Which one do you think was banned from Facebook: an ad for generic Viagra that declared “Get hard or your money back,” or one that said “You can have stronger pelvic floor muscles and more bladder control in a week”? If you guessed the Viagra ad, you’d be wrong.
In January, the Center for Intimacy Justice, a nonprofit that fights for equality in women’s health advertising, released a report showing that Instagram and Facebook rejected ads for vibrators, along with breastfeeding and menopause products, while accepting ads for erectile dysfunction products.
This double standard has riled sex-toy companies for years. Before Oct. 7, Meta’s policy established that “ads cannot promote the sale or use of adult products or services,” but didn’t give many details, aside from generic examples of ad text that would be banned (“buy our sex toys for your adult pleasure”). On Oct. 7, a few weeks before Meta’s stock tanked, partly due to a slowdown in ad spending, the language of Meta’s advertising policies got more specific. Now, Meta bars ads “that focus on sexual pleasure or enhancement, such as sex toys or sexual enhancement products.” Currently allowed: ads for “erectile dysfunction products” and products “for the prevention of premature ejaculation.”
Meta’s newly articulated standards also allow ads for birth control, menopause products, and products for pain relief during sex, as well as ads that “promote sexual and reproductive health or wellness, as long as the focus is on health and not sexual pleasure.” Meta’s message is clear: Sex toys—with a global market worth more than $35 billion—are not considered a part of sexual health.
Restrictions on advertising sex toys are not new. In 1873, the Comstock Act made it illegal to advertise sex toys, as well as contraceptives, abortifacients, and anything “obscene.” That made it difficult to market dildos. Vibrators—which have existed since the 19th century—and their ads, however, were safe under the law, because companies presented them as medical or beauty devices. In fact, ads for vibrators were more prevalent in the early 1900s than they are today. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune carried regular ads. One 1908 Chicago Tribune ad for the Arnold Vibrator claimed that Mark Twain and the governor of Chicago were Arnold users. The ad featured a drawing of a woman in a low-cut dress massaging her face with a vibrator. “Is Your Body Poorly Developed?” read the ad. “By using the Arnold Vibrator every day, you send the rich, red blood flowing healthfully through every tissue and muscle in your body, developing your body as beautifully as nature intended it to be.”
This, however, wouldn’t last forever: Once second-wave feminists began openly discussing the power of vibrators for masturbation in the 1960s and 1970s, media policies changed, and ads mostly went back into the closet, where they’ve largely stayed ever since. Because vibrators are often used by women to masturbate, they’re viewed as threatening to the fabric of society—the idea is that a heterosexual woman with a vibrator doesn’t need to rely on a male partner for sexual pleasure, and therefore is less inclined to marry.
This history underpins many current policies around advertising sex toys. Alexandra Fine, CEO and co-founder of pleasure-products company Dame, for example, thinks Meta’s newly articulated advertising standards are sexist. “I have no idea how you can say you don’t support sexual pleasure, but you’re allowing erectile dysfunction medication and premature ejaculation products,” Fine said. “This idea that male pleasure is necessary because ejaculation is necessary, but the female orgasm isn’t is … really problematic.”
Jackie Rotman, founder of the Center for Intimacy Justice, and Rachel Johnston, a consultant who works with the nonprofit, are happy that the policy now clearly allows some women’s health products, but they also point out that it’s contradictory on its face because sex toys are a critical part of sexual health. “Pleasure itself is part of the women’s health category, because there is scientifically so much evidence that a vibrator can be therapeutic for someone who’s in pain during menopause,” Johnston said. Studies show that vibrators help women with anorgasmia (trouble having orgasm), dyspareunia (pain during intercourse), atrophic vaginitis (vaginal dryness and thinning), lack of sexual desire, and pelvic floor dysfunction (which can cause incontinence). Rotman, via email, agreed with Johnston: “The way that Meta’s current policies are written, vibrators should be allowed.”
While a Meta spokesperson didn’t respond to my query about why the company doesn’t allow ads for sex toys specifically, Meta notes in its policies that “as a global company, we need to take into account the wide array of people from different cultures and countries who see ads across our technologies to avoid potential negative experiences. That is why we place additional restrictions on these ads, including the requirement to target audiences 18 years or older.” Sex toys remain illegal in several countries, including the United Arab Emirates and the Maldives, and in Alabama it is illegal to sell sex toys unless they are being marketed for a medical or educational purpose. The user age restriction is also notable, since people as young as 13 can sign up for Facebook and Instagram.
Meta has also made clear that the October shift was one of language, not substance. (As a reminder, the policies now clearly allow for sexual health and wellness products, as long as the focus isn’t on sexual pleasure.) According to a blog post, the scope, content, and enforcement of policies is the same; the update was simply intended to “make it easier for people and businesses to access and understand our policies.”
But according to several companies I spoke to, it hasn’t actually gotten easier to understand what’s allowed. After the change, Polly Rodriguez, CEO and co-founder of the sexual-wellness company Unbound, thought she’d be able to place two ads—one for a lubricant and one linking to an article where she discusses going through menopause, an experience that led her to start Unbound. “Both are within the policies as they’re written, and both got rejected,” Rodriguez said. She requested a review and received an error message.
Unbound, in fact, has never been able to get an ad approved. This is in part because Meta is judging ads not just based on content, but also on the website the ad links to. In one instance, a Facebook employee told Rodriguez via email that “the ad got rejected because of the landing pages,” which in this case included vibrators and a picture of a woman in a thong.
Whether a product will be shown also depends on who’s doing the advertising: Unbound’s vibrators do appear in Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie advertising on Instagram and Facebook. When Rodriguez asked why, she said a Meta representative told her that if the majority of products in a product portfolio are ad-eligible (as would be the case for Anthropologie), the ad is more likely to be approved.
Sex-toy company Lioness has been unable to place ads as well, CEO Liz Klinger told me via email. “We tried to do a video ad where we read customer testimonials of how Lioness’ biofeedback technology helped people beyond sexual pleasure (more in a health context … ), but that also didn’t work,” Klinger wrote. The testimonials she tried to advertise featured a woman going through menopause who “was experiencing urogynecological symptoms that impacted her sexual function” and a woman with a concussion who tracked her post-injury orgasmic changes in the app, Klinger said.
Pleasure-products companies sometimes are allowed to advertise products that are not sex toys. Dame, for example, was able to place ads for its sex pillow, lube, and massage oil on Facebook and Instagram, while its vibrator ads were rejected.
Hello Cake, a company that sells sex toys, lubes, and condoms, launched in June 2020 with the specific goal of being social media–friendly. That meant only selling FDA-approved lubes and condoms for the first few months. “We knew we’d make more money on toys. We didn’t launch with them just because we wanted to be compliant on all the social channels,” said Hello Cake co-founder Mitch Orkis. Even though it only advertises lubes and condoms, the company still has a large number of Meta ads rejected. Orkis submits about 60 ads a week to game the system. “Our most successful ad running on social media right now says ‘50 percent of couples are dissatisfied in the bedroom—find out what the other 50 percent are using.’ There’s no products [or] mention of lube or condoms or toys. And that has driven sales the most for us,” he said. “We market sex toys very aggressively without ever mentioning or showing sex toys.”
Crave, which makes sleek vibrator necklaces that are favorites of Madonna and are sold on Goop’s site, said Meta rejected its promoted stories and advertising before the October policy rewording. Meta’s policies go against the scientific research, said Crave co-founder Ti Chang, who mentioned the World Health Organization’s 2022 sexual health campaign, “Let’s Talk Pleasure.” WHO researchers published a review and meta-analysis of studies on sexual pleasure and health outcomes in PLOS One that found pleasure-focused messages led to higher condom use, “which has direct implications for reductions in HIV and STIs.”
“Sex toy manufacturers have been screaming and begging at Meta, like ‘shut up and take our money.’ … Set your parameters, we will follow them,” said Casey Murphy, a freelancer who develops, implements, and manages digital marketing strategies for indie sex-toy manufacturers and retailers.
Crave cofounder Michael Topolovac said that it no longer makes sense for the company to try to advertise with Meta. Instead, Crave posts non-sponsored content on its Instagram and hires brand ambassadors. Still, Topolovac believes the ban on social advertising has affected the speed of the company’s growth.
Even non-sponsored conversations around female sexual pleasure are being shut down throughout the platform. About every three months, Chang said, Meta removes one of Crave’s posts: One such post, for example, featured an artfully shot picture of a woman’s torso and underside of her breast (no nipple) with the caption “”In a world where women are critiqued over every part of their body, it can feel like an act of radical self-love to accept your body for exactly the way it is.” About half the time Chang is able to get the posts reinstated, but frequently they are flagged and taken down again.
Companies are turning to other social media platforms, but everywhere they go, they face similar problems. On TikTok, when Crave posts pictures of its products, they get taken down. TikTok’s policies prohibit ads linked to the “promotion, sale, solicitation of, or facilitation of access to pornographic material, sex toys and supplies such as lubricants, fetish or sexual fantasy costumes.” Twitter similarly prohibits sex-toy ads globally. (Of course, we know how content moderation and advertising are going there lately, and reports show that Twitter is even considering a pivot to paywalled video, which could include adult content.) Off social media, companies including Dame buy Google Ads that show up when a user searches for “vibrator” or other key terms. Meanwhile, Dame and Unbound advertise their vibrators on the NYC subway—although they had to sue the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to be able to do so.
While companies struggle to spread the word about their vibrators, the restrictions of U.S.-based social platforms reverberate far beyond U.S. borders. “It is really problematic when a corporation applies their morality-driven values and norms to a global population,” said Katrin Tiidenberg, a professor at Tallinn University in Estonia and co-author of the book Sex and Social Media with Emily van der Nagel. “They’re applying a very conservative American take on sexuality, femininity, masculinity, and nudity and pleasure to their content moderation.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.