“As long as we’ve been alive, we’ve been getting off.” This was one of the opening statements from Rachel Baker, founder of sexual wellness company LBDO, during the ‘Sex, Wellness and the Big Pleasure Gap’ panel at SXSW Sydney on Thursday.
Her remark was met with giggling from audience members, because after all, it’s true. We all know that sex is an innate part of who we are. It’s why media, advertising and pop culture have used sex for years on end to sell products and ideas about who we are and how we should feel.
What’s not a laughing matter though is the way that sex and pleasure have also been weaponised against women over time.
Whether it’s the emphasis on male orgasms in porn, or a lack of conversation around consent in sex education, women have devastatingly been left to feel lesser than – not just in the moments they have sex, but before and after.
We’ve been made to question whether our bodies are OK if we don’t orgasm multiple times. We’ve wondered whether we’re a ‘good’ partner if we prefer a night in with our vibrator over getting freaky in the sheets with someone else. We’ve second-guessed what we’ve worn on a night out or regretted the nude photos we sent on a dating app – perhaps we were ‘asking for it’ even though we didn’t give verbal consent to intercourse?
In recent years, we’ve seen a wave of women challenging the patriarchal foundations upon which the idea of sex has been sold to us through media and advertising. However, despite their best interests to make sex more inclusive, accessible and not considered a taboo, so many of these women have been shamed themselves. They’ve been punished or ostracised thanks to a stringent censoring system embedded within social media, tech and advertising.
Michelle Battersby is Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Sunroom, an app for women and non-binary creators “to show up as themselves and connect intimately with their communities”. Speaking on the same SXSW panel, she said that the need for an app like Sunroom was essential for creators whose content has been shadow-banned or restricted on other platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Apple due to their strict community guidelines.
“It’s that history of shame that is rooted in these community guidelines,” she said, explaining concepts such as “femme bodies” and “lingerie” are often not favoured by the rules.
“I was fighting with someone on TikTok the other day because we’ve got a creator who has natural F-size boobs. She had 300,000 followers on Tiktok and she was de-platformed for being curvy.”
Battersby explained that this drove this user to sign up to Sunroom where she can unapologetically post lingerie reviews and earn around $US 30,000 a month. However, when Sunroom shares any of this creator’s content on TikTok, it is penalised.
“When we use her in our content, we are banned and we've lost our TikTok account three times. We've been permanently banned, and it's every time she is in one of the clips, just because she has cleavage.”
TikTok’s community guidelines state that TikTok “do not allow sexual activity or services”.
“This includes sex, sexual arousal, fetish and kink behaviour, and seeking or offering sexual services. However, it does not include reproductive health and sex education content.”
In the same guidelines, TikTok says that nudity is also not allowed, including “uncovered genitals and buttocks, as well as nipples and areolas of women and girls”.
“Sheer and partially see-through clothing is not considered covered. We allow regional exceptions for showing nipples and areolas in limited situations, such as medical treatment, educational purposes, or as a part of culturally accepted practices.”
The guidelines also state that “sex products, such as sex toys” are ineligible on the FYF (For You Feed). In a statement to Missing Perspectives, a TikTok spokesperson said: "TikTok does not moderate based on the size or shape of our creator community. In fact, we encourage diversity in all forms. We moderate based on our Community Guidelines, which clearly state what is and is not acceptable on the platform. In an effort to create a safe and age appropriate environment for all users our guidelines prohibit all forms of nudity, including content that displays intimate body parts, such as buttocks and breasts."
Battersby said that it wasn’t until she launched this business that she realised the barriers women founders face in trying to change a system that’s been shaped by the male gaze for so long.
“We literally go to war every day to try and keep our platform the way it is,” she said.
Baker said her company has also faced challenges in advertising on such platforms, where she claimed “sexual wellness is seen as adult content”.
“There’s this blanket rule of all of sexual wellness and pleasure, when most of the content that we want to put out is educational… As a brand, trying to reach a wider audience where you're constantly being shut down and your current accounts [are] being deactivated – it makes it really challenging,” she said.
As I listened to these women speak, it became apparent that these women still have to play within the rules built upon society’s long history of stigma, shame and misogyny.
“You basically can't speak explicitly about what your own product is. We have to dance around what we're doing at Sunroom, because we're at risk of being de-platformed ourselves,” said Battersby.
Baker agreed, saying that the main way they can advertise products is through the promotion of bath salts and massage candles, as opposed to sex toys.
By having to work within these boundaries, how much progress can these women truly make? It’s a question moderator Flex Mami put to the panel, asking, them that in “creating solutions around the problems and shielding people from that real reality, how do you deal with that back and forth of knowing that [as] you're enacting this amazing change and doing far more than most people would, that you kind of end up being a bit complicit in the things that make it feel so wrong in the first place?”
The third panellist, Chelsea Healey – who is Head of Brand at Adore Beauty – said it’s something the online beauty retailer has thought about after including sexual wellness as part of its offering in 2019. Knowing that there might be content that is sensitive for some, Adore Beauty has consent forms and opt-out messaging in “making sure that that choice is there”.
“But even [with] that, there is a consideration of, are we playing into stigmas and taboos by having that consent form?”
The general consensus amongst Baker, Battersby and Healey was that there’s some value in meeting consumers where they are. People will have different comfort levels when it comes to speaking about sex and pleasure or consuming related content.
“I think it's really good to be aware of the stigmas and to be aware that this could be quite a confronting and jarring conversation for some people,” said Battersby. “Because when you swing all the way to the furthest end, you can exclude and isolate people from even participating in those conversations.”
Curbing censorship is not completely in our control right now. It may never be. But what I’m certain of is that it’s not just content creators or sexual wellness companies suffering as a result of these restrictions. The rest of us are too.
As one audience member highlighted, it’s been difficult navigating the experience of re-establishing intimacy after welcoming a child. But seeing other people speaking about their similar experiences can help them realise they’re not alone. I can think of various other scenarios, such as a woman believing sex is always meant to be physically painful and only pleasurable for the man, not realising she has vaginismus until a video about the condition pops up on her TikTok feed. Or how about a person who’s always felt ashamed to use a vibrator or watch porn because they’ve been told since they first got their period as a teen that those behaviours are shameful?
Without seeing content that’s real, raw and elevates the intricacies and beauty of sex and pleasure from a female perspective, we simply won’t feel empowered in helping close the pleasure gap.