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How Shadow Banning is Impacting the Sex Tech Industry

(And how companies are getting around it)

What is shadow banning?

Shadow banning is a form of censorship that suppresses social media content without informing the user that this is happening. For sexual wellness influencers and brands, shadow banning has been on the rise, affecting their ability to grow, and in some cases, even hurting profits.

The term “shadow banning” is not something social media platforms themselves use, nor admit to doing—it’s a murky, opaque process that hurts users, but benefits the platforms. In the past, when something didn’t meet a platform’s content guidelines, the account would be deactivated. But deactivated users don’t contribute to ad views and profit, so platforms have resorted to shadow banning, or severely limiting the reach of certain types of content. They do this without informing the user that other users are not able to search for or see the posted content. Often, even if a post might meet a platform’s official policies, it might still get shadow banned if it’s deemed controversial, to reduce the risk of public backlash to the platforms.

Shadow banning disproportionately affects individuals and organization in the sex industry, including sextech/femtech brands. According to a 2020 academic paper that studied the impact of shadow banning on sex workers and activists, sex workers are significantly more likely (30.77%) to report they have been shadow banned on social media. Of those who identified as both a sex worker and an AOP (activist, organizer, and protestor), an incredible 51.28% reported being shadowbanned.

Besides hiding the content published by brands and leaders in the sexual health, education, and wellness space, platforms are also suppressing the voices of such groups by not allowing them to run ads. For platforms like YouTube, this involves blocking ads from running on channels deemed “triggering”, affecting the creators’ source of income. As an example, a sexual education YouTuber reported an 80% decline in his revenue due to being demonetized.

Why is the sex industry so disproportionately impacted?

These measures taken against sex content on social media may seem unfair and archaic, but on closer look, there are many forces pressuring social media platform to take such approaches.

Over the last few years, as the majority of ad spend has shifted from traditional media to digital media, conversation has exploded around “brand safety” for big mainstream brands advertising online. Advertisers, lobbyists, and policymakers have been pressuring online platforms to better police their platforms. The result? Platforms have tightened their policies and started censoring more content, with billions of ad dollars at stake.

As of 2020, Facebook has beefed up its numbers of content moderators to 15,000, after a series of major public controversies. This included when unmoderated content incited genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar in 2016 and 2017. However, even the current fleet of moderators is not enough, and Facebook needs to double its moderators, according to experts from New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

Because so much is at stake, platforms turned to AI and machine learning to support human content moderation and offset some of the hefty costs of human moderation. The problem is that the AI has been predominantly trained by people with inherent bias. Examples:

  • Male celebrity entrepreneurs partying with women wearing micro bikinis so tiny they’re virtually naked = ACCEPTABLE

  • Advertising laden with male-driven sexual innuendo = ACCEPTABLE

  • Advertising products for periods and menopause = BANNED OR SHADOWBANNED

Understandably, a lot of censorship of the sex and femtech industries stems from efforts to tackle the illegal side of the sex industry. Instead of making a distinction, it’s easier for platforms to conflate these illegal activities with sex education, sexual wellness, and consensual sex work, making it hard for legitimate players in the industry to make a stable living.

How is the industry getting around this bias?

1. Finding loopholes

Some brands are choosing to ‘play nice’ by skirting the rules and finding loopholes in platforms’ policies to avoid getting their content suppressed or banned. For instance, when Dame’s ads promoting their vibrators were shut down, they tested marketing their lube instead - which worked. They’ve also tested running ads with less explicit wording (“massagers” instead of “vibrators”), which worked too. Meanwhile, sex toy company Lionness launched successfully on Facebook with a “baby announcement” (by calling the company a new baby).

2. Focusing on alternative platforms

Additionally, sextech and femtech brands are turning to alternative platforms to grow their audience and reach. This includes sex-positive social platforms like MeWe, Newgrounds, Mastodon, NewTumbl, Lips, and Pillowfort, as well as a sex-positive podcast hosting service by the Tickle.Life discovery platform and marketplace.

3. Advocating for and taking legal action

Meanwhile, other brands and influencers are confronting this bias head-on, through advocacy and awareness. When photos from black model Nyome Nicholas-Williams’ nude photoshoot were removed from Instagram, even though no sensitive body parts were visible, she fought this ban and changed the platform’s nudity policy following a viral campaign against Instagram’s censorship.

Female-founded sex toy company, Dame, decided to sue the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority after its ads were abruptly rejected from running in subway stations across the city. Additionally, they collaborated with another female-founded pleasure company, Unbound, to raise awareness among consumers of advertising’s double standards through a campaign called “Approved, or Not Approved?”

And sex toy company Biird created a public petition highlighting how the current policies around adult content are inconsistent and biased against women and other marginalized communities.

One of the most well-known women leaders in the industry, Cindy Gallop (founder of MakeLoveNotPorn), warns sex tech industry leaders not to lose sight of their missions for the sake of ease or conforming to unjust societal norms. A piece of advice she has often given founders is to “take yourself out of the shadows.”

“If you concept and design a venture around existing societal bias and prejudice, all you do is reinforce it. I refuse to bow to existing bias and prejudice because I’d rather change it,” Gallop said.

Hannah Wrathall, founder of Wrapp Consulting, which specializes in marketing and communications for women’s health, would agree. She explains that the biases we are seeing today come down to “the algorithm.” She explained that the teams reviewing the content and training the AI models “have not been educated on the distinction between the female body for sexual gratification and the female body as an owned and an empowered entity capable of sexual pleasure.”

Wrathall added that “the onus should be on these companies to work with brands to adapt and solve the algorithm. It is one of the biggest challenges we face with technology; we can’t allow companies to create AI and machine learning with this gender bias.”

Turning the tide

Ultimately, brands operating in this space need to understand the implications of inherent bias and the potential impact it can have on their business. Overcoming this, while difficult, is not impossible. It will likely take both an attack and defense strategy, where brands need to find loopholes and use creative ways to comply with biased policies, or consider alternative platforms to stay on the defensive and make sure their work and content reaches people.

Simultaneously, it’s essential for businesses in this space to also go on the offensive, challenging the status quo and making their voices (and those of their customers) heard. With enough momentum and pressure on shifting mainstream perception, the industry can collectively change the systems in place and normalize sexual wellness for everyone.

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