National Orgasm Day came and went with a bang this week — especially in New York City, where women from two sex-tech startups joined forces to protest outside of Facebook headquarters over its advertising double standard regarding sex-themed products.
It was just the latest pushback effort on the part of sex-positive feminist activists who say that all orgasms are equal.
“We believe that advertisers should allow advertisements for sexual health and wellness products for everyone — not exclusively cis men, as is currently the case,” notes Approved, Not Approved, the website created by the team-up of Dame Products and Unbound, both of which sell sex toys and related items marketed to women.
Dame is suing the MTA, which operates New York City’s subways, over its refusal to run any of the company’s ads — even though sexual-enhancement products targeting men were allowed.
And the two companies teamed up on Wednesday to protest the Facebook policy for adult products or services, which states: “Ads must not promote the sale or use of adult products or services, except for ads for family planning and contraception. Ads 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 18 years or older.”
Aside from agreeing with the 18-plus target, many involved in this effort take umbrage to Facebook’s rule, which, they say, is straight-up sexist.
“They’re never going to view sexual pleasure as necessary — only functionality as necessary,” Dame Products CEO Alexandra Fine told TechCrunch. “And since the functioning only matters for one sex, then we’re just encouraging s****y sex or at least one-sided sex. Healthy sex should be pleasurable sex. That’s really what I think is important.”
This was also the source of recent controversy when a vibrator designed for women had its innovation award revoked from the annual tech show Consumer Electronics Show (CSE); soon after, under pressure of gender bias allegations, organizer Consumer Technology Association reversed course, returning the award and officially approving sex-tech companies to take part.
Activists say this endless push-pull about whose sex is palatable and whose is not is something that needs to stop.
“This is not just about sex toys,” Jaclyn Friedman, activist, podcaster and author of Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “What it’s about is the fact that the folks who make the rules about what is obscene and allowable is mostly guys, making the rules from their perspective. And the rules benefit them. It really is that straightforward. The rules that they make work for them.” Because, she adds, “If you say you can advertise protection and functionality but you can’t say anything about pleasure, that focuses on the penis, inherently and structurally.”
While it may not be all about sex toys, it is important to note that they have radically improved in the past 20 years, explains Debby Herbenick, PhD, professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, author of The Coregasm Workout and a pioneer in the field of sexual-enhancement research. “What’s lagging behind,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “is marketing and advertising opportunities for women’s sexual enhancement products in comparison to, say, marketing and advertising for drugs to treat erectile dysfunction, or even in comparison to lubricants. And yet, vibrators and other sex toys are very mainstream, with most adult women ages 18 to 60 having used a vibrator and nearly half of men.”
The recent pushback against controlling these messages in advertising has been encouraging to Friedman, Herbenick and other sex-positive advocates. “There are some fantastic women in sex tech these days, and I’m excited to see them standing up for their businesses, their products and women’s sexualities more broadly,” Herbenick says.
Carol Queen, staff sexologist at the 42-year-old iconic adult-toy retailer Good Vibrations, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she’s “extremely excited that this is happening.”
“This situation is just seriously sexist. ‘Approved, Not Approved’ really shows that graphically — if the end result of a product is a penile erection, it seems that the greater good is being served, and that's that,” she says. “No insult meant to penile erections, which can often be terrific.” But the end message, she says, is that “vulvas and clits are somehow more sexual, and any reference to them and their functioning is unacceptable. ‘Keep it covered up, ladies (and other people who have those parts in their pants)!’ is the basic message. ‘Don't make us think about how all that works!’”
Queen, who is also curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum and co-author of The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone, explains that the aim to silence ads about women’s pleasure is nothing new — but that the problem has grown bigger as potential reach as expanded.
“Back in the mid-’80s Joani Blank, who founded Good Vibrations, tried to place ads in Ms. and Playboy and was rejected by both. When I started here, in 1990, publications might write about vibrators or other sexual topics, but no vibrator pictures, please! So, in some ways,” she says, “things have advanced quite a lot. But the Facebook situation, especially, is a brave new world, and content restriction there is truly a big deal.” That’s because, she says, ““Facebook, in particular, has set itself up to run the world and be the arbiter of all things.”
It’s damaging for Facebook to be so restrictive, she adds, because “sex and pleasure are natural, healthy, can be improved by good technology and information, and in a sex-positive world all this, and communication around it, would be fundamental. Sex is not just about erection, ejaculation and impregnation. These disconnects, though, send the message that this IS what's important: male ‘functioning,’ and not all the other elements of sexual experience or even health.”
Adds Friedman, “Whether it’s the New York subway or Facebook or whatever, [the banning of information] contributes to a culture where women are taught that our sexual pleasure isn’t important.”
As to the root of all this, Herbenick says there are various perspectives. “But it’s worth pointing out, as many have, that sexism is pervasive when we think about the people running tech and electronic shows, the people investing (or not) in tech companies, and so on,” she says.
That said, she’s hopeful about a shift. “I increasingly hear from people of all genders who seem to ‘get’ that sexuality and sexual exploration and pleasure are just part of the human experience,” she says. “Vibrators and other sex toys are mainstream. They’re important parts of many people’s pleasurable sex lives. They’re also critical clinical tools for people of all genders who may be experiencing sexual difficulties in the face of diabetes, cancer treatment, menopause, erectile difficulties or other health conditions. I think more people — investors, journalists and academics — are coming around.”
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