This is the first in a series of posts examining the sexual content policies of major social media platforms. (I’m hoping to alternate weekly with my supreme court series) All policy details are copied exactly from the sources provided as of the publication date. Unless otherwise noted, all emphasis has been added by me.
Remember that policy does not necessarily reflect what actually happens on a platform. At best it can be read as what a company wants their stance on content to be.
Facebook is the world’s most popular social media platform no matter how you measure it. With 2.8 billion monthly active users – larger than the populations of Europe, North America, and South America combined – it reaches over 36% of the entire world.
Facebook does not allow sexual content or nudity at all, including exposed female breasts, but has a few specific policy exceptions. The advertising regulations are more restrictive.
Facebook’s Community Standards are a lengthy document with 27 sections split into 6 categories. Most areas have details of more specific content covered by that section.
The standards that cover nudity and sexual content are broken into four sub-sections, mixed under two different headings. We’ll start with the most relevant.
Category III. “Objectionable Content”
We restrict the display of nudity or sexual activity because some people in our community may be sensitive to this type of content. Additionally, we default to removing sexual imagery to prevent the sharing of non-consensual or underage content. Restrictions on the display of sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless it is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes.
Our nudity policies have become more nuanced over time. We understand that nudity can be shared for a variety of reasons, including as a form of protest, to raise awareness about a cause, or for educational or medical reasons. Where such intent is clear, we make allowances for the content. For example, while we restrict some images of female breasts that include the nipple, we allow other images, including those depicting acts of protest, women actively engaged in breast-feeding, and photos of post-mastectomy scarring. For images depicting visible genitalia or the anus in the context of birth and after-birth moments or health-related situations we include a warning label so that people are aware that the content may be sensitive. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.
Basically: no nudity or sex because some people find it offensive, with an exception for educational material, art, and a few specific situations.
As stated in the birth section, Facebook has a ‘click to view’ content warning system to hide disturbing (but allowed via policy) images and video from users. It isn’t something a poster can choose – the content must be reported and reviewed by a moderator who then applies the warning. Facebook’s Help forum has plenty of people asking to be able to set it themselves, but so far no dice.
The “do not post” details section includes definitions for nudity and sexual activity.
Do not post:
Images of Real nude adults, where nudity is defined as:
Visible genitalia except in the context of birth giving and after-birth moments or health-related situations (for example, gender confirmation surgery, examination for cancer or disease prevention/assessment)
Visible anus and/or fully nude close-ups of buttocks unless photoshopped on a public figure
Uncovered female nipples except in the context of breastfeeding, birth giving and after-birth moments, health-related situations (for example, post-mastectomy, breast cancer awareness or gender confirmation surgery) or an act of protest
It is worth noting that the specific exceptions for breast-feeding, post-mastectomy scarring, and birth photos are the direct result of massive public campaigns. I have no idea when or how “buttocks photoshopped on a public figure” came into play, but I would very much like to know.
Also note the banning of “uncovered female nipples.” This is a whooooole thing that I’ve been working on covering in a stand-alone post. You will hear these words again, with slight variation, in every single policy. If you’re not sure why this would be a complicated issue, consider these questions:
- What about the chest of a non-binary person?
- Does the areola count as part of the nipple? What if only a small part of it is showing?
- How transparent does a garment have to be before it is considered “uncovered?”
- If you photoshop ‘male nipples’ on ‘female breasts,’ can you post it? What if it ends up looking exactly the same as before?
They go into much more detail about their definition of sex, which is long and dry and reads like… well, like a boring policy document. Which it is. So I guess I can’t really fault them there.
Do not post:
Images of Sexual activity, including
Explicit sexual intercourse, defined as mouth or genitals entering or in contact with another person’s genitals or anus, where at least one person’s genitals are nude
Implied sexual intercourse, defined as mouth or genitals entering or in contact with another person’s genitals or anus, even when the contact is not directly visible, except in cases of a sexual health context, advertisements, and recognized fictional images or with indicators of fiction
Implied stimulation of genitalia/anus, defined as stimulating genitalia/anus or inserting objects into genitalia/anus, even when the activity is not directly visible, except in cases of sexual health context, advertisements, and recognized fictional images or with indicators of fiction
Other sexual activities including (but not limited to)
Presence of by-products of sexual activity
Stimulating genitals or anus, even if above or under clothing
Use of sex toys, even if above or under clothing
Stimulation of naked human nipples
Squeezing female breasts, defined as a grabbing motion with curved fingers that shows both marks and clear shape change of the breasts. We allow squeezing in breastfeeding contexts
Fetish content that involves
Acts that are likely to lead to the death of a person or animal
Feces, urine, spit, snot, menstruation, or vomit
A few things stand out to me in all this:
I really appreciate that they include oral and manual sex under their definition of “sexual intercourse.” All too often we see ‘sexual intercourse’ (or just ‘sex’ in general) used to refer exclusively to penis-in-vagina activity, or to the slightly broader category of penetrative sex. As much as I wish Facebook wouldn’t ban this content, I do appreciate this progresive phrasing.
The whole “except in case of […] advertisements” thing confuses me. As we’ll see later, the advertising rules are generally more restrictive than the community guidelines, so why “implied sexual intercourse” has an exemption for advertising is very odd.
The carve out for a “sexual health context” is an example of the ‘educational exemption’ that will come up again and again in these policies, even as far back as the original 1955 Supreme Court pornography case. (Sex is bad, unless you’re learning something! But not if what you’re learning is what turns you on, then it’s still bad.)
Squeezing of female breasts. ::sigh:: The over abundance of detail here (as opposed to the single-word line “erections”) is a great example of the absurdity inherent in classifying the world as ‘sexual’ or ‘not sexual.’ Why do “marks and clear shape change” make a hand on a boob something that gets banned? For that matter, why should a hand, even a woman’s own, grabbing her own clothed breast, ever be classified as sexual and bad? (Yes, I have seen examples of that very thing being taken down from Facebook/Instagram under this rule.)
The fetish section is both too extreme and too mild somehow. Dismemberment and cannibalism are specifically disallowed under Facebook’s graphic violence clause, so idk why they have to be called out here as a fetish item. On the other end of the spectrum, “spit” fetish content isn’t allowed??? Spitting into someone else’s mouth may squik some people out, but in the world of fetish content it’s remarkably wholesome – how is that on the same list as cannibalism? (This is also one of the rare examples where something is technically banned by policy, but I see spit fetish content all the time. [what? I follow a lot of kinky meme accounts, you shouldn’t be surprised by this])
As noted in Section 8 of our Community Standards (Sexual Exploitation of Adults), people use Facebook to discuss and draw attention to sexual violence and exploitation. We recognize the importance of and want to allow for this discussion. We draw the line, however, when content facilitates, encourages or coordinates sexual encounters or commercial sexual services between adults such as prostitution or escort services. We do this to avoid facilitating transactions that may involve trafficking, coercion, and non-consensual sexual acts. We also restrict sexually explicit language that may lead to solicitation because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content and it may impede the ability for people to connect with their friends and the broader community.
As I called out in a previous post, asking someone “wanna have sex?” on Facebook is fine, but “wanna have sex? 🍆 💦 🍑” is against the rules. The details underneath this section require both an “offer or ask” and “suggestive elements” for something to count as sexual solicitation, and as of summer 2019, those suggestive elements include “commonly sexual emojis or emoji strings.” (For you old-school pervs, other rules would also cover ASCII art such as B==>~~~)
On the surface this section is to prevent trafficking and sexual assault, which we can all agree is bad (also illegal!), and to comply with US and state laws, most of which ban prostitution.
In practice, it goes much further.
Sex workers of all kinds – full-service escorts as well as porn stars, professional doms, strippers, and sex toy manufacturers – regularly get kicked off Facebook, even if they’re not using that account to conduct business. This vastly accelerated with the passage of SESTA/FOSTA in 2018.
The intense and widespread discrimination of sex workers is beyond the scope of this particular post, but Hacking Hustling has an excellent report on the subject.
Category II. “Safety”
We do not allow content that sexually exploits or endangers children. When we become aware of apparent child exploitation, we report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), in compliance with applicable law. We know that sometimes people share nude images of their own children with good intentions; however, we generally remove these images because of the potential for abuse by others and to help avoid the possibility of other people reusing or misappropriating the images.
We also work with external experts, including the Facebook Safety Advisory Board, to discuss and improve our policies and enforcement around online safety issues, especially with regard to children. Learn more about the new technology we’re using to fight against child exploitation.
Yep, child porn is bad, no one should allow it. (As a side note it is also highly illegal which is not actually mentioned here.)
However, “What is child porn?” is a more nuanced question than most people expect, as evidenced by the note about removing images posted with ‘good intentions.’ In talking with some parents for this project, I have confirmed that Facebook removes nude child images from all sources, including closed private groups of family friends and direct messages.
Because child pornography is so intensely criminalized there is relatively little of it in existence, so the same media tends to get shared over and over. Nude images shared with good intentions, if they make their way into the dark side of the web, can be extremely difficult to take back. Other places in these policies I think facebook goes way too far in the name of “protection,” but in this case I agree with the policy.
One last important note: this policy exists, but in the real world Facebook doesn’t do a great job of actually removing this and other non-consensual content. There’s been a big hullabaloo about PornHub hosting child porn lately, but according to delightfully outspoken victim rights lawyer Carrie Goldberg, Facebook and other big tech platforms are far worse for hosting and failing to remove abusive content.
We recognize the importance of Facebook as a place to discuss and draw attention to sexual violence and exploitation. In an effort to create space for this conversation and promote a safe environment, we allow victims to share their experiences, but remove content that depicts, threatens or promotes sexual violence, sexual assault, or sexual exploitation. We also remove content that displays, advocates for, or coordinates sexual acts with non-consenting parties to avoid facilitating non-consensual sexual acts.
To protect victims and survivors, we remove images that depict incidents of sexual violence and intimate images shared without the consent of the person(s) pictured. As noted in the introduction, we also work with external safety experts to discuss and improve our policies and enforcement around online safety issues, and we may remove content when they provide information that content is linked to harmful activity. We’ve written about the technology we use to protect against intimate images and the research that has informed our work. We’ve also put together a guide to reporting and removing intimate images shared without your consent.
The distinction between discussing experiences of assault for awareness and actively promoting such experiences is a difficult but incredibly important one. The #metoo movement and other campaigns are likely the reason this section exists on its own, since this content would otherwise still be banned under Section 3. Coordinating Harm and Publicizing Crime.
The second half of this section is the “revenge porn” clause, otherwise known as Non-Consensual Intimate Images (NCII). One example of this is when someone shares sexual images of themselves with a partner, and that partner then turns around and posts those images online after they break up. The media was created consensually but distributed non-consensually, which is a sticky legal line – many, but not all, US states now have laws which make this illegal. I was glad to see Facebook had created a process for folks to report this content… except that link is broken.
I’ll end with a quick summary of the sexual content policies in Facebook’s advertising platform. These policies are separate and in addition to the general community standards. One particularly interesting difference in format is that some ad policies have images as examples to show what’s ok or not ok.
8. Adult Products or Services
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.
This one is just kind of a huge bummer to me. I’m glad they allow condoms, but the idea that pleasure is what makes something not allowed is just…. Sad.
There is an actual problem around a lot of sex-related products being marketed very poorly in extremely spammy or sketchy ways, and I’m not sure how to reconcile that on an advertising platform.
But I’m still depressed at the idea that pleasure = banned. :(
9. Adult Content
Ads must not contain adult content. This includes nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.
Ads that assert or imply the ability to meet someone, connect with them or view content created by them must not be positioned in a sexual way or with an intent to sexualise the person featured in the ad.
I have a lot of thoughts on this (why is everyone in the examples white???), but this post is already 9 pages long, so I’ll keep it short:
There are certainly a lot of spammy, scammy, shitty ads for sex-related products or services (just look at one of the porn tube sites), but blanket-banning them means we also prevent the new, better ones from gaining traction.
I know a lot of great educators, content creators, or product inventors that have been stymied in their attempts to scale because they can’t use the standard online advertising tools. (some of them can’t even find payment processors willing to allow transactions for their products, but that’s for another time) Of course, that’s probably because a lot of them focus on that forbidden topic, pleasure.