NEW YORK — 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?
Graffiti Out, Nudity In
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 MTA hired a superstar of the transit world, David L. Gunn, from Philadelphia to improve the system.
At first, 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 MTA lost a major source of revenue when it banned tobacco advertising in subways and buses, which had made up about 16% 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 GMHC.
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 MTA 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 MTA, told Newsday in 1993. “At the same time, we don’t expect our contractors to put up things that are totally offensive.”
Before 2015, even if the MTA wanted to bar a specific advertisement, it often wasn’t allowed to. In 1997, the same year the agency adopted new rules said to be aimed at “racy fashion ads,” a federal judge ruled that the space the MTA dedicated to advertising constituted a public forum. That ruling, in practice, made it hard for the MTA to disallow advertisements, no matter how inflammatory.
Four years ago, tired of losing in court, the agency again changed its advertising policy, most significantly banning all political advertising on the subways and buses. That helped convert the legal status of the transit system from a designated public forum into a limited public forum, with more ability to self-regulate.
These days, the process is supposed to work like this. When Outfront Media believes that an ad violates the MTA’s advertising policy, it is supposed to forward the ad to the agency’s advertising review committee of three: a director of external affairs, a compliance officer and a development officer (two women and a man). The committee, which sees a tiny percentage of all the ads submitted to the subway, is advised by a lawyer who specializes in free speech.
If advertisers are rejected, they can appeal the committee’s decision, asking the authority’s chief development officer, Janno Lieber, for a formal written ruling. Not many companies get to that point.
Next Stop: Your Undies
It is a classic, if risky marketing strategy to get attention through provocation. (See “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” and its variants.) If advertisers can get publicity by feuding with the subway, it may serve them better in the long run than the neutered ads that the authority would permit them to run.
The year the subway changed its advertising policy, Thinx, a company that makes products for women, like special underwear for periods, took a combative route after being rejected by Outfront. (This was before Miki Agrawal, a founder and the chief executive of Thinx, was ousted from the company after being accused of sexually harassing employees.)
Agrawal told Bustle that men were afraid of the period. She told Mic that, seemingly, it was fine to objectify women as the menstrual cycle went unacknowledged. (Consider the ads for local plastic surgeons who do breast implants.) And she told The Times that the rejection was “a double standard we were not going to let by.” On the same day, the MTA told The Times, referring to the ads, that “of course they will be approved.” They went up.
“We feel like we paved the way for many other brands to really push the boundaries of their advertising,” said Siobhan Lonergan, chief brand officer of Thinx.
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Indeed, many other companies selling intimate products or referring to sex seem to be getting easy clearance from the MTA. In fact, the agency is more lenient than transit agencies in other cities, said Melissa Hobley, 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, Texas. But while the New York subways didn’t take the ads right away (Outfront kicked it up to the MTA, which then negotiated changes with OkCupid), the ads eventually began to run.
And yet, despite the MTA’s increasing permissiveness, two companies that make sex toys have found a line that the agency, so far, has been unwilling to cross.
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The MTA says in a posted list and questions and answers about its policy that advertisements for sex toys straightforwardly violate a rule against what it calls “sexually oriented businesses” introduced in 2015, at the same time as the rule prohibiting political advertising.
In spring 2018, Polly Rodriguez, a founder of Unbound, a company that makes sex toys, thought the subways would be a good place to advertise. She submitted mock-ups to Outfront, but was told that the ads would not be approved under MTA guidelines.
Rodriguez did not hear from the MTA directly. She heard only from an employee of Outfront, David Luna, who said “our committee” decided the ads did not meet MTA guidelines. The ads violated sections of MTA rules that prohibit dissemination of indecent material to minors and the public display of “offensive sexual material,” he said.
Like Thinx before it, Rodriguez’s company went to the news media, accusing the MTA of sexism. After several articles and lots of social media fervor, a spokesman for the agency told The Times it would “work with the company toward a resolution that is agreeable to all parties and allows their ads on the system.”
Over the summer things with Outfront continued to drag along. For a time, 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 MTA in August, and went through several rounds of edits.
In November, 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 Lieber.
Alexandra Fine, a founder of Dame and a friend of Rodriguez’s, received an email from Andy Byford, president of New York City Transit (the branch of the MTA 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.
Fine did not give up. This summer, Dame sued the MTA; its chairman, Pat Foye; and Lieber. In the suit, Dame asked that the court compel the MTA to feature its ads. The litigation is continuing.
Rodriguez and Fine have consistently contrasted the MTA’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,” 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 MTA’s decisions represented a “pretty egregious double standard that stems from patriarchal and sexist cultural standards.”
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Asked to comment on the Dame lawsuit, the MTA 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.
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Mad as Heck
Along with all the other trouble facing the MTA, 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’ 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 MTA to take women’s health issues and women’s sexuality with the same degree of importance that they would take anybody else’s.”
Dudum added that his own ads should not bother anyone.
“You won’t 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, 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 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 OK to talk about it?” he said. “I don’t think there should be pornographic ads in the subway. But I think its OK 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 the company did hear from “moms and people who are concerned about what image we’re selling,” but she 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.
In a May, The Jewish Press lamented the Museum of Sex ads in an editorial: “Nearly every day, at least several hundred thousand people — including tens of thousands of innocent teenagers and children — see these ads,” the editorial read. “Among them are many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of yeshiva boys and Bais Yaakov girls who ride on trains.” (The phrase “Bais Yaakov” means school age.)
Elana Taubman, who teaches middle-schoolers in the city, said she was put in an uncomfortable situation by one of the companies that sells erectile dysfunction pills during the past school year. One of her students asked her what erectile dysfunction was. She told him to ask his science teacher. But the students continued to talk about the advertisement.
“It made me realize that my students were pretty old compared to all the students who take the subway every single day,” Taubman said. “A 13-year-old, that’s not even that crazy. To think that there are 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds being exposed to this every day? I’d say it was a very explicit ad, and I thought it was a lot for them to see.”
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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, 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.