How a 27 year-old woman got a public administration to admit the health benefits of sexual wellness.
As a leading sexual wellness brand for women we face a lot of censorship online. From shadow bans, blocking paid posts and altogether shutting down of our accounts.
Occurrences that just do not happen for male sexuality brands.
It is after all widely known that social media algorithms are simply sexist. But as online opposition wanes the more it is brought into public consciousness; censorship and confusion on the topic of female sexuality persists in real life.
Most recently Smile Makers products were found in question in Taiwan; a country who has in many ways, given more “progressive” Western countries something to aspire to when it comes to LGBTQIA+ and women’s rights.
I interviewed Ariel Chen, a much-valued member of the Smile Makers team who job is basically to make sure that women in South East Asia can find vibrators in their favourite health and beauty stores! She steered through a censorship conflict recently in Taiwan and prevailed with a huge wave of online support by local influencer's and noteworthy MPs.
Ariel, tell us about your role in Smile Makers?
My name is Ariel, Asia Brand Manager for Smile Makers. I joined the brand in 2016 afterI seeing a Taiwanese blogger recommended Smile Makers on her Facebook page. The post blew my mind as it was the first time I had seen a vibrator brand designed for women. I sent an email to the company and shared that I wanted to normalize the brand mission in Asia. I wanted each woman in Asia to own Smile Makers vibrators! Today, I manage the Asia markets for the brand, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Korea; working with distributors, retailers and non-profit organizations such as the Breast Cancer Alliance in Taiwan. It has been an amazing journey to see my vision come true!
Smile Makers Asia Brand Manager Talking At Tawain Breast Cancer Alliance
What has been happening in Taiwan?
On February 14th, an article was published in a major Taiwanese paper claiming a mom had complained to a local social bureau about a beauty store selling vibrators. She was shocked when her junior high-school aged son asked her “what is this?” The image on the article was of the sexual wellness shelf at a well-known beauty store which included our sample displays.
News broke that the retailer might face a penalty imposed by the local government based on Article 43 of the Protection of Children and Youth Welfare and Rights Act (“Law”).
To me, it is very shocking as we can see condoms and lubricants everywhere but our products for female pleasure were being accused of "violating the law".
How did you challenge the accusation?
We were not the one who received the official letter of the potential penalty from the local bureau. However, we arranged a meeting with the government and stated our opinion that female sexuality should not be stigmatised and that vibrators are not obscene.
In Taiwan, article 43 of the Law specifies that no one shall sell, deliver / supply children and youth materials and articles relating to violence, blood, pornography, obscenity or gambling that will harm their physical and mental health.
However, this regulation should not apply to our brand as vibrators are not a “regulated object”.
Based on the interpretation of the Judicial Yuan (a branch of the government of the Republic of China on Taiwan), the definition of “obscenity” includes an element by which a feeling of shame or distaste will be generated among average people, thereby offending their sense of sexual morality and undermining social decency.
A conclusion from a discussion held by the Ministry of Justice back in the 90’s was that vibrators resembling genital shape are not considered obscene objects. Which has been accepted and adopted by the courts ever since. The Taiwanese court even back then recognized their functions and contributions to society as below.
-The definition of obscenity includes crucial elements: it triggers a feeling of shame or distaste and offends people's sense of sexual morality and undermining social decency. Vibrators do not generate a feeling of shame or distaste for the majority of the population.
-These products provide people who have no sexual partner a legal and proper way to meet their sexual needs.
-These products help decrease the incidents of sexual offences and sex trade.
As Taiwan has become a more open and progressive society over the years, we see no reason why the interpretation should be ignored or reversed.In addition, our packaging never contains pictures or statements that can be deemed obscene or pornographic. We are also very confident that vibrators in public view are not harmful to minors' physical and mental health, either.
Have you faced challenges like this before?
It is the second time we receive a complaint directly from consumers in Taiwan. However, these two complaints in Taiwan are the only ones we have had despite selling in more than 20 countries for eight years. As a Taiwanese woman, it saddens me somewhat to see us being behind other countries - not only in Europe and North America, but also next to us in East Asia - in how we see sexual wellness for women as an important part of everyday life.
What has been the reaction online?
We have had a lot of coverage about the incident in Taiwan and people were interviewed on the street as a way to understand public opinion on vibrators in mainstream stores. We are very happy to see that the society is supporting our efforts to normalise the perception of female sexual wellbeing which is our brand mission.
There is a lawyer commenting on this news and criticising the bureau, saying that the article they quoted to impose the penalty is not applicable. In his post, he compares the situation with how parents would respond to questions regarding pads and condoms?
It does not seem right to try to make the products "disappear" to avoid children's questions. Also, there are some comments coming out of this debate that say sex education should be taught properly instead of avoiding questions.
Who has shown support?
We got massive support from the society and it is really touching that people are voicing out for us. There are at least 30k comments weighed in our favor, including lawyers, influencers, influential local media and politicians. Here are some quotes from the comments
“Why can we see condoms in shops but not vibrators for women?”
“Shops are allowed to display alcohol/cigarettes which are forbidden to sell to children and youth. I don’t see why the shop is not allowed to display the vibrators which they don’t sell to children & youth.”
“A mom who is not able to handle the conversation of the sex education with her son doesn’t mean that the vibrators for female should be kicked out from stores.”
What is your message to people who feel that the topic of sexual wellness is too suppressed in their country?
I was shocked in the first place when I heard that our retailer got an official letter from the government. Even though I have worked in this category for years and I was the one who set up the distribution in the stores after ensuring that we were allowed to do so; I still questioned myself…”did I do anything wrong? Why only is it that vibrators for women got this complaint?”
The legal interpretation from MOJ explained that vibrators are not obscene (and of course it didn’t violate the article 43) and recognized their functions and contributions to society. However, I’m worried the incident will make things go backwards in terms of normalizing the perception of female sexuality.
I was so moved when I saw lots of comments supporting our mission and voicing out for the brand. I still see the hope there and we will keep doing what we are focused on - to normalise the perception of female sexuality. However, we can only deliver when everyone is willing to participate.
I hope that every woman will understand that we should not feel embarrassed or even guilty about our sexual wellbeing. There is nothing wrong with it and it is actually part of “who you are”. It completes you and allows you to have full control of your body, not anyone else.