How to achieve the best orgasm, what to do when sex is painful, how menopause can affect sexual desire; these are the kinds of questions Charlene Douglas, aka the UK’s Intimacy Coach, can answer.
A sex and relationship therapist who features on E4′s Married at First Sight, Douglas often uses social media to share her ‘sexpertise’.
But it seems the suits behind the socials have a problem with this.
After being shadowbanned, censored and blocked, sexual health educators, coaches and practitioners like Douglas say they are being pushed off the platforms they rely on to reach women with information that could vastly improve their sexual health and wellbeing.
“People know that I specialise in sex and relationships so they should feel comfortable going to my social media platforms knowing that they will get accurate advice… but I can’t post some of these things. It’s so ridiculous,” Douglas said.
Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok are governed by community guidelines and rules that prohibit the sharing of content that depicts anything deemed adult content or sexually explicit for safety reasons.
A level of content moderation is good and necessary, explained Daly Barnett, a staff technologist at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, but at scale it “overly polices otherwise safe, consensual, healthy forms of expression.” That can include sex education.
London-based Gigi Engle, a sex educator, journalist and author described a situation where educators are trying to share comprehensive sex education but are met with a wall “because these platforms have lumped all sexuality in together so that sexuality content that’s educational is listed as soliciting or sex work.”
“I just got a TikTok plate removed again for using the word orgasm,” Engle shared, adding that on Twitter, content warnings are put on the majority of her tweets, which promote pleasure-based sex education and safer sex practices, and on Instagram she believes she’s shadowbanned, which restricts the reach of her content.
Amy White is a conscious sexuality coach whose business, Temple of the Feminine, offers individual coaching, group programmes, events, and courses focussed on sexual healing and awakening.
Almost all of her clients, she explained, find her via her “educational, healing and empowerment” page on Instagram, but censorship affects the number of women she’s able to reach. “It’s not a good business strategy just to have business solely coming from Instagram… it’s just not a safe bet,” she said.
In her experience, posts can be removed if they contain the words “sex, pussy or cock,” but it’s not consistent, she said, likening posting content to a game of dodgeball. On Chinese-owned TikTok, videos that contain the words vulva, orgasm or masturbation are problematic, said Engle, who believes “TikTok hates sex more than any other platform.”
TikTok’s community guidelines, which were updated in March 2023, state that it is “a place where people can come to discuss or learn about sexuality, sex or reproductive health.”
When promoting a workshop called ‘Bringing Sexy Back,’ which focused on supporting women with low sexual desire and issues such as vaginismus and endometriosis, the word ‘sexy,’ triggered a suspension of Douglas’ accounts on two platforms.
Posts or accounts can be blocked or removed without warning and the user is typically met with an automated message, stating that community guidelines have been breached; and there’s little the content creators can do about it except submit an appeal.
“There’s no call centres, no customer service,” Douglas said, meaning there’s no interaction that would allow practitioners to clarify their content as educational.
Sexual health charities face the same problem.
“It’s also something we notice when doing paid social media campaigns, promoting sexual health services,” said Eliza Bell, media and communications coordinator of sexual health charity Brook, which offers clinical services and advice across the UK.
“Posts can be falsely flagged and rejected as inappropriate content purely because they mention something like ‘sexual health.’”
Using emojis – think the aubergine and the peach – and false spelling – such as changing ‘sex’ to ‘seggs’ – are ways of slipping through the social media morality net. But Brook avoids these methods, Bell said, because correct terms ensure content is accessible for all.
“It’s also an important way to increase health literacy, meaning people are equipped with the correct language to describe any issues they might be having,” she said.
For Engle, avoiding scientific names for certain body parts also feeds into the idea that sex is “dirty and wrong.” “It’s so counterproductive for education,” she said.
The bigger impact
“Lots of people didn’t receive sufficient relationships and sex education at school, and turn to social media as a place to fill in some of those gaps,” explained Bell.
“By limiting accounts like ours that provide fact-based, inclusive information, people are left in the dark when it comes to matters relating to sexual health and wellbeing.”
A woman should, for example, said Douglas, be able to type in “vaginismus,” a medical diagnosis, into social media and find helpful information. Without it, a woman could force herself into painful sex, which could cause injury, avoid smear tests, and impact their mental health, she said.
When people have good quality information they’re much better equipped to make good sexual health choices and take their sexual health more seriously, Engle explained.
Sexual health censorship stands in the way of that and perpetuates the shame society has cultivated around the topic.
“It just serves as a message of ‘this is wrong’ which is what we’re trying to undo,” White said. “I’m almost being told my posts are wrong and not welcome and how…many years have we been receiving this message internally that female sexuality is wrong or needs to look like this or that?” she said. “It adds to suppressive ruling.”
With limited means of accessing information, people are pushed towards porn, Douglas said, “but that’s not accurately reflecting people, sex and relationships.”
To remedy social media’s prude problem, she suggested platforms roll out a red verification tick for certified sexual educators to help distinguish explicit educational content from generic explicit content.
“Platforms should invest more thought, money, and time in expert-driven conversations around the ethics of restricting such types of speech,” agreed Barnett.
“When in doubt, give users the choice to filter what types of content they wish to encounter. Don’t paternalistically make that decision for them; all that does is enforce the slow creep of marginalisation.”
But the issue is, said Engle, that oftentimes these platforms are “in the hands of a bunch of heterosexual white guys,” which means so too is our sex education.
HuffPost UK contacted TikTok for comment and were directed towards their community guidelines.