By Jessie Gretener, CNN
Female reproductive health experts are calling on Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, to rethink its restrictions on reproductive health content.
The company has long faced criticism for removing and restricting female reproductive health information with a prominent report from the Center for Intimacy Justice early last year accusing Meta of systematically rejecting many female and gender diverse reproductive health ads. The CIJ report also accused Meta of having bias algorithms, stating that male reproductive health ads were found to be permitted, including ads that referenced male sexual pleasure.
In bid to combat those concerns, Meta tweaked its “adult products or services” advertising policy last October to include clearer guidelines about reproductive health, clarifying that it allows the promotion of “reproductive health products or services” if the content is targeted to “people aged 18 or older.”
Meta (FB) argues the topic is sensitive, stating that as a global company it needs to take in to account the “wide array of people from different cultures and countries” to “avoid potential negative experiences.”
However, female reproductive experts tell CNN that the advertising policy is still too restrictive and is creating barriers for how younger people around the world access information about female reproductive health issues, including the menstrual cycle, which can start as early as 8 years old.
They argue that censoring content about normal and natural bodily functions plays into the shame that has long plagued how people learn about the female body and hormone cycle. That can hinder how people with uteruses advocate for their bodies in healthcare settings, including obtaining care for misunderstood and underdiagnosed conditions like endometriosis.
Lets talk about p3riods
The practice of censoring female reproductive health content is not unique to Meta, with similar issues reported on other social media platforms. However, Meta is under specific scrutiny for failing to adequately address the issue within its policy updates last year.
The founder and CEO of the Center for Intimacy Justice, Jackie Rotman, told CNN that despite the policy update, Meta’s algorithms still seem to have a problem with female reproductive health content.
“The policy says that reproductive health is allowed, but in practice their technology is still rejecting it,” Rotman said, explaining that images of uteruses are often mistakenly flagged as nudity, and words like period, menopause, endometriosis and vagina also commonly triggering sexually inappropriate warnings.
Rotman outlined that while Meta’s reproductive health guidelines are targeted toward advertising content, unpaid posts are also often being impacted by Meta’s algorithms. She says shadow-banning, which refers to content being partially blocked from certain audiences, is common practice for organic content. Several reproductive health content creators told CNN that they experience shadow-banning, explaining that it is time consuming game of trial and error to determine what is considered too taboo.
Dr. Hazel Wallace, author of “The Female Factor” told CNN she wishes she could be more direct in how she speaks about the female body and hormone cycle, including menstrual health. However, said has learned that “to educate people, you almost have to play the game.”
She says she often experiences shadow banning, with her analytics showing less engagement if she uses words like period. She explained that her team experimented with Meta’s algorithm, finding they could often dodge restrictions by mis-spelling the word period as p3riod.
“We found that it increased engagement because it doesn’t flag your content as being inappropriate to certain audiences,” Wallace outlined.
While Meta on several occasions has apologized and re-instated female reproductive health content that it says was mistakenly removed, it still stipulates an age restriction in its policy. Therefore, even if the updated policy was perfectly implemented, Meta would still be green lighting the practise of censoring crucial content from certain audiences.
CNN asked Meta about the reports that it is continuing to remove, restrict, and shadow-ban female reproductive health content. CNN also asked Meta why all female reproductive health, including menstrual health, is classified as an 18+ issue.
In response, a spokesperson for Meta, Ryan Daniels, said, “We welcome ads for women’s health and sexual wellness products, but we prohibit nudity and have specific rules about how these products can be marketed on our platform.”
In a bid to change the conversation, female reproductive health content creators are not letting Meta’s restrictions silence their voices.
Wallace, a like so many others in her field, says she should not need to self-censor how she speaks about female reproductive health, arguing that censorship perpetuates a “hush hush” narrative about “normal experiences.”
“Imagine a world where we are teaching young girls and women from puberty – this is what to expect, this is normal, this is not normal, this is when to ask for help. We would feel a lot more empowered,” Wallace stated.
Categorizing reproductive health as an R-rated topic is an issue that extends far beyond Meta advertising policies, reflecting wider societal views, from politics to sex education curriculums.
Tracey Lindeman, the author of “BLEED: Destroying Myths and Misogyny in Endometriosis,” says classifying all female reproductive health issues under the umbrella of sexual health “perpetuates the idea that our sexual organs are to be exploited and used for sexuality, even at a young age.”
“You’re born with a reproductive system. Whether or not you’re having sex, you still have that system in your body, and it’s still affecting your body in different ways,” Lindeman reasoned.
“How about we just teach people about how their bodies work first, before we start teaching them how they work to have sex,” Lindeman stated.
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