When I rewatched Toy Story 2 with my niece a few years ago, I recognized for the first time the meaning of Buzz Lightyear’s wings jutting out when he meets Jessie. PSA: Buzz Lightyear is getting a boner. Sexual innuendo under the guise of Disney. Let’s come back to this.
Standing at the Astor Place cube in Manhattan, I passed a 4×6 notecard to a man walking his bike. “What exactly is hashtag approved not approved?” Cue the now all-too-familiar spiel about the double standards surrounding advertisement policies: We’re here because the MTA has rejected a sexual wellness company’s ads after having originally agreed to advertise their product. Dame Products looked to the MTA for an opportunity to promote their brand, with initial positive responses from their team, to then be denied after rounds of submissions; and this isn’t the first time this has happened. We saw this with Unbound Babes last year. So, why aren’t we seeing vibrators Fin or Palma alongside Seamless’ brilliant marketing efforts or the threats of a $100 fine for hopping the turn-style? The easy answer would be the patriarchy, but I’ve got 600 words to go so it’s obviously a bit more complicated than that.
Let’s start with the subway. I remember sitting in Books Are Magic, watching Abbi Jacobson discuss her next career move, and the New York gems she would really miss if she left. “You know what,” she said, “I’m really going to miss the subway. There’s nothing like New York trains.” And she’s right. From pastel visors to heavy metal tattoos, the subway amasses all of us. Sarah Jayne Kinney, Co-Founder of Unbound, eloquently distilled the value of the subway in two sentences when she said, “[The subway] is a public utility, an art gallery, a waiting room, an inside joke that only those who faithfully ride truly get. While the rest of the country chats politely about the weather, New Yorkers bond over the packed trains… it’s the bane of our existence and a necessary institution. It matters and so does the advertising we see on it.” To advertise to this congregation of commuters–for both Dame and Unbound–was the ideal boy meets girl scenario; just with sex toys and humid underground tunnels.
The subway provides a “huge opportunity as a brand to create thoughtful ads that not only capture your attention instantly, but give you something to think about on your commute,” says Alexandra Fine, CEO of Dame Products. So both Dame and Unbound—at separate points in time—set out to enhance commuters’ palettes. Eventually, though, they reached a lover’s quarrel. Unbound’s pink-centric illustrations—with their pleasure products serving as accents, rather than focal points—were rejected upfront for containing “indecent materials,” per the MTA.
Within that same year (2018) Dame—having been through three rounds of ad submissions with their approved campaign–was ultimately rejected as part of the MTA’s new guidelines that did not allow space for “sexually oriented” businesses to advertise.
This is where things get tricky. If you have not been privy to the subway ads over the past year or so, you might think the above is reasonable. Like an R rated film, perhaps these ads should be reserved for a specific audience, and not just any jo-shmo who walks onto the 456. The reality, though, is that sexual innuendo lives underneath New York City. Museum of Sex has someone’s butt as their protaganist. Hims and Roman spell out ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION for all passerbys. Brooklinen reads “sheets for me time or ‘me’ time” (if you didn’t catch that, it’s talking about masturbating…). Sex sells when you’re operating under the umbrella of a public forum like a museum; sex sells when you’re medically credentialed like erectile dysfunction pills; sex sells when it’s for a cool girl sheet brand; sex sells when it’s Buzz Lightyear. Sex sells when it is in no way connected to actual sex. So, Dame sued.
When it comes down to it: the MTA rejected ads that promoted the discussion around and the encouragement of women’s sexual pleasure; but, the MTA is not the enemy here. The MTA is merely one facet of a socially ingrained system that denounces women’s bodily autonomy, while simultaneously encouraging men’s. Erectile Dysfunction is not “indecent” (to borrow from the MTA’s dictionary) because people with penises have to be able to get a boner to ejaculate to procreate; but a sex toy doesn’t help us reproduce, and neither does a woman’s orgasm. That’s why we’ve been denying that basic sexual experience for, well, ever. The MTA is just acting according to a broken process that defaults to moving through the world with androcentric sunglasses. “My favorite interaction from [the protest] was with an elderly man who taught sex ed in high schools for over 50 years who told me, ‘We hold women to an entirely different standard and it’s ridiculous’,” Rodriguez recounted. This is not a debate over a vibrator plastered on the L, it’s a debate over a double standard.
In our current climate, there is (thankfully) an emphasis on companies to recognize responsibility and encourage it amongst their communities; be it through encouraging a demonstration or sharing an impactful story that empowers a disenfranchised individual. Rodriguez distilled the ethos of the sexual wellness community’s endeavors when she said: “humanizing the entire experience of being a marginalized group trying to improve your sexual wellbeing is the most compelling, honest, and raw argument to make. Because the current process is broken and deserves to be fixed, and we all deserve visibility.”