The Unwritten Rules of Social Media (A Survival Guide)
How do doctors, researchers, health companies and sex educators combat harmful policies at legacy social platforms?
In Dan Bilzerian’s last three Instagram posts, I counted 25 women in their underwear.
For Bilzerian, a playboy slash poker player slash entrepreneur slash influencer, this is pretty on brand. Sliced between Bilzerian’s photos of himself surrounded by nearly naked (and sometimes fully naked) women are promotional posts for his CBD company.
In theory, Bilzerian should be on thin ice with Instagram. As a rule, the platform doesn’t allow nudity. Their algorithms can’t detect things like consent or the age of a photo’s subject, and Instagram is up front about the fact that they err on the conservative side for safety reasons. Paid advertisements for CBD products are also anathema at Instagram—but you can share regular posts that might feature products in this category. Of course, you can still become shadow-banned—that is, your posts or account become limited in visibility—if you don’t comply with these terms.
Yet there’s no evidence that Blizerian, whose account has a hair shy of 33 million followers, has been punished or persuaded by Instagram. And whether you think Instagram should enforce its policies on Bilzerian or not, it’s clear that the rules don’t apply to him—the proof is on the page.
The rules do apply, however, to doctors, researchers, women’s health companies, sexual health educators, activists and sex workers who are routinely blocked and shadow-banned by Instagram and other legacy social media sites.
Take, for example, Dr. Nicole Prause, an American neuroscientist researching human sexual behavior, who routinely runs ads on Twitter to recruit study participants for grant-funded research. FDA regulations ensure that the ads are approved by a 12-member federal ethics board before they are shared, in order to protect the rights and welfare of research subjects. And yet, these same ads are then blocked by Twitter, citing “inappropriate content.”
Lauren Schulte Wang, the founder and CEO of the menstrual disk company Flex, recently tried to run ads on TikTok showing a representation of period blood, but was denied for showing “gruesome and disgusting content,” “sensitive body parts,” and “sexual content.” Google also rejected one of Flex’s ads that showed two women in one-piece bathing suits—that one was disapproved for “adult and shocking content.” Given what decision-making power looks like at these companies, it's pretty clear who was shocked.
And it goes on. Last fall, model and activist Nyome Nicholas-Williams was censored on Instagram for sharing a photo of herself, naked from the top up with her arms wrapped around her breasts—showing significantly less nipple than the thin, white women in Bilzerian’s posts. After her images were taken down, Nicholas-Williams wrote an open letter to Instagram’s head Adam Mosseri for removing the bodies of Black, plus-size women, calling for more parity when it comes to who is free and who is policed on Instagram. Her followers gathered in droves, sharing the censored photos of Nicholas-Williams under the rallying hashtag #IwanttoseeNyome.
Back in 2015, sextech startups began protesting against Facebook for not allowing them to run ads on the platform. Annie Brown, the founder of Lips, a blockchain-enabled site where women and the LGBTQ+ community can share and sell uncensored art and photographs, told me she was first banned from running ads on Facebook in 2017. The social media giant’s official reason for banning Brown’s original post was that it violated their “personal attributes'' policy—she believes this is a veiled reference to her use of the word “gender.” Here’s the rejected ad, for a gender-inclusive event:
Since then, Lips has been heavily regulated on Instagram; the team’s posts are regularly hidden from their followers, they’ve been locked out of their account on multiple occasions, and they’re often prevented from posting, liking, and following on the platform.
For Liz Goldwyn, it was the name of her company that earned her algorithmic ire. Goldwyn’s sexual health platform, The Sex Ed, hasn’t ever been searchable on Facebook because of the word “sex.” Sure enough, The Sex Ed did not show up for me when I searched for it on Facebook, but Hims—a company that has famously had few problems running ads for erectile dysfunction—is one of the first results.
Policies across social media have traditionally had a gender bias that reflects the prejudices present in American society. It’s part of Instagram’s (and Facebook's, and Twitter's, and TikTok's, and even Parler's) DNA to make moral judgments about content, and that comes with real, measurable consequences. For example, while women are free to bear their chests in public in many parts of the world, the U.S. takes a strong stance against visible breasts in public. While male chest nudity is A-OK on streets, beaches, ads, and posts, too much of a woman’s breast is not only unacceptable—it’s illegal.
So this isn’t really different from how the U.S. applies lewdness laws (randomly), which activists argue violates the 14th Amendment. Given that social platforms now define the modern public sphere, these companies have become an arbiter of just what "too much" means—a hint of nipple, a breast held by a human hand, a dangling breast.
What does this mean when bodies are your business? It’s always been an uphill battle for brands related to women’s health and sexual health who rely on Instagram to find early customers. For example, sex toy company Dame spent about $500,000 on Facebook ads in 2018 and saw over a 3X return on ad spend. But then, Facebook started shutting off the company’s ads promoting vibrators one by one.
“To be spending $150,000 a month on an ad channel and then all of the sudden not have a place to spend that money—it sucked,” Dame CEO Alex Fine told me. “I know how well my message resonates on Facebook and Instagram, and that’s almost worse than not having access to it ever.”
Lingerie company Adore Me recently spoke out against TikTok when the platform removed their ads that featured plus-size women, women of color, and people with disabilities, while their content featuring slim, white women was left untouched. (TikTok purposely built their algorithm to suppress posts created by users deemed “too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform,” though they claim these policies have gotten better. Ahem.)
If you’re paying attention, this narrative has played out again and again and again on social media. My personal Twitter and Instagram feeds are filled with “yet another example”-esque posts of… yet another example of Big Social’s relentless censorship of women, trans, and non-binary folk who show their bodies or talk about sex openly. So I took a step back, let out a healthy scream, and started listening to the people whose livelihoods take a hit because of these rules. Are they moving to other platforms? Finding loopholes? Having breakthrough conversations to change policy? Will nothing change?
Here’s the thing: The one benefit of this having played out on repeat on social media over the years is that dance steps have emerged—ones that help combat harmful policies at legacy social platforms, spark viral cultural discussions that actually move the needle, and keep sex-positive businesses and sex-centric research alive. It’s a manual for survival, I suppose, sourced from the first-hand experiences of folks at Dame, Flex, Lips, The Sex Ed, and Lorals, as well as advertising experts, doctors, and researchers.
Until social media companies choose to develop more parity in policies related to gender and sexuality, businesses still need to make money. People like Dame CEO Alex Fine have found ways around these discriminatory policies that they can take advantage of until that revolution happens.
For example, when Dame’s ads promoting their vibrators were shut down, the startup tested marketing their lube instead. That worked.
“Learn the policies and figure out what you can do that’s tangential marketing to what you’re ultimately selling and use Facebook that way,” Fine told me. “There’s a lot of content that we can market and if I can market to you something that gets you to see Dame products in some way, that can work.”
Dame has also tested changing the language they use to be less explicit (“massagers'' instead of vibrators), which was successful—albeit disheartening. Others have done the same: sex toy company Lionness was able to successfully launch on Facebook under the guise of a baby announcement (they called the company a baby).
“People will get annoyed at you for being euphemistic, for not saying vagina or vibrator,” Fine told me. “When I first got into the industry I told myself that I’m just going to say vibrator—why would you call it a massager? But there’s a reason. When I get down about it I like to remind myself that I wouldn’t be as passionate about what I do if the taboo didn’t exist.”
Another loophole: set up multiple accounts. The Sex Ed founder Liz Goldwyn told me she’s currently on her third or fourth Instagram account since 2012 because she keeps getting kicked off for posting art that features sexuality, which she believes is being flagged by users. She’s not alone—many of the folks I spoke with for this story believe that trolls are the primary reason their posts and ads continuously get blocked on social sites.
These trolls report the content as inappropriate not because they’re concerned about sex trafficking or exploitation, but because they’re angry about being exposed to the realities of women’s health and sexuality, sex-positive messaging, and body difference.
Dr. Prause found that setting up a second, more incognito Twitter account helped her successfully run ads to recruit subjects for scientific studies on sexual health. Her hunch is that anti-science activists who follow her main account are mass reporting her ads as inappropriate.
“Basically, if people hate your science, they can close down your online recruitment,” Dr. Prause told me. “If it’s sexual in nature, they can use that to get the ads down.”
The irony of the advertising obstacles that women’s health and sexual health brands have faced is that it created a ton of press. There was the sex toy that shook up the Consumer Electronics Show. On the grounds of freedom of speech, Dame’s founders sued the MTA, who had denied putting their ads in New York City subway stations. These companies and their leaders are doing real work to create meaningful conversations around body standards, health, and sex positivity in public forums.
Flex, a menstrual products company, is doing this right now, by calling on Oxford Languages (the organization behind the Oxford English Dictionary and OED Labs) and Google to change their searchable definition of ‘menstruation’ to include all people who menstruate, not just those who identify as female. Flex extended an invite to their followers to do the same, even including directions on how to submit feedback to these platforms.
“We do know that Google will notice and change their policies when louder voices demand it,” said Shulte Wang. “Flex is only one voice, in a noisy, busy space.”
This is the same tack Adore Me took when they pointed out TikTok’s blatant discrimination against plus-size, Black, and disabled models in a Twitter thread last month. The discussion was liked by over 10,000 people and TikTok eventually restored three of Adore Me’s videos.
In a similar vein, sex toy company Biird created a petition highlighting how the current policies around adult content are inconsistent and damaging towards anyone but cis men (that is, men who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth). Their site highlights imbalanced content restrictions in layman’s terms (erectile dysfunction medications: allowed; female sexual content: not allowed), and offers up solutions like better sex education for social media moderators.
In the campaign, Cindy Gallop, an advertising expert and the founder and CEO of MakeLoveNotPorn, also calls out Roman and Hims as examples of why every investor and venture capitalist should care about gender-biased sextech bans. Both companies launched in 2017 hawking solutions for erectile dysfunction and were able to spend huge amounts of their funding ($376 million and $297 million, respectively) on advertising to grow. Hims went public in January in a $1.6 billion SPAC deal and Roman was last valued at $1.5 billion.
“There's a huge amount of money to be made out of taking women seriously—especially when it comes to sex,” says Gallop.
Support alternative platforms
After Tumblr banned “adult content” in December 2018, it barely survived. The ban came in the wake of a series of events that forced the microblogging site to reckon with its status as a large company, suddenly liable for all things related to sex: Tumblr’s app was removed from the App Store after images of child sexual abuse were discovered, Tumblr’s site was banned in Indonesia for porn, and FOSTA-SESTA, a law intended to curb sex trafficking that has led to tech platforms overpolicing for potential prostitution advertisements, was passed earlier that year (more on that later).
While Tumblr was once a safe space for content that depicted healthy sex practices, sexual exploration, and openness around taboo topics like sex work, the ban led to a mass exodus. There were petitions, a large log-off protest, and many people left Tumblr altogether. From 2018 to 2019, to name a few of Tumblr’s declining stats, the site’s average number of unique monthly visitors dropped by 21.2 percent, the average monthly volume of traffic to the Tumblr login page by U.S. visitors dropped by 49 percent and the average number of daily active users on Tumblr’s Android app dropped by 35 percent.
Where did people go? Many of those who left were the ones at the margins, who had found their communities on Tumblr. Some flocked to alternative platforms such as newTumbl (a near-clone of Tumblr), BDSMLR (a Tumblr copycat specifically for bondage and fetish porn) and Pillowfort (it’s currently down but trying to keep the lights on). Others resorted to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Of course, Instagram and Facebook are as or more risk-averse than Tumblr when it comes to adult content (Facebook acquired Instagram for $1B in 2012). Twitter, however, is becoming a hotbed for sex-positive alt accounts (the equivalent of Finstas, but on Twitter). A possible path forward: intentionally designing more alternative platforms.
Cindy Gallop, the MakeLoveNotPorn founder, says that human curation is a key ingredient to creating more safe and inclusive alternatives to legacy platforms. On her own site every comment box reminds users to “keep it positive,” and the company has yet to censor a single comment. This is also why Annie Brown is creating a social platform like Lips; it provides a safe option for women-identified and LGBTQIA+ creators and their fans. And if you can direct friends, followers, and customers toward alternative platforms, there’s even more power in that.
“If brands or individuals choose other platforms and really build an audience and drive traffic there, they could see better results in terms of monetizing their social media, because they won’t always be worried about getting deleted or shadow-banned,” she said. “Maybe if enough people start leaving Instagram and choosing other platforms, and then they actually see a dip in traffic, they’ll start to take these issues more seriously.”
Talk to humans
Instagram refined its policies surrounding semi-nude plus-size bodies after Nyome Nicholas-Williams’s campaign against the company’s censorship. Nicholas-Williams’s letter to Instagram head Adam Mosseri caught his attention, which reportedly led to a call to discuss her experience.
As part of the reexamined nudity policy, Instagram will now allow content “where someone is simply hugging, cupping, or holding their breasts,” but content where “people squeeze their breasts in a grabbing motion with bent fingers or if there is a clear change in the shape of the breasts” is still banned.
The revamped policy also outlines that Instagram won’t automatically remove a post based on a report of inappropriate content—the women I talked to were right about the outsized effects of trolls. It’s a step in the right direction, though Instagram is still vague about their process for automatically shadowbanning users who get reported. Actually, Instagram has never acknowledged that they shadowban accounts (they do), because “shadowban” is not a term they coined themselves.
But getting on the phone with real people (humans work at these companies!) and questioning the “why” behind a particular policy seems to be the biggest breakthrough so far in the movement toward the equitable treatment of content and creators. Pro tip: This might be hardest to do with Instagram and Facebook, and many founders I spoke with are still unsure as to why they’re routinely shadow-banned or blocked from these two platforms.
“It’s been a lot easier to communicate with higher-ups at almost every other platform [besides Instagram and Facebook],” said Goldwyn. “They’ve either gone out of their way to reach out or they invite us to join their platform. Instagram is the only one where it’s like barking up a tree. Through my personal network I’ve had contact with them, but I just don’t feel welcomed. They’re just too big and have bigger fish to fry.”
Flex found recent success in changing sexist ad policies by getting on the phone with higher-ups at TikTok. When Flex’s ads showing period blood were first flagged, they initiated a conversation with TikTok to understand why it was happening in the first place.
“The most important piece of the puzzle was when we were finally able to speak directly with the decision-makers at TikTok and help them to see why the policies needed to be changed,” said Schulte Wang. “We explained our beliefs that menstruation is not ‘adult content’ and that bodies and anatomical diagrams of the vagina aren’t automatically sexual in nature. As for how we did this effectively, it came down to having real conversations with our account execs and decision-makers at these platforms, and respectfully asking the question of 'why?' Once we were able to open the door to discussion, that was when we started to see change.”
It’s worth noting that some of these existing policies are likely rooted in concerns based on FOSTA-SESTA, which became law in 2018. While explicitly intended to curb trafficking, FOSTA-SESTA essentially criminalizes companies and platforms for hosting people who discuss anything related to sex. But while Instagram reportedly hides posts from some users under hashtags like #woman and #femalestrippers, #man and #malestrippers remain uncensored. On a more urgent level, many activists argue that the law has made the internet less safe by banning content intended to educate.
“If [Facebook] is super concerned about FOSTA-SESTA, they could do a better job drawing the line at which products out there are actually leading to human trafficking,” Lorals founder and CEO Melanie Cristol told me. “Just because you are creating pleasure for someone does not mean that there is human tracking involved.” (It’s worth noting that FOSTA-SESTA has been fought by sex workers and advocates, who would rather see safe places for sex workers to vet customers and communicate support to one another online, rather than watch as sex work is pushed into more dangerous territory underground. It turns out pretending things don’t exist isn’t actually a strategy.)
Lorals—a company that sells latex underwear designed to replace the dental dam—is currently blocked from running ads on Instagram and Facebook. While the product is rooted in pleasure (especially for women), it’s also intended to be a safe product—Cristol is currently seeking out FDA approval for Loral to be marketed as an STI preventer.
“Once we get FDA-cleared we believe we’ll be able to run ads on Instagram and Facebook to talk about the product’s safety qualities,” Cristol told me. “But we’re currently blocked because Facebook doesn’t let companies advertise products for sexual pleasure.”
I’m screaming again, because it’s not sexual pleasure in general—see again the Roman and Hims stats—but women’s pleasure and sexual health that are given no quarter. And this is the direct result of sexist policies on social media; a rulebook that further stigmatizes the people it purports to protect. The freedom to participate in capitalism might not seem like life or death, but because giant internet companies want to live in a world where periods don’t happen and the female nipple is outlawed, women experience the internet and themselves differently. Women experience an internet where men’s sexual pleasure is celebrated and their own pleasure is hidden—it’s a corollary to rape culture played out in our own “For You” pages and Explore tabs. Health and sex are universal! It’s about time the platforms we’ve chosen to communicate through reflect —instead of quash—that fact.
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