Most social media platforms place restrictions on advertisements for adult content or adult products. However, in recent years, there’s been a growing conversation about how these advertisement policies may discriminate against women and other marginalized communities.
Instagram and its parent company Facebook are widely considered two of the worst offenders when it comes to advertisement restrictions for adult content. Both of them have a checkered history of coming down more heavily against sexual wellness content focusing on women than those catering to men.
Companies that try to market female sexual wellness products through Facebook and Instagram frequently have their posts and pages banned. Meanwhile, male-centric advertisements that are a lot more explicit don’t face the same challenges. Looking at all the evidence and cases, it’s hard to ignore that many of our culture’s biases against female bodies are clearly evident in social media marketing policies.
Digital marketing spaces are supposed to be fair and transactional. One brand’s marketing dollars should have just as much weight and value as another similar brand’s marketing dollars. But that isn’t the case in the current scenario. Currently, brands that seek to promote female sexual wellness and education are considered pornographic, while brands doing the same for a male audience can thrive.
It goes without saying that most of these policies and implementations are riddled with internal inconsistencies. But that’s precisely why it’s worth digging into their policy guidelines to find patterns that help us make some sense of this murky grey-area. Please continue reading to learn more about Instagram’s ad restrictions on sexual wellness content.
What do Instagram’s advertising policies state?
Instagram is owned and operated by Facebook, and the two social media platforms share the same advertisement guidelines. When you’re looking for policy guidelines regarding sexual wellness content, you can look at two categories — Adult Content and Adults Products/ Services.
Let’s see what Instagram’s policies are regarding these two categories of advertisement contents.
“Ads must not contain adult content. This includes nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative. Ads that assert or imply the ability to meet someone, connect with them or view content created by them must not be positioned in a sexual way or with an intent to sexualize the person featured in the ad.”
Further down, they’ve defined sexually suggestive and sexually explicit content as the following:
- Nudity or implied nudity.
- Excessive visible skin or cleavage, even if not explicitly sexual in nature.
- Images focused on individual body parts, such as abs, buttocks or chests, even if not explicitly sexual in nature.
- Dating ads where the focus of the ad is on a partially clothed model.
- Content portraying excessive nudity or alluding to sexual activity.
Adult Products/ Services
“Adverts must not promote the sale or use of adult products or services, unless they promote family planning and contraception. Adverts 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 aged 18 years or older.”
This description gives us three key takeaways:
- Ads for adult products and services are only allowed for family planning and contraception purposes.
- Ads for adult products and services are not allowed for sexual purposes.
- Ads can only be targeted to adults over 18 years of age.
Why do the existing policies lead to biased implementation?
At first glance, one may think the policies mentioned above make sense. But they quickly fall apart with internal inconsistencies once you start digging into the specifics. Furthermore, the policies are extremely vague, leaving space for interpretation. And that’s the danger — if there’s space for interpretation, then there’s also space for the individual enforcing these policies to bring their own inherent biases into the system.
So, let’s consider how these policies are problematic.
Instagram’s guidelines for permissible or non-permissible adult content revolves around the terms “sexually explicit” and “sexually suggestive.” Those are incredibly vague terms that can mean different things to different moderators. The sample photos obtained by TechCrunch identifying “sexually suggestive” photos reveal the platform’s potential for biases. Under the “sexually suggestive” label, we see two images — first, an image of a woman in lingerie sitting on a bed; second, an image of a full-clothed and headless man grabbing his crotch.
According to Lux Alptraum, a writer on OneZero, this delineation highlights how “men are deemed to be sexually suggestive by virtue of their actions, while women gain that status simply by having a body that someone else deems sexually attractive.”
This falls in line with our traditional cultural standards of equating women’s bodies with sexual inappropriateness. Simply put, men have the agency to self-definition — a man has to be holding his crotch for an Instagram moderator to consider his actions sexually motivated. Meanwhile, women aren’t always afforded that agency towards self-definition — a woman simply sitting on the bed partially undressed is enough to be deemed “sexually suggestive” merely because someone else (a man) may find her so.
This double standard exists everywhere on social media. For instance, Playboy has millions of followers, and they regularly post content objectifying female bodies in various states of undress. Meanwhile, a project called “The Scar Project” was banned from Facebook because it shows post-mastectomy images to highlight the emotional and physical toll of breast cancer. The Scar Project eventually had to launch a petition and win over 20,000 signatures to be allowed back into the platform.
Again, it seems female bodies can only be permissible if they serve a male gaze.
Instagram’s guidelines for adult products and services is similarly open to interpretation and our cultural biases against female sexuality. Instagram doesn’t allow products meant for “sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement.” Again, those terms are so vague that they’re used to censor and ban advertisements for products if they so much as relate to female genitalia.
Erectile dysfunction medications are given free rein on the platform, allowed to pass off as a medical or health product. But lubricants for vaginal dryness or menopause medications are blocked because… they’re related to female genitalia, and thus must be sexual in nature?
Again, male sexual wellness products are given the respect of being essential health products, but female sexual wellness products are trapped in the same category as pornography.
What can we do about these Instagram ad biases?
On a systemic level, we need to push for sensible policies that distinguish between images and their intent. We need to push for social media platforms to hire a more diverse group of people. The moderators at Instagram and Facebook should go through sensitization training to help them be more mindful of their inherent biases.
But on an individual level, we can learn to manipulate the loopholes in the system. Female sexual wellness brands and content creators are playing up their products’ medical aspects, using creative innuendos to communicate their message, and winning petitions merely to have the same right already afforded to all male-centric sexual wellness products.
Seeking large systemic changes while simultaneously making inroads through creativity — that’s how we beat the system and foster an online space that’s truly equitable and sensible.