For as long as there’s been advertising, hyper-sexualised femininity has been used to sell products
‘Sex sells’ and all that… Even today half of print ads display women as sex objects, and that’s three quarters in men’s magazines. Now there’s been a surge in new brands, pioneering sex-tech and toys designed for and by women. Supporting women and non-binary people to feel more connected to their bodies. Working to de-stigmatise pleasure, to unshackle sex from heteronormative falsehoods, to normalise sexual wellness, and remove some of the shame that surrounds it.
But these same media platforms that gladly host ads that sexually objectify, won’t allow ads that sexually empower. Why?
After millennia of sexualisation, women feel they need to mask their pleasure
Media platforms need to step out of the way of the next sexual revolution. Taking a jump out of pleasure for a moment, there have been huge leaps forward in women’s health recently, most notably in how brands have been showing up for women’s pain.
As Kristen Scott Thomas says in Fleabag (2016-2019), ‘Women are born with pain built in, it’s our physical destiny: period pains, sore boobs, childbirth… we carry it within ourselves throughout our lives, men don’t‘.
But half of women have felt their pain has been ignored because of their gender, despite women being in pain more often and more severely than men. Nurofen’s See my Pain campaign brought together women’s stories around pain, standing up for the validity of women’s pain, and our right to be believed.
Bodyform’s Blood Normal campaign sought to tackle the taboo around periods — because they’re (uh) normal — the first ad ever to show real blood rather than blue liquid. Their later Viva la Vulva campaign worked to make conversations around vaginal health more commonplace, and less stigmatised.
We can see brands advocating for more realism around women’s bodies, and more openness on women’s health. But what about sexual health?
As with the pain gap, there’s a pleasure gap between genders too. And this gap is coming, in part, due to huge perceived taboos around sexual health. These taboos, and deep cultural stereotypes around women and sex, mean women mask their pleasure and de-prioritise it in sexual encounters. Double the number of women have faked orgasms, compared to men.
But this is way bigger than the bedroom: sexual health and happiness is essential for overarching wellbeing. Studies have linked sexual wellness to reduction in pain, a boost in immunity, and better mental health.
The good news is there’s been an eruption of fem-tech and sex brands advocating for better sex for women. From sex-tech, to erotica audio, to sex products designed by and for women, new voices are championing women and de-stigmatising pleasure. After decades of media depictions centring male pleasure, and positioning women as a passive presence in her sexual life, these new brands are doing more than selling products: they’re helping women connect actively with their bodies.
But platforms like Meta which happily allow breast enhancement, contraceptive, and weight loss ads, have an outright ban on ads promoting sexual pleasure. In an age where digital advertising is small businesses’ lifeline, it could turn this rallying movement into an uphill struggle. Rather than being able to achieve mass reach, to a tuned-in audience, they’re instead having to rely on slow close network effects to spread the word and garner uplift.
With or without them, these brands are building huge communities of women who feel there’s a movement where they’re finally being spoken for. They don’t need Zuck, or Musk, or some other tech bro, but jeez it would help speed up the good work, undoing the harm of views propagated on their platforms.
Women are finding community in brands standing up for female pleasure
And we should all take note. In advocating for our right to health, and equitable access to wellbeing, we can garner more than customers, and grow without paid advertising. Brands can genuinely lead a movement, and empower people to feel happier in themselves. It’s just such a shame we live in a world where it’s easy to tell people to lose weight, or buy fast food, or get plastic surgery — but nearly impossible to tell them they have the right to sexual wellness.
Featured image: Maddi Bazzocco / Unsplash