You can see analogies for droopy penises on subway ads in New York City — including phallic-looking cacti and angry roosters — but nothing for femme-centered sex toys.
That’s why Dame, a sex toy company founded by two women, is suing New York City’s transit agency for refusing to run its subway ads.
Dame says they submitted ads to the MTA in July 2018, and the MTA sent an initial approval and some feedback. They sent their final ads in November 2018 and waited to hear back. Three weeks later, the MTA rejected their campaign, saying it went against MTA advertising guidelines. So Dame decided to sue the MTA to protest what they say is a “sexist policy” and to “address its implications for vulva-havers everywhere.” They filed the suit on June 18.
“NYC’s transit agency perpetuates a harmful double standard. They rejected Dame’s exciting new subway ad campaign, citing vague and sexist reasons. Their message: There’s plenty of space for erectile dysfunction drugs, but none for innovators making sex enjoyable for women,” Dame said on its website. (The company is also offering customers $5 off their purchase in honor of the suit with a code that reflects their messaging: #DerailSexism.)
This isn’t the first advertisement blockade Dame has encountered — sex toy companies, particularly those focusing on people who have vaginas, allege having a more notoriously difficult time placing advertisements that other companies in the sexual wellness field just don’t face. Dame wasn’t allowed to use Kickstarter when it first launched, and according to the Verge, ads for sex toys are barred from Facebook, are restricted on other ad platforms and many payment processors are unwilling to handle transactions for sex toys, fearing the brand reciprocations they might face. But this is one of the first times Dame, or any other sex toy company, has taken this kind of rejection to court.
In response, MTA Chief External Affairs Officer Maxwell Young said in a statement to MTV News that Dame’s accusations of sexism are “clearly inaccurate as the MTA’s advertising is in no way gender-based or viewpoint discriminatory.”
Young pointed to the MTA’s FAQs about its advertising policy, in which it says the “MTA Advertising Policy prohibits any advertisement that promotes a ‘sexually oriented business,’ and advertisements for sex toys or devices for any gender fall within this category.”
But Dame argues that ads for erectile dysfunction, female libido medication, condoms, breast augmentation, and the Museum of Sex, all of which are allowed to advertise on the subway, are inherently “sexually oriented” businesses. The MTA has approved ads for both Hims and Roman, companies that sell erectile dysfunction medication among their products; their ads have not been subtle about their wares.
This isn’t the first time the MTA has been accused of sexism in its ad placement. In 2018, the MTA came under fire for refusing to allow Unbound, a company that sells sexual aids targeted at women, to place ads in the subway. They ended up reversing their course and saying they’d work with Unbound if they could find a way to advertise the company’s products without violating MTA’s rules, according to the New York Times. And in 2015, it was only after a contentious, public battle that the menstrual underwear brand THINX says its ads were approved by the MTA.
The MTA said they believe there’s a big distinction between sex toys and pharmaceutical drugs or museums, adding that “the MTA is constitutionally entitled to draw reasonable content-based distinctions between different types of advertisements and to consider its diverse customers.”
Dame doesn’t agree. “The MTA’s decision to reject Dame’s advertisements reflects no legitimate principle of law,” the lawsuit reads, adding that the agency’s rejection of their ads “reveals the MTA’s sexism, its decision to privilege male interests in its advertising choices, and its fundamental misunderstanding of Dame’s products.”
It looks like there’s going to be a long road ahead for Dame and the MTA. In a statement, the MTA promised to “vigorously defend this lawsuit” and have already announced their lawyers for the case: “the preeminent First Amendment lawyer Victor Kovner and his colleagues.”