Sex and the Subway Ad


There is so much sex on the New York City subway now. Have you noticed? If you’re here, you must have. It’s inescapable.

Sometimes, train stations are just coated in phallic cactuses. They jut out in every direction, advertising a company called Hims that sells not plants, but pills to help treat hair loss and erectile dysfunction.

Within train cars, an ad for the linens company Brooklinen shows three pairs of feet tangled together under a sheet. Brooklinen originally wanted to tell riders that the sheets were meant for “threesomes” but was made to tweak it by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The advertisement now says that the sheet is for “throuples,” those in a committed relationship of three.

There are so many more. The Museum of Sex. Breast Augmentation. Lola prompts riders to talk about “condoms, lubricant and wipes,” under an image of two women happily discussing “the weirdest thing I’ve ever felt.” OkCupid uses a common acronym for being willing to have casual sex. Roman asks if you’re subject to (again!) erectile dysfunction.

When did this start? Where is it going? Do we really need this much sex on the subway? And what do we tell the kids?

In the 1980s, the subways were perhaps the least sexy place in New York, unless you were turned on by dirty, broken things. In 1984, the M.T.A. hired a superstar of the transit world, David L. Gunn, from Philadelphia to improve the system.

At first, Mr. Gunn focused on the most serious problems: derailments and dangerously hot cars. But eventually he got around to cleaning up the interiors. By 1989, the eyesores of the previous decade — broken windows, trash all over the floor — were all but gone. A graffiti artist told The New York Times then that he barely had time to take a picture of a finished tag, or signature, before a worker popped up to scrub it away.

Three years later, the M.T.A. lost a major source of revenue when it banned tobacco advertising in subways and buses, which had made up about 16 percent of the $27 million the agency earned from advertising annually.

A new class of advertisement soon emerged to fill all those empty spaces. In April 1993, New York Newsday ran an article with the headline “SEXY BUSES, SEXY SUBWAYS” on its front page. It reported that the city’s subway and bus system would soon get its “raciest ads ever,” for the radio station Hot 97. They were to feature eight embracing couples, some of them nude to the waist.

The next year, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an AIDS nonprofit, began running subway ads that showed same-sex couples canoodling, with the tag line “Young. Hot. Safe!”

The organization received bomb threats that specifically cited the ads, said Krishna Stone, then a volunteer with G.M.H.C.

Hot 97 ads used sex to sell an image of the radio station. Gay Men’s Health Crisis was compelled to mention it by way of addressing a public health epidemic. In 2019, the companies that advertise on the subways frequently blur the distinction between these very different categories of ad.

The M.T.A. has long used contractors, companies like New York Subways Advertising, TDI and (these days) Outfront Media, as its first line of defense when it comes to determining what is decent enough for the public eye.

It’s always been a balancing act. “We recognize that advertisers have a right to get their message across,” Larry Levine, then a director of real-estate operations for the M.T.A., told Newsday in 1993. “At the same time, we don’t expect our contractors to put up things that are totally offensive.”

“We feel like we paved the way for many other brands to really push the boundaries of their advertising,” said Siobhan Lonergan, the chief brand officer of Thinx.

Indeed, many other companies selling intimate products or referring to sex seem to be getting easy clearance from the M.T.A. In fact, the agency is more lenient than transit agencies in other cities, said Melissa Hobley, the chief marketing officer of OkCupid, the dating company.

Its recent campaign was kept off the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in San Francisco and Oakland. Chicago rejected it, as did Austin, Tex. But while the New York subways didn’t take the ads right away (Outfront kicked it up to the M.T.A., which then negotiated changes with OkCupid), the ads eventually began to run.

Over the summer things with Outfront continued to drag along. For a time, Ms. Rodriguez gave up.

“Everybody’s allowed to use women’s bodies and sexuality to sell since the dawn of time, except women themselves,” she said.

Encouraged by the agency’s public diplomacy in the press, another female-led company that makes sex toys, Dame Products, submitted an ad campaign to the M.T.A. in August, and went through several rounds of edits.

In November 2018, the authority posted a “frequently asked questions” page that specified that advertisements for sex toys or devices were barred from the subways. A month after that, Dame’s ads were rejected in a final determination by Mr. Lieber.

Alexandra Fine, a founder of Dame and a friend of Ms. Rodriguez’s, received an email from Andy Byford, the president of New York City Transit (the branch of the M.T.A. responsible for day-to-day operations). He told her that he “cringed” when he read of her experience but that he did not have the authority to do anything himself.

Ms. Fine did not give up. Earlier this summer, Dame sued the M.T.A.; its chairman, Pat Foye; and Mr. Lieber. In the suit, Dame asked that the court compel the M.T.A. to feature its ads. The litigation is continuing.

Ms. Rodriguez and Ms. Fine have consistently contrasted the M.T.A.’s treatment of their companies with Hims and Roman, which also sells pills to combat erectile dysfunction. The subway justifies allowing those companies’ advertisements by saying they offer medicinal products while Unbound and Dame offer products only for pleasure.

“Fifty-five-year-old men don’t need erections,” Ms. Fine said. “Those erections make them feel alive and that’s beautiful, but same with my sex toys.”

Emma Freeman, a lawyer representing Dame in the suit, said that “the notion very broadly that advertisements like Roman and Hims serve a public health interest that Dame doesn’t is nonsense,” adding that the M.T.A.’s decisions represented a “pretty egregious double standard that stems from patriarchal and sexist cultural standards.”

Asked to comment on the Dame lawsuit, the M.T.A. said in a statement that its “advertising policy and its decision not to display the Dame Products ads is not gender-based or viewpoint discriminatory,” adding that its advertising policy clearly states “that advertisements for sex toys or devices for any gender are not permitted. Advertising for FDA-approved medication — including sexual dysfunction medication for any gender — is permitted.” 

More generally, the agency says that advertising “provides a critical revenue source” and that its advertising policy allows it to “maximize ridership and fare revenues and maintain a secure, orderly and welcoming system.” In other words, it runs ads to make money, while also running a transportation network that serves a huge cross-section of the public.

Along with all the other trouble facing the M.T.A., like suspended service during a recent heat wave, total unpredictability from line to line and the saga of the L train, the agency says it hears frequently from organizations and individuals upset about sexual content in advertisements. Occasionally, passengers’ interactions with them pop up on social media, too.

But even if a judge rules against Dame the increasing permissiveness of the last 50 years suggests there will come a day when ads for vibrators will not offend enough New Yorkers for the agency to bother rejecting them.

Hims’s chief executive, Andrew Dudum, expressed support for Unbound and Dame. “If there is any sense of gender bias, then it’s exceptionally offensive,” he said. “And I would encourage the M.T.A. to take women’s health issues and women’s sexuality with the same degree of importance that they would take anybody else’s.”

Mr. Dudum added that his own ads should not bother anyone.

“You wont ever see ‘sex sells’ with Hims and Hers,” he said. “You won’t see crazy nudity or things that are graphically vulgar that when I walk the streets of New York I’m shocked have been allowed anywhere.”

Dan Gluck, the founder of the Museum of Sex, which is advertised on the front of buses that sail past elementary schools in Brooklyn and elsewhere, has four children: two teenagers, a preteen and a toddler. He said that ads that promote sex are “just part of the conversation of life.”

“Why not expose people, even at a young age, to the idea that sex is part of their lives, their world and their culture, and it’s O.K. to talk about it?” he said. “I don’t think there should be pornographic ads in the subway. But I think its O.K. to have sexually oriented ads in the subway that initiate conversation. I have zero ethical problem with that from a parent’s perspective.”

Katherine O’Keefe, a spokeswoman for Brooklinen, said that the company did hear from “moms and people who are concerned about what image we’re selling,” but said that far more often the company got laudatory feedback from customers who were excited to see themselves represented in the ads.

Still, it is clear that the ads are uncomfortable for religious communities, many parents and teachers shuttling children from classes to museums (not the one of sex) on the subway.

Ms. Fine, the Dame founder, understood this perspective. Referring to Hims and Roman and all the other companies permitted to allude to sex in the subway (however subliminally), she said, “If nobody could run ads, if they couldn’t run ads either, I would not feel nearly as indignant about it.”

In an email later in the day, though, Ms. Fine returned to her initial stance.

“Sex-focused products SHOULD be allowed to advertise because sex is a healthy part of the human experience,” she wrote.


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