Facebook seems to have an issue with women's sexuality and wellness. A big issue. Men's sexuality and wellness are top-priority, of course, with ads for various products running with all sorts of photos that never seem to get flagged.
But try to advertise lubricants for women going through menopause or dilators for women suffering from vaginismus and Facebook will immediately flag them. No matter how you cut it, there seems to be a double standard on Facebook when it comes to advertising for women's sexual and health products.
Somehow, a man who can't have an erection is a health concern but women who can't orgasm is not. In other words, male pleasure is paramount but women's pleasure—let alone health—is unimportant at best, immoral and unspeakable at worst. Now when it comes to women as sexual objects or being used to satisfy the male gaze, that, naturally, is no problem for Facebook.
You'll find various ads featuring scantily clad women. But only if what is being sold is either for men or about pleasing men, i.e. Playboy or "sexy" attire. Use the same images to advertise a women's sexuality workshop and suddenly you are "violating Facebook's community standards and guidelines."
Want proof? There's plenty out there.
Let's start with a company called Pulse. In 2017, Founder and CEO Amy Buckalter launched Pulse, which offers personal lubricant and massage oil pods. Think Keurig for lubricant. Buckalter says that 50% to 75% of their Facebook ads have been rejected. She says there doesn't seem to be a consistent rationale to the rejection, making her believe that the entire Pulse account has been flagged.
In May of 2018, Facebook actually shut down Pulse's page, reinstated it, and then shut it down again in late July. Buckalter then received a generic message directing her to review Facebook's prohibited content policies, and although she has attempted to work through the standard process of contacting Facebook support, she hasn't made any progress.
Buckalter says that her ads have been banned because FB has unfair review practices that support a clear gender bias. If FB values integrity and equality then their policies should reflect that, including their enforcement of content guidelines.
The gender bias cannot be any more clear. "Roman.com (aka ro.com and roman health) built their businesses on direct to consumer erectile dysfunction meds, condoms, and other sexual products - and drove and scaled their original customer acquisition through FB and Instagram (FB owned). That early FB support enabled them to attract $90M+ in VC funding for more scaling. Forhims.com is a similar example. With that said, FB also allows advertising for smaller men's brands like "manscape" that promotes "men's ball deodorant"—yes you read that right!
A few examples of male targeted approved ads Courtesy of Unbound
We've also spoken to Sally Cotching, the brand director of VooDoo Toys, founded in 2018 and owned by Kevin Mirarchi. She, too, has had heaps of problems with Facebook. Cotching and Mirarchi created Voodoo, a sexual wellness company, "to remove the stigma around masturbation and encourage people, especially women and the LGBTQI+ community to incorporate self-love into their self-care routine, discover what brings them pleasure, and not feel ashamed." After attempting to run a promotion for Women's History Month across Facebook & Instagram and being sure that the artwork did not include or even reference anything explicit, the ad was denied within the hour. Cotching notes that Facebook allows Him's for men to advertise, despite the fact that they are a sexual enhancement product for men.
A rejected VooDoo ad on Instagram
Unbound founders, Polly Rodriguez (CEO) and Sarah Jayne Kinney (COO), have been vocal about this issue since the launch of their company. Unbound is a "sexual wellness brand that is providing women with a way to become in touch with—and in turn, more aware of—their individual sexuality and sexual being," explains Rodriguez. They make over 50 body-safe vibrators, lubricants, and accessories all under $100.00. Rodriguez explains that Unbound is even banned from advertising on Facebook "because our products violate their ad policies. Specifically, any company that sells vibrators cannot advertise on Facebook." That means that even if they take out an ad to promote their non-sexual jewelry (for example a safety whistle necklace or venus shaped earrings), the ad is still rejected. "This is particularly frustrating given erectile dysfunction companies (e.g., Viagra, Hims, Ro), condom brands (e.g., Trojan, Magnum), and pharmacological solutions for women (e.g, Addyi) are deemed appropriate and face no restrictions." Facebook's compliance team specifically told Unbound that's the reason they are banned, Rodriguez says.
A few Unbound Ads that were rejected by InstagramCourtesy of Unbound
Dame Products, too, has had an equally exhausting and disappointing experience with Facebook's advertising policies. Alexandra Fine and Janet Lieberman are the Co-Founders of Dame Products, founded in 2014. Dame develops "toys for sex based on in-depth research, with the objective of heightened intimacy and value in humankind's sexual experiences," Fine explains. She says that Facebook refuses to run sex toy related ads, even if the ads are set to display to adults only or link to completely SFW content.
Although the advertising regulations for these platforms have gone through several revisions over the years, Facebook's regulations now make it clear that sex toy companies are not considered respectable businesses.
One of the most upsetting examples is what Tara Langdale-Schmidt went through. She is president, co-founder and inventor of the VuVa dilator, a Neodymium Magnetic Vaginal Dilator for pelvic floor physical therapy. Vaginal Dilators are for women who suffer from pelvic pain conditions including, Vulvodynia, Vaginismus, and Vaginal Atrophy. Langdale-Schmidt says that VuVa Dilator has helped over 22,000 women worldwide who have pelvic pain issues. Despite the complete health-related nature of this product, Langdale-Schmidt was still rejected. She believes her ad was banned because her products look like sex toys, which they are not. She believes that Facebook takes their policies too far. "For example, I could show a picture of a woman and relate the ad to cervical cancer survivor without a picture of the dilators. But it would still be banned because it leads to our website with the pictures of dilators." The bottom line is that VuVa dilator resembles a sex toy. So, despite the fact that it's a patented medical device that relieves pelvic pain for tens-of-thousands of women worldwide (according to the company), Facebook continues to ban the advertisement of it because it looks like a sex toy.
And it's not just women's sexual health that Facebook has a problem with, it's the female body in and of itself. The TaTa Top, a bikini top that give the illusion of toplessness, experience its fair share of ad rejections and disapprovals. The TaTa Top has been blocked from sharing ads and even boosting their FB posts multiple times. Founder, Linze Rice, says their ads and posts are usually denied because they're deemed as sexual or showing too much skin. Even though it's just a skin-toned bikini top.
"What has become so obvious through all of this is that Clearly, "female" nipples (or any nipples displayed on a female body) are considered sexual in a way that "male" nipples aren't" she says.
TaTa Top Banned From Instagram Over Cartoon Male Nipples On Bikini Top
"The fact that our tops depict 'male' nipples but still get banned because they're on a woman's body further shows that Facebook's policy of banning ads makes no sense and is harmful to brands that promote equality and body positivity, while also giving back to breast cancer charities, like we do. I recently saw another company's ad, which has a product that's a sweatshirt with a man's bare chest printed on the front, including the nipples."
She believes that these double standards prove Facebook views women's bodies as more shameful or worthy of censorship. And the following examples further prove the point that even female related health conditions are viewed as inappropriate.
Jill Lebofsky is the founder of Midlife Mojo, a midlife women's health and wellness coach, Pilates instructor, speaker, and author of "No Sweat! It's Just Menopause: Eating. Exercise & Essential Oils For A Healthy Change." Even though her work is focused on health and wellness generally, she too ha had nothing but trouble when it comes to advertising on Facebook. Lebofsky attempted to advertise her four-week workshop for women going through menopause. The accompanying photo was of three women aged 50+ in a Pilates class sitting on big stability balls wearing yoga pants and t-shirts. Then, an ad for her Valentine's Day webinar with the description:"two hours of all things food, exercise, and essential oils the midlife woman needs to know to make this a special Valentine's Day. The photo she used? Two red wooden hearts.
"Anything with the word menopause immediately gets flagged and banned." - Jill Lebofsky
Perhaps one of the most egregious examples is that of a company called Every Mother. CEO, Allison Rapaport, tried to run FB ads, showing pregnant bellies or bellies of women with diastasis recti, a medical condition affecting a majority of childbearing women. They were banned for being "pornographic." The following was their rejection message:
"This ad isn't running because it includes an image or video depicting excessive skin or nudity, which includes medical diagrams depicting external organs of reproduction, breasts, or butt. This kind of material is sensitive in nature." At one point, Rapaport says, their ads were being blanket rejected due to their landing page, and they received an almost identical response from Facebook. In order to circumvent this blanket-ban, they removed the following image.
And, to make matters worse, after her ads were disapproved, she continued to see ads for companies, including Alo and Athleta, in her feed for larger companies promoting underwear or swimwear, showing far more skin her ads did.
There's no doubt that FB's ad policies have a significant bias against women's health and sexuality, but right now it is not yet apparent why, especially considering the acceptance of more male-centric portrayals of the female body. Amy Buckalter can't help but wonder "Is this the result of a male technology culture led by a male tech founder? Are these ad criteria being decided by men who live in cultures around the globe where women and their rights are subservient or inferior to men's? Or is this gender bias based on something else? "
WRITTEN BYJenny Block