Long story short: last week Unbound submitted our first ad campaign to the MTA. And we were promptly rejected. Our ads were deemed "sexually offensive material" and therefore will not see the light of day (or the glaring fluorescent light of the B train). If you're already fired up, feel free to skip to the bottom because we need your help.
For the members of our team and all New Yorkers, the subway is a common experience that we all share. It’s 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, ever-present Dr. Zizmor ads, and the terrifying delight of the “Show Time!” guys. It's the bane of our existence and a necessary institution. It matters and so does the advertising we see on it.
We wanted to create a campaign that would not only highlight our company and the products we make but also convey the idea that the pursuit of sexual wellbeing is an act of self-love–that buying a vibrator is an act of self-love. We also wanted to make the point that we believe all sexuality and pleasure is something worthy of more visibility. At the very least, it is worthy of being as visible as cis men’s sexuality.
As New Yorkers and straphangers (a fun word for someone who travels by bus or train), we asked ourselves, “what do we want to see when we ride?”
We talked about what we like to see on the subway. Bold art that holds our attention the entire way down the express line and manspreaders put in their place. We'll solve for the latter some other day, but for the former, we asked 5 artists to show us what self-love meant to them in their own signature and recognizable styles. (If you don't already, you should follow them: Kristen Liu Wong, Laura Callaghan, Loveis Wise, Robin Eisenberg, and Yoko Honda). All of the artists created a world in which pleasure feels natural, confident, and unashamed. We were so thrilled to bring this project into the light (and underground). The prospect of getting on the subway and seeing this bright, bold art that actually shows a healthy depiction of sexual wellbeing makes us hopeful. It makes us feel seen. Not just as a company but as people who have spent our entire lives being told that to be seen is only available to us if it's through someone else's gaze, and deemed appropriate within the constructs of their comfort zone.
The MTA has decided that New York City is still not prepared to see womxn take control of our own narratives. Its decided that the pursuit of a healthy sexual wellbeing is reserved for those with a penis. It's nothing new–this is the message we've received our entire lives–whether it's adherence to dress codes, paying a luxury tax for tampons or pads, or even just riding the subway alongside (approved) ads for erectile dysfunction or breast implants. Don't get us wrong, these ads deserve to be there too, we're boner enthusiasts and affirm plastic surgery as a choice that people should be free to make without judgment. In fact, we were highly encouraged by seeing the rise of erectile dysfunction ads–maybe this would open a path for a company like us too. Alas, what is deemed acceptable, passable, or appropriate is different for some. The validation of progress and representation is not felt positively among all groups.
"The rules are different."
"But that's for a medical issue."
"I guess it's a double standard, but where's the line then, ya know?"
We know where the line is. It's been drawn pretty clearly in front of women, sex workers, disabled people, people of color, and the entire LGBTQIA community essentially forever. The line is a comfort zone and the bogus justification of "public decency" is the shield.
So, we're bummed but motivated. Even as these ads sit in our Google Drive, we are inspired by their message and know they will get out there in some capacity. We've gotten to know the women that created this campaign with us over the last few months. We're in awe of their talent and vision. We know things are starting to change, but we also know that change only happens when people push back on those with their hands on the levers.
The fact of the matter is, we don't yet have our hands on the levers.
Depictions of sexuality that do not affirm cishetero norms and desires are still considered scandalous, different, or in this case, "offensive." Pushing back is why we started Unbound in the first place. If you don't see what you want out there, create it, advocate for it relentlessly, and build a community that feels passionate about it too. There's always another train in sight, and unlike the G train, there's something we can do about it.
As Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
If you believe that this art and positive depictions of sexuality deserve equal access to public spaces, please consider sharing the artwork on your Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter with the hashtag: #WTFMTA. And please consider following the artists that contributed work for this campaign too.