Facebook's billions of users get sexual content, but only sometimes. Image: Josh Edelson/Getty

Silicon Valley's Very Confusing Relationship with Sex

Facebook, Apple, or Kickstarter are opening up about sex under the guise of health—but still banning the idea of sex being fun.

Feb 18 2016, 1:00pm

Facebook's billions of users get sexual content, but only sometimes. Image: Josh Edelson/Getty

When Apple launched iOS HealthKit in 2014, the app arrived on phones with a noticeable omission. Despite being touted as a fully-featured way for iPhone owners to keep tabs on their health and wellbeing, the original Health app offered no way for users to track a menstrual cycle or fertility. Not surprisingly, this annoyed more than a few iPhone users—in particular, the ones whose everyday health and wellbeing might be affected by how likely it'd be that they'd be bleeding out the uterus on any given day.

Though the oversight was corrected with the release of iOS 9, the gaffe underscores an uncomfortable issue facing Apple and its peers: sex is a significant part of life, and one that most tech companies don't know how to handle.

Though the internet may have been built on porn, many mainstream companies have sought to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the seedier side of the web. Yet as these sex-averse tech companies seek to embed themselves into the whole human experience, they're discovering that sexuality is, in fact, a part of that experience—and the boundaries between what's "naughty" and what's necessary aren't always very clear.

A number of tech companies—including platforms like Apple's App Store, Facebook Ads, and Kickstarter, to name a few—have drawn a line in the sand between sexual pleasure and health, banning the former while allowing the latter. At first pass, this seems relatively straightforward: Trojan shilling condoms? Clearly sexual health. Ads for FuckedHard18.com? Definitely in the "pleasure" category (for some people, anyway).

As tech companies continue on their mission to strip away the layers of privacy and infiltrate every aspect of our lives, they're going to keep running into the question of sex.

Except it's not always that simple. Consider, for instance, the MinnaLife kGoal, a smart pelvic floor exerciser that helps women keep their pelvic muscles in healthy and fit, making pregnancy easier, staving off incontinence, and, in some cases, improving and intensifying orgasms (and, full disclosure, a product I provide consulting services for).

Funded on Kickstarter (where it's considered a health device), and powered by a smartphone app readily available in both the iOS and Android app stores, the product can't be advertised on Facebook, where—despite the fact that it's designed to enhance pelvic fitness rather than provide orgasms—it's considered an adult product, in the same category as strip clubs and horny goat weed.

Even when MinnaLife retooled its ad to directly link to the product on Amazon, away from any sex toy-related naughtiness found on their own website, Facebook still considered the product in violation of its policy, as anything going into a vagina is apparently "adult."

Unless, of course, it's a condom—though not youth-oriented condom education like non-profit Advocates for Youth's Great American Condom Campaign, which also felt the force of Facebook's ban hammer when the organization tried to promote its cause through Facebook ads.

Although Advocates for Youth's message was far tamer than that of approved advertisers like Durex and Trojan, the mere targeting of safe sex messaging towards those under 18 was deemed inappropriate—even though such messaging is mandatory in a number of high schools around the country.

(Want to confuse the issue further? Consider the fact that Durex happens to manufacture and distribute pleasure-oriented products like vibrators and lubricant, which are prominently displayed on the company's website, yet that hasn't stopped Facebook from partnering with the company on custom ad campaigns.)

A Facebook partnership with Durex in Indonesia sent specific ads to men and women. Image: Facebook/SF Gate

And then there's the fact that sex education itself seems to be getting more explicit, with a number of self-described education projects like HappyPlayTime (rejected by the iOS App Store), MakeLoveNotPorn, and OMGYes (which, tellingly, specifically notes it's not available as an app) veering into more X-rated territory.

Do the explicit videos contained within the research-backed OMGYes really make it more prurient than the myriad sex tip apps littering the iOS store? Apple's staunch no nudity policy may say yes. But should apps like iKamasutra really be considered more socially acceptable than something created with the assistance of researchers and sexologists?

It would be easy to suggest that Apple, Facebook, Google, and the like are just dinosaurs woefully behind the times of social progress, but it would be unfair to reduce this tension to something that simple. If anything, these companies are doing their best to strike a balance between long-held notions of propriety and our country's rapidly shifting attitude towards sex. (Not to mention—at least in the case of companies like Kickstarter—payment processor regulations about appropriate content.) For a generation used to easy access to any information, no matter how profane, that balancing act leaves these companies looking prudish, inconsistent, and often discriminatory.

Even with their restrictive stances, many of these companies are still far more progressive than much of the country or, say, Congress, where many members are still hellbent on defunding Planned Parenthood. But that may not be progressive enough.

As tech companies continue on their mission to strip away the layers of privacy and infiltrate every aspect of our lives, they're going to keep running into the question of sex. If they want to be the only device, or platform, or website we need, they're going to have to figure out how to incorporate sexuality and sexual wellbeing into their vision of a tech-enabled lifestyle—and the choices they make will have very real effects on all of our lives. Let's hope, for all our sakes, that they choose wisely.