Hide Your Face(book) in Shame: Facebook and The Censorship of Female Sexuality
A lot can happen in ten minutes. You can make your morning commute to work. You can do twenty sit-ups. You can have an orgasm. If you are business owners Molly Adler and Matie Fricker of Albuquerque's Self Serve Sexuality Resource Center, ten minutes can be all the time you need to inform people about the hazards of labiaplasty.
Also known as female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS), labiaplasty is a controversial elective medical procedure that involves the surgical re-shaping of labia in order to make a woman's vulva look more “appealing.” A 2007 statement about FCGS, issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), read as follows: "Women should be informed about the lack of data supporting the efficacy of these procedures and their potential complications, including infection, altered sensation, dyspareunia, adhesions, and scarring."
In true sex-positive, DIY spirit, Adler and Fricker, along with Alee Ross-Raymond, put together a YouTube video called You Don't Need Labiaplasty. According to Matie Fricker:
“We created a video that included pictures of vulvas from Betty Dodson’s genital art gallery. So many women have body dysmorphia, and seeing unedited photos of healthy diverse genitalia is important. The video also included an impassioned plea to love your body. We had posted two versions of the video on YouTube. One of the video's start screens had Molly’s face on it, and [the other] was a full frontal vulva in an unaroused state. The video with the vulva on it got ten times as many hits.
“I posted the video on our Facebook page with the vulva because it was clear from our experience on YouTube that people wanted to see the female body. I posted the video on our Facebook page and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Many women thanked us and confessed to insecurities they had long carried.
“One of the comments was negative. Of our 1,300+ fans we lost one. I spoke to Molly about it the next day... and we decided we were going to post our next status update asking what our community felt was appropriate. The only people who saw the video were people who had self-selected to be our fans. We had decided we would ask our fans what they wanted to see and adjust accordingly.”
Before the women could act on their decision, Self Serve’s page and all of their administrative pages had been removed from Facebook.
Would Facebook have banned the Self Serve account had it not used that screen shot, but still used images of vulvas throughout the video? Would Facebook have banned the account had the video been posted completely devoid of any genital images? Why does Facebook consider a vague notion of safety and an honest discussion about the very real hazards of female genital modification to be at odds with one another?
These questions are not just “what-ifs.” Sadly, they're also rhetorical. At the time of this writing—over a month after the banning of Self Serve's page—the administrators of the Self Serve account never heard got a reply to their last e-mail, and their account is still suspended.
Self Serve isn't the only women-owned sexuality boutique to have its Facebook page banned. Chicago's Early2Bed also lost their page. E2B founder Searah Deysach started her feminist sex shop in 2001 because she “love[s] sex toys and wanted to create a safe space for people to buy and explore them.” Deysach started a company Facebook page about two years ago. According to Deysach, while it existed, the page was warmly received with around 500 followers.
And then one day, the Early2Bed Facebook page simply disappeared. “No specific reason was given so I read the rules and the only thing we could have possibly violated was the obscenity clause, but we had... nothing more 'obscene' than the other sex shops that have pages.”
Like Self Serve, E2B was notified about the account's banning by email. Like the owners of Self Serve, Deysach contacted Facebook to find out what could be done. Unlike Self Serve, however, no reasons were given for the E2B account disappearance. Deysach went on to say that she has received “no responses to our many emails.”
So what's the deal with Facebook? Why are they so freaked out by lady parts and the sex-positive women who seek to celebrate them?
In order to get some sort of answer out of Facebook regarding their position on this issue, I went to the source itself—specifically, to the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and to the Facebook Principles. Please keep in mind that Facebook claims that the former is “derived” from the latter.
Section 3 of the Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, labeled “Safety,” states: “You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” Here, Facebook lumps sex and violence together, putting them on par with one another. Not only that, but they are apparently also willing to consider nudity synonymous with pornography. Herein lies one of the (many) problems.
Section 4 reads as follows: “If we disable your account, you will not create another one without our permission.” That's all well and good, but how can a former user get permission to create a new account when representatives stop responding to their emails?
Further along, section 4.5 states that no one under the age of thirteen can have a Facebook account. How can Facebook hide behind the argument of “safety” as a justification for censoring images of women's genitalia? The United States is the company’s biggest market. By age thirteen, most children educated in U.S. public schools are already learning sex education. Granted, it's likely an “abstinence-only” curriculum, but children are still being exposed to anatomical representations of the human genitals by that point in their lives. Furthermore, Facebook has its own “Safety Center,” including a sub-section labeled “Safety For Parents.” The information provided includes ways that an account's privacy settings can be modified to block those profiles that users do not want to see.
Section 5 is “Protecting Other People's Rights.” SRR Secs. 5.3 and 5.4 state that “We will provide you with tools to help you protect your intellectual property rights. If we remove your content for infringing someone else's copyright, and you believe we removed it by mistake, we will provide you with an opportunity to appeal.” I find the language of this section particularly contentious, as it seems that “protection of other people's rights” in the Facebook world extends only to the possibility of intellectual property infringement; it has nothing to do with the right to free speech. In fact, it doesn't just seem that way; it is that way.
Let's move on to selections from the unintentional hilarity that is “The Facebook Principles.” From Principle 3, “Free Flow of Information”: "People should have the freedom to access all of the information made available to them by others. People should also have practical tools that make it easy, quick, and efficient to share and access this information."
Yes, they should. But when people are denied access to that information by: a. dictating what is acceptable speech; and then b. banning accounts belonging to individuals or organizations who try to share important information that you have nonetheless deemed “unacceptable,” a company proves itself to be stunningly ignorant and embarrassingly hypocritical all at once.
From Principle 7, “Fundamental Service”: "People should be able to use Facebook for free to establish a presence, connect with others, and share information with them. Every Person should be able to use the Facebook Service regardless of his or her level of participation or contribution."
Unless Facebook deems that the information you're trying to share is “pornographic” rather than, y'know, informative (not to mention supported by the American medical establishment), in which case you get the boot.
From Prinicple 8, “Common Welfare”: "The rights and responsibilities of Facebook and the People that use it should be described in a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, which should not be inconsistent with these Principles."
It would be nice were this the case, but sadly, it's not. The SRR is inconsistent with the supposed Facebook Principles. You can try to spin it otherwise, but the proof is in right there online, plain as day for everyone with the most basic critical analytical skills to evaluate.
From Principle 9, “Transparent Process”: "Facebook should publicly make available information about its purpose, plans, policies, and operations. Facebook should have a town hall process of notice and comment and a system of voting to encourage input and discourse on amendments to these Principles or to the Rights and Responsibilities." Facebook will not, however, respond to e-mail pleas from otherwise conscientious users with noble intentions and loads of supporters.
It was extraordinarily savvy of Facebook's PR team/bevy of lawyers/Department of Cognitive Dissonance to start pretty much every sentence of its "Facebook Principles" with the phrase "People should have..." Yes, people (and groups and organizations and businesses, et al) should have all of those things Facebook has delineated among their supposed principles. But a quick perusal of the SRR, combined with the reality of their actions in relation to supposedly "objectionable" content, clearly indicates that this is simply not the case. It's as though they're saying, "You totally should have these things–but you don't. And you won't. Because we're not gonna let you."
The larger question is this: How do sex-positive individuals, businesses, and organizations combat this sort of societal resistance to–and censorship of–female sexuality?
In response, Molly Adler and Matie Fricker at Self Serve told me, “We can continue to try following the rules, terms etc., and challenging this notion that all sexual information and all images of the human body are obscene. That notion is obscene! The more space and voice sex positive feminists are given to speak for shame-free, guilt-free positive sexuality, the more perhaps our culture will steer in that direction.”
Searah Deysach added, “We need to continue to be vocal and fight censorship when we can! We need to band together to be a louder voice. We need to keep promoting sex positive imagery and ideas wherever we can. Facebook is huge, but there are lots of other venues out there.”