Some social media sites forbid ads that they believe focus on sexual pleasure—but the ads actually encourage female sexual wellness. What's so wrong with that?

By Rebecca Shinners
August 12, 2019

Because I work in social media, you’d think I'd have Facebook figured out by now. I pride myself on my ability to conquer every new algorithm change the company puts out. But the more I learn about the company's policies, the more I wonder what’s going through the minds of Facebook team members when guidelines they say are positive actually end up being anything but for media creatives like myself—as well as consumers.

Unbound and Dame Products, two companies that sell sexual health and intimacy products such as vibrators, seem to agree with me. Both brands recently partnered on a campaign, "Approved, Not Approved," to make users more aware of some outdated advertising regulations on social media. Their goal is to show that these regulations are stunting the growth of the women’s sexual wellness industry—and in turn reinforcing negative attitudes about sexual health and pleasure.

One look at my Facebook sidebar, and I'll likely see an ad for the exact pair of comfy sneakers I was looking at only moments earlier. These tracking practices have become so normal, we expect to see them. But have you ever stopped to think about what Facebook is not showing you?

The social networking site’s ad policy states that “ads must not promote the sale or use of adult products or services, except for ads for family planning and contraception. Ads 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 18 years or older.” 

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So we can talk about safe sex on Facebook, just as long as we’re not acknowledging that it’s something we get pleasure out of? Not only is that regressive, but it ignores so much research about the health benefits of sex: It's a big stress reliever, a form of exercise, and it can also help you sleep better, among other body benefits. Anyone (including the people behind big social media platforms, ahem) who thinks there's something bad or shameful about ads that focus on sexual pleasure is just wrong.

Polly Rodriguez, CEO and cofounder of Unbound, points out that these policies also reflect a double standard in advertising for sexual wellness products. "Erectile dysfunction drugs are seen as health products and thus deemed appropriate for advertising, but lubricants for women who have been through menopause are not," she explains. 

"Approved, Not Approved" is taking this conversation a step further by sharing the actual ads that have been both allowed and banned on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms (such as in the New York City subway). See them for yourself by visiting the campaign’s website and guessing exactly which ads violated these brands' standards via an interactive quiz.

Here are some examples of ads that have been blocked and are now part of the campaign:

It’s not just vibrators that have gotten the boot. A Billie video praised for showing a hint of (realistic and natural) female pubic hair was flagged when the company initially tried to run paid ads on Facebook. Georgina Gooley, cofounder of Billie, told AdWeek that the content was marked and rejected by Facebook as “adult material” and “sexualized.”

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“It was interesting to us [that] body hair is considered sensitive material and therefore we can’t promote the video,” Gooley said. “It almost feels like it’s a little bit arbitrary.” The video has since been allowed to be promoted on Facebook.

"Approved, Not Approved’s" point is clear when you start comparing the ads above—many of which are for sex toys—to content that was deemed appropriate:

Health reached out to Facebook to ask about the ad policy and the "Approved, Not Approved" campaign created by Dame Products and Unbound. We received this from an unidentified Facebook spokesperson: “We have had open lines of communication with both companies about our policies and are always taking feedback. We are working to further clarify our policies in this space in the near future.”

Here at Health, we’re all about promoting sexual health awareness and sex positivity. We've written many articles and reviews about vibrators, from the best ones for couples to use together to which vibrators you should buy on Amazon. We’ve embraced just about every other sexual health topic as well and interviewed top doctors and experts to make sure our articles are up-to-date and truly informative.

We don’t cover stories just for clicks. We aim to provide valuable service to our readers in every one of these articles—all of which receive a high amount of traffic, proving that there’s a thirst for sexual wellness-related information. These stories are all located in Health's sexual health section, so it’s hard to see why they can’t all coexist on social media as well. It just doesn’t make sense to provide parts of the conversation and hide others.

We also had our own clash with Facebook guidelines back in 2018, when some of our articles were flagged for going against "community standards" and, therefore not allowed to be posted on our page. When we first reached out to Facebook about this, they were quick to respond by suggesting that our content was likely flagged for nudity.

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Sure, we cover sexual health and body positive images of influencers showing off their skin all the time—but that wasn’t what was being blocked. (Though if it was, you can bet I’d be fuming.) Instead, Facebook was somehow targeting workout and yoga content; this refreshingly honest take on New Year’s Resolutions was even flagged. No, Facebook, these yogis were not naked...and if they were, so what? That’s their own decision, and honestly, I wish I were that confident.

I was lucky enough to get Facebook to resolve this problem (and I will say that they were apologetic and happy to help me). But I can’t stop wondering what else is being censored on pages run by people or brands that don't have a direct relationship with the platform. According to the "Approved, Not Approved" campaign, we’re not the only ones who have suffered from misperception:

Ads go beyond selling products these days—just take it from Alexandra Fine, CEO and cofounder of Dame Products: "Advertising is a necessary and important part of connecting people to valuable solutions," she says. "Not only that, but it sanctions certain lines of conversation."

"Right now, advertising regulations tell us that pleasure for penis-havers is a part of their overall health, but that pleasure for vulva-owners is 'inappropriate' or unnecessary,'" she explains. "By perpetuating these messages, we continue to fuel a harmful narrative. This doesn't just impact a few businesses—it impacts the health and happiness of everyone who has sex."

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