In the year 2022, an era when hard-hitting subjects are finally gaining much-deserved recognition, attention, and discussion, female-bodied sexual health seems to still be hidden in the dark—if social media platforms are anything to go by.
At the begining of January, The New York Times reported that Facebook rejected 60 advertisements from sexual health brands. Digital content moderation’s $8.8 billion business and the fact that almost half of 9- to 16-year-olds are regularly exposed to sexual images in Australia alone demonstrate an undeniable need for social media censorship, but educating people about their bodily functions in non-explicit ways must not be placed on the same level as pornographic content. It’s a disservice to brands, and furthermore, a disservice to those who may not have access to such information through family conversations or school education. And while some of these lessons may tie into product advertisements, learning from those who have studied the human body over the course of several years surely trumps unsubstantiated online sources. Furthermore, sexual wellness is a vastly growing market, with an estimated global worth of $40.1 billion by 2026, so undoubtedly the likes of Facebook & Co. would want to capitaize on the advertising opportunities coming their way, not to mention open conversation being one of the best antidotes to misinformation.
This theme was recently discussed at the “Social Media Censorship in the Women's Health Space'' virtual panel. Moderated by beauty journalist Claire McCormack, it featured kegg CEO Kristina Cahojova, The Honey Pot Senior Social Media Manager Desiree Natali, Lilu CEO Adriana Vazquez, and Kegelbell founder Stephanie Schull. kegg produces a fertility tracking device with enhanced accuracy thanks to cervical fluid measurements; The Honey Pot offers plant-based vaginal care products; Lilu produces a hands-free pumping bra for breastfeeding; and Kegelbell offers a weighted pelvic floor training system. All founders expressed not only the financial and economical, but also social impacts of these restrictions.
“Women's health is suppressed on social media. It's not because we are violating terms and conditions, it’s because of sloppy AI that is flagging us as sex or porn,” Cahojova states. “We are bringing out innovative products because women's health issues have been overlooked for a long time, but now we have to fight the big tech companies that completely ignore our issue.” Natali adds: “As a Black-owned brand, we're finding that these are humans that are already being marginalized and limited to the access of information on the products that they have. Our hope is that these companies understand that building AI is not just another task on your checklist. It is a matter of people's health and their livelihood. Currently, they are furthering sexist and awful tropes that are continuing to damage the community.”
According to Natali, TikTok proves especially difficult, as The Honey Pot’s tagline contains the word “vagina” which, in addition to the words “vulva,” “urethra,” and “urinate,” terms which were banned through the platform’s automated censorship system. Such subjects now need to be expressed through emojis or allusive terminology, such as writing “sex” as “segg” or using “down there” to allude to the vagina. Other interim solutions, like using images of fruit which are suggestive of female sexual organs, are now beginning to be flagged. For kegg, not showing their actual product or anything which could resemble cervical fluid are unfortunately necessary steps in keeping social media content afloat, despite years of research and FDA approval. “We are always banned for being an adult sex toy, and there is nothing you can do about it. That is crazy, especially when you look at all the content on TikTok about how to take care of your penis, but you can't talk about helping women to conceive,” Cahojova reveals.
Another issue the founders face with TikTok is that even if they submit an appeal to flagged content, this appeal will immediately be rejected, with further content publication possibly resulting in a lifetime ban. The same issue extends to influencer collaborations, further stunting marketing efforts. On Instagram, the term “cervical fluid” is immediately flagged, with wait times for pending content extending over two years or more. The same issue extends to private groups on Facebook, where illustrated infographics explaining the scientific process of the let-down reflex, or how milk starts to flow from the breast during breastfeeding, is also deemed inappropriate. “There's social economic repercussions for us in our content getting censored, and the audience who are eagerly looking for brands and companies to learn from,” Vazquez emphasizes. Her suggested solution is for FDA-registered and medically based product companies to be granted freedom to post informational content on social media by submitting their corresponding documentation.
“If the ads or posts make it out the gate, they are extremely popular, with 20%+ click-through rates. We know the need is there. 66% of women have bladder leakage, 75% have some form of pelvic organ prolapse, 43% have some form of sexual dysfunction, that's why they're clicking. But Facebook is intervening and blocking the transmission of data that is wanted by the customer. Basically we're bumping up against institutionalized sexism,” Schull adds. Backing from C-suite and influential female figures was also deemed another important step in helping companies that are suffering due to unnecessary censorship. If the journey of the CBD market is anything to go by, the more consumer demand grows, the more likely corporations are to listen.
Even in the VC space, misinformation abounds. “When I was fundraising, a lot of questions that I was getting from male VCs were about urine, and then I realized they think we pee from our vaginas. It has real-world consequences when you can't talk about sexual health education,” Cahojova emphasizes. Consumer mindsets present a further obstacle. For The Honey Pot, any posts showing period blood don’t get banned, but still receive strong feedback from consumers. We have internalized misogyny going on, but you have to be sympathetic to this censorship of ourselves that the platforms are just mirroring. We've been conditioned to have such a reaction to seeing this kind of content,” Natali says.
Thankfully, Twitter is proving a more positive experience for brand owners. “They rely on having a team of people who I believe are reviewing the content based on what's reported. We have never had any content taken down on Twitter,” Natali enthuses. The platform may have a lower engagement rate when compared to Instagram or Facebook (0.07% vs 1.16% and 0.27%) statistically speaking, but engagement rates aren’t applicable if your post is banned in the first place.
Whether you are a brand owner or consumer, sexual health relating to female-bodied humans presents a vital educational and social topic. Whether it’s period poverty, sexism, or simply vaginal health misinformation, it’s vital to speak up about what’s below the belt, and allow thought leaders in the space to do the same.
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