The weight of taboos

The subjects covered by femtechs are subject to censure from web giants, which are particularly puritanical when it comes to women's health.

By Bertrand Beauté

Could web giants have a problem with femtechs? The question deserves to be asked, especially as internet companies censor advertisements from femtech companies – their algorithms automatically delete a majority of text and images about women’s health. "Most femtechs are up against the policies of web giants such as Google, Facebook and Instagram, which block them from communicating about their products," said Marwan Elfitesse, head of startup programmes at Station F. "The algorithms block the ads."

Fizmed is one such example. This Strasbourg‑based company developed a smart perineum probe designed for women who need to rehabilitate their perineum after birth. It is a very legitimate medical product that has obtained the CE label in Europe, as well as a marketing authorisation from the United States' FDA. However, Amazon decided to place the product in the sex toy category of its e‑commerce site, making it difficult to find for women who need it. Facebook has censored several ads from Fizmed.

However, Facebook rules indicate that advertisements promoting products or services relating to sexual health are authorised, as long as they target people over 18 years old and they are not focused on sexual pleasure. Despite these rules, censorship is everywhere. A study published in January 2022 by the US non‑profit Center for Intimacy Justice confirms that the phenomenon is widespread. The authors surveyed 60 companies active in women's health, particularly in the treatment of pelvic pain, menopause, pregnancy, menstruation, education, sexuality and fertility.

The results were damning: 100% of companies had advertisements censored on Instagram or Facebook. And 50% of those companies had their social media accounts suspended.

That is what happened to Joylux, a US company that sells medical products (approved by the FDA) for menopausal women. Its Facebook page has been shut down twice since 2017. "Our customers are 50 years old, they’re on Facebook. It's the best place to spread awareness about subjects relating to menopause," said Colette Courtion, CEO of Joylux, quoted in the New York Times. "But due to the nature and the look of our product, Facebook and other companies think it's pornography." Also included in this study are Google, TikTok and other platforms that have also rejected advertisements about women’s health.


This censorship is even more troubling given that many advertisements targeting men are published on Facebook


This censorship is even more troubling given that many advertisements targeting men are published on Facebook, even though some seem to go against the rules of the social network. In an article, the New York Times gives an example of condoms that provide pleasure, lubricants for solo moments and pills to treat erectile dysfunction that promise a "wet hot American summer". These adverts were not affected in the slightest by Facebook's algorithms.

Double standards. French company Elia Lingerie had to delete its Facebook page for a month after publishing a photo of its menstrual underwear, even though advertisements for traditional lingerie show half‑naked women on the same site. Swiss start‑up Ava, which develops a smart bracelet that helps women track their fertility cycle, has also experienced this unequal treatment. A post about the importance of cervical mucus in female fertility? Censored on Facebook. An article about improving your sperm? Accepted. "According to the advertisement algorithms on Facebook, talking about a woman's cervical mucus is inappropriate and sexual, but talking about a man's sperm is no problem," said Lindsay Meisel, head of content at Ava, in an article from US tech news site VentureBeat. "We can't see that as anything other than an unfair double standard."

"The censorship from American web companies contributes to maintaining the taboo around women's health," said Elfitesse. "At a time when almost all marketing goes through social media and sales are via e‑commerce, that limits the possibilities for femtechs. These platforms really need to change their publication policies."

Following publication of the Center for Intimacy Justice report, Facebook recognised errors in the application of its advertising policies and unblocked several advertisements.