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The (Censor)Ship Has Sailed: Meta Changes Its Sexual Health Content Policy

Published November 3, 2022
Published November 3, 2022

Sexual health censorship on social media has been an ongoing battle. On the one hand, censorship is vital and needs to be implemented to keep younger users from interacting with explicit and inappropriate content. On the other hand, these policies are damaging, stopping online sexual education, and preventing people from sharing information about topics related to sexual health, especially those central to women’s health like menopause, birth control, and reproductive health. Back in April, BeautyMatters’ article on social media censorship was removed from the publication's LinkedIn profile with no prior warning that the report violated the platform's terms of use. Most recently, in what is hopefully a breakthrough for social media sexual education, Meta has announced changes to its sexual health policies, stating that "advertisers can run ads that promote sexual health, wellness, and reproductive products and services."

The change has come following the Center for Intimacy Justice (CIJ)'s investigative report, which was followed by a campaign to advocate for the transformation of Meta's systematic rejections of women's health advertisements. The findings were backed by several American institutions, with support from The New York Times and more than 75 other media outlets, as well as the U.S. Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor, and Pensions, which publicly questioned Meta's practices. Hillary Clinton also supported the movement, taking to Twitter and encouraging Senator Patty Murray to continue to fight for justice.

“The fact that Meta has changed its stated policy—a global policy that reaches people in every country Meta has users in—is exciting,” says Jackie Rotman, founder of Center for Intimacy Justice. "This is a story of women, nonbinary people, and allies coming together around the world to solve a fixable problem that impacts billions of people through technology and the voices that are enabled to be shared. Change isn't inevitable, but it is possible—with strategy and the will, commitment, and collaboration of multiple people working together."

The CIJ's report was heavily funded by The Case for Her, a Swedish philanthropic investment company, and RNW Media, a Netherlands-based international nongovernmental organization. Within the report, it was noted that advertisements from over 60 health businesses and nonprofits serving women, including content surrounding pelvic pain, menopause, and so on, had been rejected by social media platforms due to being "adult products." However, at the same time, advertisements for erectile dysfunction and men's health ads that addressed male pleasure were allowed to be displayed.

“Male sexual pleasure seems to overrule most things in life so it unsurprising that yet again women are the ones being left out,” Hope Flynn and Chloe O’Connell, founders of self-empowerment platform Feed Me Female, tell BeautyMatter. “All sexes should equally be entitled to education around sexual pleasure as it is an important part of our overall general health and well-being. Pleasure is not just for men.”

The alteration to Meta's policy states that topics affecting women, such as "products addressing the effects of menopause," "pain relief during sex," and "sex education" are now allowed to be advertised to social media users above the age of 18. However, this begs the question: are those younger than 18 not entitled to a vital education that could help them navigate significant moments in their lives?

“All sexes should equally be entitled to education around sexual pleasure as it is an important part of our overall general health and well-being. Pleasure is not just for men.”
By Hope Flynn + Chloe O’Connell, co-founders, Feed Me Female

“We recognize the importance censorship plays within social media to protect younger audiences, but, considering the age of consent is 16, we need to ensure that access to information on the vagina (and other sexual health elements) is still available,” the Feed Me Female duo continues. “There is a strong difference between sexual education and sexual content, so it would be great if Meta could allow for educational creators like us, who share honest, informative information about our bodies, to be more widely accessible to younger audiences. Honestly, it is great that we may now be able to finally find out and discuss information about our vaginas with as much ease as we can find out information on a local restaurant.”

Beyond their work surrounding Meta's policies, the CIJ is currently looking into the censorship and content moderation of sexual and reproductive health across platforms such as TikTok and Amazon. According to Flynn and O’Connell, 98% of Feed Me Female’s community believe the change will enable them to access key information around sexual healthcare, further underlining the importance of social media giants making such alterations to their policies.

However, social media users will only truly be able to reap the benefits of this policy change if it actually provides true censorship freedom. According to women’s health brand Foria, since Meta’s guideline alterations, advertisements of their products supporting menstrual health that were previously shadow-banned or censored entirely have been accepted across social media, yet some are still being removed or flagged with little to no notice. Amanda Couture, Senior Director of E-Commerce and Growth at Foria, stated that even when following all policy rules, some advertisements have had to be submitted for manual review, and are often still banned altogether.

“Even if we avoid sexually-explicit messaging (‘sex’, ‘orgasm’, ‘arousal’) and imagery, I would estimate 80% of our ads submitted are rejected. There’s such a strong need for our products, yet most women aren’t aware that these products exist. It’s frustrating to not be able to speak to our products in a way that women can personally relate to, and instead be forced to use innuendos. There’s so much more progress to be made,” says Couture.

As we move into an era where the internet is the main source of knowledge for many young people, it is important that brands and organizations continue to fight for educational sexual health content that is easily accessible online. For many who perhaps struggle to have conversations in person surrounding sexual health topics, being able to access this form of content online is imperative. Ultimately, online platforms like Meta must continue to work on their censorship rules and guidelines, ensuring they work correctly, allowing their platforms to safely educate those with a desire to learn.


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