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Body Positivity / Sex Tech / Sex Work

Exclusive: Victoria’s Secret Influence on Instagram’s Censorship Policies 

The Victoria's Secret fashion show might be cancelled, but it's sexist legacy lives on in the algorithms on Instagram and Facebook.

Published Nov 22, 2019.

The Victoria’s Secret fashion show might be canceled, but its sexist legacy lives on in the algorithms on Instagram and Facebook.

This year, Salty’s research into algorithmic injustice on Instagram and Facebook uncovered (amongst other things) bias against women focused businesses, sex workers, queer people, BIPOC and plus sized people. We were inspired to undertake this work after bearing brunt of algorithmic bias ourselves – despite our phenomenal growth, Salty has been kicked off a number of email service providers, denied from many advertising platforms, and faces ongoing censorship on social media.

Algorithms are the backbone of content moderation online, but algorithms are based on policies, and policies are created by humans – humans with bias, and humans who are often working to protect the interests of their corporate clients. When policies are built with implicit or explicit bias, these values are extrapolated and implemented at scale across entire platforms and digital ecosystems.

Algorithms are based on policies, and policies are created by humans – humans with bias, and humans who are often working to protect the interests of their corporate clients.

When Salty was sent the internal ad policies pertaining to underwear and swimwear for Instagram and Facebook, were shocked at their bias- and even more discouraged when we were told, by a Facebook representative, that they were created in alignment with a Victoria’s Secret’s advertising campaign.

The policy document (which was presented to us as a policy in use at the time of July 2019) outlines what kind of underwear and swimwear imagery can be approved for publishing in ads on Instagram and Facebook – and explains in twenty-two bullet points the way models can sit, dress, arch their backs, pose, interact with props, how see-through their underwear can be, how the images can be cropped and where their ads can link to.

Alarmingly, every single policy explicitly states that women are the target of the policies. Read that again: according to these guidelines, there are literally no policies pertaining to nudity or swimwear for men’s bodies in advertising.

Alarmingly, every single policy explicitly states that women are the target of the policies. Read that again: according to these guidelines, there are literally no policies pertaining to nudity or swimwear for men’s bodies in advertising. The fact that men are not included at all, supports the data that women’s bodies and women-led businesses are more highly policed than men on Instagram.

It gets worse- throughout the entire policy document, women users are referred to, exclusively, as “girls.” Even without the Victoria’s Secret’s connection and it’s ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the document is an uncomfortable read. That Instagram referred to grown women users as “girls” throughout their nudity policies is outrageous.

It gets worse- throughout the entire policy document, women users are referred to, exclusively, as “girls.”

“Against Policy:

  • Girl with a swimsuit top on and a towel covering her bottom, but showing that she does not have a swimsuit bottom on underneath the towel.
  • Girl in see-through underwear that shows her butt through the material”

The use of explicitly binary gendered language in policy guidelines, by design, erases the experiences and of trans and nonbinary people. How do these policies affect people who identify outside of the binary? Given Victoria’s Secret’s history of transphobia, it is not a stretch to assume that the Ad Policy team didn’t take that into consideration when crafting these guidelines.

This exemplifies Instagram’s hypocrisy: sex can be sold for the benefit of major corporations like Instagram, Facebook and Victoria’s Secret – but not for the benefit of sex workers themselves.

“Policy on Posing

Explanation of Policy: The posing cannot be very sexually suggestive, such as a girl with her finger in her mouth or caressing her body.

  • Examples Within Policy: Girl in lingerie sitting on the bed
  • Examples Against Policy: Girl laying on bed with arched back/butt (overly sexual pose)”

It seems evident that the purpose of these Ad Policies is to stop women from making money from sex on Instagram (assumedly to adhere to the FOSTA/SESTA laws.) Ironically, these specific policies were created to ensure Victoria’s Secret ability to make money from their sexually charged content and products on the same platform.

This exemplifies Instagram’s hypocrisy: sex can be sold for the benefit of major corporations like Instagram, Facebook and Victoria’s Secret – but NOT for the benefit of sex workers, and/or women, trans and nonbinary people themselves.

Moreover, Victoria’s Secret is a brand that notoriously promotes unattainable body image and fatphobia – if Instagram are choosing brands like this to set the standard for the platform’s intimate apparel guidelines, then it is a given that plus-sized people will be unfairly affected by the bias. Ask plus-sized body-positive activists – they’ll tell you they are feeling the effects of fatphobia in the algorithms, and our data shows plus-sized bodies are more highly policed than slim bodies.

“Policy on Nudity

  • Examples Within Policy:  Photo of girl from behind, wearing bra and cheeky underwear.
  • Examples Against Policy: Photo of girl from behind, wearing bra and thong.”

Most of the policies included in the guidelines are arbitrary and open to interpretation by moderators. What constitutes the difference between cheeky underwear and a thong? Plus-sized people, as our data shows, are highly likely to be flagged for sexually suggestive content. If we are going by the Victoria’s Secret standard; a moderator could very well determine that a size zero model’s underwear is less “cheeky” than a size 22 woman.

There needs to be more transparency from Instagram and Facebook around the rules that are governing our lives on their platforms. We have seen the impact of policies like these first hand at Salty, and in our community – this algorithmic bias has real effects on the lives and safety of women, trans and nonbinary people. Ask- who is creating the algorithms that determine our livelihoods? Whose agenda are they protecting? How can we have a seat at the table that has been built by, and for, white men?

oh, and GIRLS, in case you’re wondering if you’re allowed to run ads against your titty pics- here are the rules apparently:

“Policy on Photo cropping and close ups of specific body parts:

  • “Explanation of Policy: For close-ups of the top half of a girl, include at least some of the chin (not only the chest in the photo). For close-ups of the bottom half of a girl, include at least a portion of the legs or torso.”

Ladies, if you thought your “top half” included your head, it doesn’t! Not according to this policy! According to this, titty pics are ok, BUT ONLY if some of your chin is included. But NOT if there’s no chin, that’s not ok. And just don’t zoom TOOO close to your you-know-what, but just a little bit. Like, if you include some of your legs, then it’s ok. Got it? But I need to know, how much chin is too much?

Remember ya’ll – the patriarchy is in the algorithms.


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