I woke up last Thursday morning to an email that Facebook had banned my company Origin’s advertising account.
Before I go any further, some context. Origin is a women’s health company that offers physical therapy for incredibly common and often overlooked issues that impact women throughout their lives, from painful sex to postpartum recovery. Each year, about 40 million women experience pelvic floor dysfunction and the full body issues for which physical therapy is the first-line treatment, but there are not nearly enough providers who offer this clinically proven, non-invasive, and affordable care.
We exist because women are not getting the care they need, in large part because gender bias in medicine is pervasive and entrenched. Women are more likely to be misdiagnosed, ignored, or denied by doctors, causing well-documented harm. Doctors and nurses prescribe less pain medication to women than men after surgery, despite reporting more frequent and severe pain levels. There are five times the number of studies about male erectile dysfunction compared to painful sex in women. And as late as the 1990s, researchers were using male subjects to study ovarian cancer (an absurdity so ridiculous that it requires a John Oliver shtick).
So, I can’t say I’m surprised that Facebook is perpetuating these same biases. Over the last few months as we’ve started to grow our reach, we’ve received multiple ad rejections per week, often for posts that include simple imagery or educational content. According to Facebook’s algorithm, a video of one of our Clinical Directors talking about safe labor and delivery positions was so egregiously misleading and deceptive, they banned our account for “unacceptable business practices.”
There is nothing misleading or deceptive about this post. There are no nude photos or offensive language. It was simple education to improve health outcomes. (As of this posting, our account is back online after multiple communications with the company, whose response was “our systems are not perfect.”)
And it’s not just Facebook. Two weeks ago, we shared an illustration of a woman’s pelvic floor to our Google business page in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness month — an issue that affects 1 in 5 women (conservatively) — to help women better understand their bodies. The image was rejected with no explanation and no option to appeal.
I posted about both of these incidents on LinkedIn to elevate the issue, and ironically, my post was blocked as “adult content.” LinkedIn, to their credit, responded swiftly and within 24 hours it was back up.
I’ve now heard from dozens of colleagues in women’s health and sexual wellness who experience ad rejections and banned accounts on a regular basis. The fear of real talk about women’s bodies permeates traditional media as well. Frida Mom’s ad was rejected by the Oscars for showing postpartum recovery in unsparing detail. Sex tech is perceived to be so explicit that CES revoked an innovation award from Lora DiCarlo. And Dame’s ads were banned from the NYC subway, a clear double standard compared to the phallic imagery used by erectile dysfunction company Hims.
Time to break the cycle
If it’s considered too explicit to talk about vaginas or visualize the anatomy of the pelvic floor, how is anyone supposed to know what to do when things go wrong?
When I experienced painful sex in my 20s, it was this very lack of education and body awareness, coupled with a dysfunctional medical system, that led to me to see nearly a dozen doctors and ultimately be told, “Maybe it will just go away over time.” Millions of women have had similar experiences, and instead of getting real clinical treatment, they are advised to “drink a glass of wine and relax!” for painful sex or wear adult diapers to manage incontinence.
Ad censorship perpetuates the talk track that women should feel ashamed or embarrassed by their bodies, that their pain is not real and deserving of medical attention. Further, it forces brands to use watered down imagery and euphemisms like “down there” or “private parts,” instead of creating clear, accurate educational content that can lead to positive health outcomes.
Educating women about their bodies using real language and real imagery is a public health service. These ad platforms have allowed hate speech, misinformation, and true threats to health and personal safety. But the pelvic floor — heaven forbid we actually help women connect to their bodies and heal from pain.
To the Trust & Safety leaders behind these policies, it’s time you start retraining your teams and your algorithms. It’s time you stop perpetuating harm.
If you’re fed up and fired up like me: we’re bringing together organizations in the women’s health and sexual wellness space to break this cycle and support ad tech companies in creating sound policies that protect all community stakeholders. If you’re a brand who has experienced these issues, send us a note with your story at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll loop you in.