From its removal of a page promoting a nude charity calendar to its ban on art critic Jerry Saltz for posting artistic representations of genitalia, Facebook’s policies on sexually suggestive material are among the most Puritanical of all major tech companies. That’s no small feat considering Google’s recent removal of adult blogs and Snapchat’s policy against porn stars making a living wage.
But Facebook’s subsidiary, Instagram, went over the line when it removed a photo (shown above) taken by poet Rupi Kaur of a woman whose pants and sheets are stained by menstrual blood. After a user or multiple users flagged Kaur’s photo as “inappropriate,” Instagram deleted the photo — twice — stating that it violated the site’s community guidelines which ban “nudity” and “mature content” — a term that likely connotes “sex acts.”
Of course, there is nothing sexual about depicting a stage of the menstrual cycle — something that almost every woman between the ages of 13 and 50 experiences naturally and that, as Kaur points out, “help[s] make humankind a possibility.” That users nevertheless flagged the image — along with Instagram’s two removals — was “the exact response my work was created to critique,” Kaur writes on her Facebook page where, following the two Instagram removals, she posted the photo without consequence. She goes on:
“you deleted my photo twice stating that it goes against community guidelines. i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak. when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified. pornified. and treated less than human. thank you.”
As of this writing, that post has nearly 60,000 likes and has been shared 13,412 times. Following the popularity of that post and the upswell of support Kaur received in its wake, Instagram restored the photo and apologized, writing, “A member of our team accidentally removed something you posted on Instagram. This was a mistake, and we sincerely apologize for this error.”
That’s a nice enough note. But if the removal was a “mistake” and an “error” carried out “accidentally,” why did it happen twice? What sort of training do Instagram’s moderators receive that a photo depicting the most natural of bodily functions, without an ounce of nudity or sexual subtext, was removed on multiple occasions?
Furthermore, Kaur is a public figure with 85,000 Instagram followers and whose Facebook page has nearly 30,000 likes. It’s no surprise then that her post calling out Instagram went viral. What recourse is there for users who lack the social following or savvy of Kaur?
Finally, the removal of these photos is yet another example of Facebook or one of its subsidiaries applying inconsistent standards to policing content across genders. The page mentioned above that promoted a nude calendar, for example, was created by a women’s crew team to raise money for charity (it bears mentioning too that the images were all PG-13, and the most intimate body parts were covered or obscured). And yet, Facebook allowed the men’s crew team to keep a similar page promoting their own nude calendar without complaint.
Facebook, Instagram, Google, and Snapchat are all private enterprises that have the right to police content as they see fit. That said, Facebook and Instagram must carry out their standards of decency with far more consistency — particularly across genders, or else it could be faced with a discrimination suit and justifiably so.
More to the point, it’s not the Middle Ages anymore and people need to stop reacting to womens’ menstrual cycles — which, again, are responsible for the existence of you, me, and every other human being on the planet — with disgust, horror, or ridicule. And it’s stories like these that perpetuate the stereotype that tech companies are full of men with the maturity levels of 13-year-olds. That stereotype may not be fair. But when tech companies are observed enabling these immature reactions by carrying out moderation policies unfairly and inconsistently, the effects of the gender imbalances at large tech firms become painfully obvious.