Censoring Female Sexuality on Social Media

by Shawna Scott February 17, 2016

In the last edition of the UCD College Tribune, it was reported that approximately 200 male students, primarily from the Agricultural Science department, were members of a private Facebook messenger group used allegedly for sending and rating nude photos of women they had slept with. It has since sparked a major controversy across Ireland from both students and the media. 

An investigation into the incident has yielded no evidence of the groups existence. However the response to this story and to the topic of sharing nude photos in general has been very telling of the attitudes many people in Ireland have towards young women. As Jack Power said in his last article:

“Those who attacked this insidious and potentially illegal behavior were subjected to a backlash from others studying Agricultural Science, who claimed they were being unfairly tarnished for the actions of a minority.”

It shows a disgusting lack of empathy and maturity that when an issue like this is raised, the concern is with defending the reputation of the department and not with the women, who may have been sexually violated. When interviewed by the Journal, UCD registrar Professor Mark Rogers said that "Despite his investigation dismissing the claims made by the College Tribune, he is 'not so naïve as to believe that the university community is immune to this type of activity.'”

Louise O’Neill, author of the award winning novel Asking For It, posted about the scandal on Twitter and her Facebook page. While most comments were supportive, some were as shocking as the original news itself. One person dubbed her post as “Feminist propaganda,” and that “we’re all equal so I’d disagree with you pushing the victim card.” Another claimed that it was the women’s fault for “[sending] nudes to men they barely know.” He went on to blame pop stars and the media for having a bad influence on young women.

When Trinity announced recently that consent classes were going to be made mandatory for First-years living in Trinity Hall, there was outcry in many a comment section that this was the ever-clichéd “political correctness gone mad.” However as this situation at UCD points out, mandatory consent classes for first-years is the least our universities could be doing. Fortunately it looks as though consent classes may be on the cards for all UCD students starting from next fall.

But the onus should not completely be left on our third-level institutions. Our social media platforms, as the gatekeepers for content, have a social responsibility to protect its users. Unfortunately when a laddish culture that exists in our colleges permeates the organisations we’ve become dependent on to communicate with each other, that protection starts to feel rather unbalanced, especially for women, and raises the question: who are we protecting?

Last month the Irish Family Planning Association approached me about participating in their Pearl of Wisdom Campaign to encourage women to go for regular cervical screenings. I decided to create a Facebook post about the campaign and boost it as an advertisement, both so that the message could reach more people, and to see if the post would be allowed. I was skeptical given that posts I’ve tried to boost previously, even something as innocuous as a interviews I’ve done for newspapers or magazines, have been denied. So when my campaign post was accepted, I was absolutely delighted.


The engagement was outstanding and really resonated with women who appreciated the reminder to get a cervical screening. It was liked and shared loads of times, and the message was spread to over 12,000 people. Then after 3 days of the post making the rounds, I received a message that my boost had been shut down. The reason they gave was that they do not allow ads for adult products or services. I reached out to Facebook to see what the issue was, and finally received a response last week explaining that it was probably the algorithm at fault as they believe the ad itself didn’t violate the terms of use.

A similar incident occurred last October when during Breast Cancer Awareness month when the Dublin Well Woman Centre had an ad denied, which showed women how to perform home breast exams. We’ve all heard stories about women’s breastfeeding photos being censored by facebook. Model Frankie Tan posted a photo of herself recently in full body paint which, while fully nude, covered enough as to not show any genitalia. However she too found her photo taken down.


When it comes to female bodies and women’s expressions of their own sexuality, it would seem that the default reaction is to shut us down first and ask questions later...maybe...only if we fight it, and even then it can feel like we’re talking to a wall. At the same time, groups that incite hatred, misogyny and racism are still allowed to exist and have a platform. In fact the Family Research Council as officially classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre. However the standard response to these largely male dominated groups, is to have a long debate about the importance of freedom of speech and then shut it down...maybe...only if enough people complain and sign a Change.org petition.

So if Facebook can censor public health messages and breastfeeding mothers with some of the most sophisticated social media algorithms in the world, why can’t they use those same algorithms to seek out and shut down disturbing, possibly criminal posts or groups? In the case of the UCD200, nude photos were allegedly shared in a private messaging group. This could be a tricky one to tackle due to privacy, but if they can analyze our private messages to advertise to us, surely they can do the same to scan for illegal activity.

I believe it’s down to priorities. What do we prioritise in our society? What do social media companies prioritise as being important? When the majority of people in power in an organisation are men, it’s much easier to put the concerns of women low on the priority list, but this doesn’t have to be the case. They could choose to do the right thing and make the effort to consult with women and then invest in progressively tweaking their algorithm. I, and I’m sure many more female social media users, would be happy to sit down with Facebook to discuss these issues, and I invite them to get in touch.



Shawna Scott
Shawna Scott

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