserted into the vagina to strengthen the pelvic floor.
Facebook is ultimately just one company — a company that arguably helped incite violent genocide in Myanmar, but still, just one company. Its inconsistent, targeted purge of ads that could be some women’s only exposure to comfortable clothes after a pregnancy, the right sex toy for them, or something to demystify menopause, is part of a greater societal issue of telling women and people with vaginas that our bodies are gross, shameful, or inherently inappropriate.
Hypersexualized as young women and girls’ bodies often are, in the same breath, we’re also told they’re disgusting. You’ll recall that 2016 gave rise to the #PantyChallenge, which called on people with vaginas to share photos of underwear without discharge as some sort of flex, when discharge is a basic fact of biology.
Women and people with vaginas are told there’s a fundamental ick factor to anything about our bodies that straight men wouldn’t find attractive or don’t want to know about. The more mystery our bodies are shrouded in, the more male, patriarchal fantasies are enabled, and any threat to those fantasies — any sex toys that shatter the illusion that cis-men and cis-men alone can bring us to orgasm, any products that hint at the bogus gender orgasm gap, or the less-than-glamorous affair of menstruation — are shunned from public discourse, and certainly from Facebook.
The platform’s removal of ads for menopausal products is particularly disappointing considering how limited discourse on sexual health and pleasure for older women is. Society’s not-so-subtle message to women above 50 is that they should simply disappear, and you’d think Facebook would know better than to treat a key constituency of its remaining users this way by taking down ads marketing useful products for them, but alas!
Again, none of this is especially surprising. Reproductive rights and justice organizations have been sounding the alarm for years about their ads and content educating about FDA-approved medication abortion pills being rejected, while medically unproven, unscientific anti-abortion ads and content have thrived. Nor is this an issue unique to brands and products for women and people with vaginas — the Washington Post has reported on a trend of ads for LGBTQ items, events, and even nonprofits being taken down for a range of nonsensical reasons and veiled homophobia.
The silence and shame that shrouds many of these aforementioned gendered experiences is more than a frustrating inconvenience to sexual wellness startups, or other companies and corporations peddling their products to women. More than these company’s wallets, this stigma hurts women and gender-oppressed people, contributing to a culture that insists we stick to euphemisms for “vagina” and a political ecosystem that insists we avoid the word “abortion,” even as our basic rights and freedoms are being ripped away. It’s no secret that being a woman or having a vagina means being punished for having real bodies — of course companies like Facebook are trying to take away all access to resources to take care of said real bodies.