Google categorizes all the information in the known world, right? Anything that’s searchable online shows up when you look for keywords and phrases…. Until it doesn’t.
To keep internet users safe, Google prohibits certain ads and pushes down some content in its search results. That’s a good thing, especially when it means racist, intolerant or violent content isn’t delivered to viewers. But what about sex?
Google stifles sextech and self pleasure daily, and it’s no secret. It’s written right into their advertising rules. They’re not the only ones, either. Many websites and social media sites view sexual content—especially when it contains images or words about people with vaginas—as profane.
While keeping violent sexual content out of the algorithm is great, sexist and misognist enforcement policies make it difficult for sex educators, sex toy companies, and even sexual wellness companies and brands to get their ads approved. Because enforcement often comes down to the person who handles your complaint when it’s filed, it’s not objective, but subjective enforcement. And guess who gets the short end of the stick?
Meet Google’s sexist ad policy
Like we said, Google’s ad policy states what it will and won’t allow. Here’s what it says about sexual content.
“We don't allow certain kinds of sexual content in ads and destinations...
Examples of restricted sexual content: Visible genitalia and female breasts, hook-up dating, sex toys, strip clubs, sexually suggestive live chat, and models in sexualized poses,” Google’s ad policy reads.
Hmmm….we don’t super love the gendered language anyways, but why are only female breasts specifically mentioned, and not specific genitalia on men? Why aren’t men’s breasts included? And lastly, who gets to say when a model is in a “sexualized pose”? That seems pretty difficult to enforce. In fact, at Lora DiCarlo we regularly have to re-write ads to try and prevent them from getting taken down, but it still happens.
Facebook’s ad policies aren’t that different
Facebook (or Meta) is even more vague in its ad policy. It really doesn’t matter if you’re a sex educator, sexual wellness provide or sex toy company. You could have your ads and content removed. While again, it’s important to protect minors and make sure violent sexual content isn’t displayed, especially to minors, the real-world enforcement of these algorithms always disadvantages non-cis-men the most.
“Ads must not contain adult content,” Facebook states. “This includes nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.”
Again, it’s interesting to see “suggestive positions” included in an ad policy. Because who decides what looks suggestive and what doesn’t? Because women are often sexualised, and women of color even more so, these policies unfairly affect non-cis-men. In fact, of the seven examples of photos Facebook provides in this section of the ad policy, the only “acceptable” one is of a male statue. Four of the seven include women’s faces and bodies, and a fifth includes two partners in which it’s implied one is probably a female.
Overwhelmingly, sexism rears its ugly head in these policies. And don’t even get us started on how companies like Cambridge Analytica abused Facebook’s platform to sway elections and steal people’s personal information.
But what about content that isn’t an ad?
You might be saying, okay, but paid content is different! What about posts that aren’t ads? Well, in March of 2021 a Twitter account called @princessantifa posted a Twitter interaction she had.
The young woman (whose age is not posted, so it is possible she is still a minor) posted screenshots of harassment she received when a man sent unsolicited gential pictures to her via Twitter DM. When the girl responded to the person not to send those photos and called it “sexual assault,” her account was locked for violating Twitter’s rules. After that, her account was limited for nearly a week.
The perpetrator and harasser apparently received no consequences for harassing and assaulting the young girl.
This disgusting and disturbing exchange shows that even in user’s every day content, social media algorithms stifle sex education and self pleasure. Because the phrase “sexual assault,” was what got the girl’s account banned, a sex educator using the same term to help survivors understand their rights, for example, could be targeted as well. Not that it’s any less disgusting a girl standing up for herself was temporarily banned.
The point is anyone is prey to victimization and unfair censorship under current social media policy across all the major platforms.
From online to the real world
If you think the bias is limited to just online algorithms, think again. These policies have real world implications that limit and hold back the sextech industry, which in turns stigmitaizes sex and reduces everyone’s sexual health and wellness.
In October 2018, we won a Robotics Innovation Award from Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which is run by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). Then a month later they took it back. The CTA contacted us and said they were disqualifying our product and rescinding the award. They claimed they had made a mistake and that, due to the nature of our product (their exact words were “profane,” “immoral,” and “obscene”), the original Osé should never have made it through judging. Needless to say, we fought back—and we launched a better, improved OSÉ 2. The truth runs deeper than a simple processing error, and we recognized it for the larger dysfunction and bias that this instance demonstrated. We called them out on their long history of sexism.
We’ve gone on to win more CES awards since then, and the organization has made progress. But still, it’s clear that online takes it offline, and the bias doesn’t just stop behind the screen.
That’s bad for everyone who has sexual health needs—aka everyone on the planet. Regardless of gender, orientation and sexual preferences, you deserve access to products, education and information that improves your lives. Too bad the social media giants don’t seem to agree.