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Sexism is Built into the Algorithm

Kaylen Ward, a 20-year-old model, was at home in Los Angeles, watching the news of the devastating Australian wildfires, when she decided that she wanted to do something. 

She had already been doing brisk business selling nude photos of herself online, so Ward tweeted an offer the internet couldn’t refuse. Anyone who could prove that they donated at least $10 to a pre-selected charity of her choosing would receive a nude photo in their DMs.

 Two days later, she reported having raised $500,000 in donations to help battle the wildfire devastation. But then, a snag. Instagram disabled her account (it has since been resurrected), saying that she was “violating [their] policies. Offering nude images is not allowed on Instagram,” a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

Sex sells. Unless it’s women’s sexual pleasure. Then, suddenly, everyone’s a prude.

San Francisco-based men’s wellness and personal care service Hims raised eyebrows when its hipster-friendly ads for hair loss and erectile dysfunction began papering the New York City subways. Hims, which announced that it expects to reach $250 million in sales by the end of 2020, has now launched Hers, a spinoff brand that sells birth control pills and treatment for hyposexual sexual desire disorder. [Hims PR politely declined to comment on whether it faced different challenges when it came to access to technology services].

Brooklyn-based Dame Products is a sexual wellness company that engineers innovative sex toys, including the hands-free Eva II vibrator. Dame has 20 employees and reports revenue of about $1 million. The company told Hacking Finance that its latest vibrator, the Arc, sold out in 72 hours. 

But the frank, cheerful language that resonates with its female customers is seen as TMI.

In 2018, after months of back and forth with New York City’s Mass Transit Authority, Dame CEO Alexandra Fine believed she’d finally reached the finish line for their big holiday ad campaign. Then, after five months of discussions, and rounds of approvals, radio silence.

“They ghosted us,” said Fine. “They added a new line in their FAQ page, specifically saying sex toys aren’t allowed and that they would never work with a sexually oriented business.”

She calls it a “slap in the face.” 

“They also were running advertising for the Museum of Sex, who sells our products. And they were running advertising for erectile dysfunction pills and libido supplements.”

Why Hims, not Dame? Dame, who is now suing the MTA, wants New York’s Southern District Court to decide.

The company has also launched an online PSA quiz campaign called Approved, Not Approved.  Can you guess which one of these ads was accepted or rejected for having “adult” content?

Why Hims, why not Dame? Dame, who is now suing the New York City’s MTA, wants New York’s Southern District Court to decide.

“The problem is that women’s sexual pleasure is seen as indulgent, where men’s is seen as basic health,” said Brianna Rader, the CEO of Juicebox, a San Francisco-based sex education technology company. 

A company’s access to technology services, from ad-tech to payment processing, can also depend on the way a given company interprets pleasure versus necessity. 

“PayPal won’t work with us, and neither can Stripe,” said Cindy Gallop, CEO of user-generated, crowdsourced adult video-sharing website Make Love Not Porn. “I mean, that’s a nightmare. That’s the case with many of the tech services I need to operate my video streaming platform. The terms of service always says ‘No adult content.’”

Neither PayPal nor Stripe responded to requests for comment on their criteria for processing payments for adult-oriented products and services.

According to Gallop, explaining and defending one’s technology business to behemoth payment processors can be a very analog affair. “I’ve had to go to the top of the company and explain what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’ve had to beg them to let me use their service,” she said. “If you had told me 11 years ago when I had the concept of Make Love Not Porn, that I would spend so much of my time talking to payment processors, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Stoya, an adult film star and CEO of ZeroSpaces, a sexually explicit multimedia magazine, has had some unintentionally philosophical discussions with BigCartel, a company that allows individuals to set up online stores, as well as with Stripe, its payment processor. 

Neither company would allow her to sell a custom Fleshlight, an artificial orifice made of elastomeric gel molded to the female form (and housed in a flashlight casing for discretion).  But her nude photos are no problem; both told her that they did not want to be the ones to decide what made a nude photo an object of art versus pornography.

“Over the lifetime of my career, it’s generally very difficult to get an answer about what is and isn’t porn,” she said. “Stripe is an interesting case. To them, if you consider it art, then it’s art. At least that’s what they told me in an email.”

Defending one’s technology business to behemoth payment processors can be a very analog affair.

These startups often use creative workarounds to get products and services into the hands of willing customers. 

Juicebox has managed to get a few social media ads through with careful wording and imagery, Rader said. Juicebox has also received earned media coverage for its innovative and enthusiastic sexting chatbot Slutbot, which teaches people how to sext while weaving in consent. 

“We try to rely on influencers, PR, SEO, and shareability–not only paid acquisition,” she said. 

Stoya promotes ZeroSpaces in the column of her monthly byline for Slate, where she writes a sex column. She also promotes the magazine at adults only events where people are 18+. Occasionally, her social media ads will get through, and she can advertise that way. 

“‘Likes’ don’t necessarily translate into sales,” she said. “People haven’t paid anything to be there. Whereas at a burlesque show, they’ve paid for their ticket. They’re willing to spend money for something that has value to them, so then it’s a question of showing them that there ZeroSpace is topical to their interests.”

Gallop has found success working with brand partnerships and guerilla marketing to spread the word about her sex-positive video network. 

“When you are a sex tech venture, you realize how other tech startup take their easy access to business software for granted,” said Gallop. “We need to be allowed to do business in the same way that everybody else does. Because when you do that, you completely transform the landscape of what is deemed adult.”

→ Think you can spot the ads that were deemed too “adult” for public consumption? Take this quiz

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