Is 'Sex' Still an Email SPAM Trigger Word?

Corey Wainwright
Corey Wainwright




It's been postulated that there are certain words and phrases that, as an email marketer, will get you immediately sent into someone's SPAM folder. "Save," "$,"Pre-approved," "Miracle," "Sale," the list goes on and on. In fact, a couple months ago, we conducted a test to see if the word "Free," one of the most commonly cited email SPAM trigger words, really did trip up the proverbial SPAM wires (if you're interested in the results of that test, you can read them here).

Well there's one more word that frequently appears on that SPAM trigger list, probably because it's sure to get people clicking, and by extension, plenty **ahem** computers infected with spammers' viruses. That word is (you guessed it): "Sex."

So we decided to conduct a little experiment to test whether the inclusion of the word "Sex" in your email and subject line really does prevent your email from getting delivered. Curious about the results? Read on ...

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Does the Word "Sex" Prevent Your Email From Getting Delivered?

It wasn't just out of giggle-induced curiosity that we decided to see if "Sex" would impact our email deliverability. It was also because we were launching a slightly scandalous slide deck you might remember -- "How Social Media Is a Lot Like Sex" -- and we needed to know if it would ever get to anyone's inboxes.

So we pinged our favorite email deliverability expert, HubSpot's Email Delivery Specialist Evan Murphy, and asked him to help us out. He used ReturnPath to assess the impact of the word "Sex" on our email's deliverability. Here's what the email looked like:

sex email spam resized 600

So "Sex" was in both the subject line, and the message text. Double whammy! Did it get past the filters?

It sure did.

We dove into the results, and it looks like SpamAssassin -- which uses a scoring system where messages are tagged as SPAM when they have enough spammy characteristics to be denoted as such (more on that later) -- didn't give a high score to this email. And that's good ... you do not want a high SPAM score! In fact, a score of more than 5 may cause deliverability issues, while messages with scores of 10 or greater will frequently encounter deliverability issues. Our "sex" email only got a score of 2.1, and as a result, didn't encounter deliverability issues.

So why didn't we encounter deliverability issues with this email? Because emails are scored on more than one category to determine if they should be delivered. The possible categories are:

  • General/bulk SPAM score (like a problem with your internal infrastructure, for example)
  • Sexually explicit content (This is where we were worried our message would get classified, if anywhere.)
  • Make-money-fast content
  • Commercial or "special offer" content
  • Racially insensitive content
  • Financial content
  • Legal content

We didn't encounter deliverability issues with this message because when you look at the entire context of the email, it's clear it isn't SPAM content. In fact, based on how this message was scored, it was considered to have as much sexual content as financial or legal content. Anecdotally, then, it's starting to seem like the idea of SPAM trigger words is becoming less of a concern for email deliverability. I followed up with Evan on whether this was a fair assessment ... here's what he had to say.

"Using 'risky' keywords in an email isn't really as a big a factor in content filtering these days; it's largely engagement metrics. But keywords are still used to score the content of an email. If you have a bunch of risky keywords and combine that with other issues -- bounces, complaints, or a lack of engagement overall, you could see those compounding issues result in deliverability problems."

Have you noticed similar results with your email deliverability when using traditionally "spammy" words in your messages? Share what you've found in the comments!

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