If you glance around a New York City subway car on any given day, you might spot a few advertisements for erectile dysfunction, male libido, and condoms. What you won't see are ads for Dame, a sex toy company for women and non-binary people—because the Metropolitan Transit Authority banned it last year.
Now, the sex toy company is suing the MTA for refusing to run its ads, saying that the transit authority is infringing on its first amendment rights, and for censoring its work while allowing male sex toys and libido products to advertise.
It's a double-standard, the company says, that allows male-focused wellness products like Hims to run sexually suggestive, phallic ads on the subway unhindered by the MTA, while ads for female wellness like Dame, or period underwear company Thinx, face a struggle to get approved even when their imagery is amorphous and vague.
Dame's founders seek damages for the MTA’s violation of Dame’s rights to free speech and due process under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the company said in a complaint obtained by Motherboard, as well as an injunction requiring the MTA to approve Dame’s advertisements and display them on public transit.
In September 2018, the MTA's ad agency, Outfront Media, began working with Dame on a campaign that would run in subway cars, showcasing sex toys against neutral backgrounds and featuring slogans that read, “Toys, for sex” and customer reviews.
By late November of that year, however—after Dame says it spent $150,000 revising and developing ads in an attempt to meet the ad agency's suggestions for approval—the MTA completely and abruptly changed course on Dame's campaign, as well as all other sex toy ads on public transit. The MTA rejected Dame's ad campaign, and publicly published guidelines on advertising that prohibited any “sexually oriented business" from advertising on MTA property.
Co-founder and CEO of Dame Products, Alexandra Fine, told Motherboard that the company wanted to advertise on the MTA not only to attract more customers, but to normalize conversations around women's sexual pleasure.
"We're arguing that the MTA's arbitrary censorship is unconstitutional because they have not clearly defined the term 'sexually-oriented business,'" she said. "It's fully at their discretion who gets to use their platform, and that sort of censorship violates our first amendment rights."
The MTA still runs ads for companies like Hims and erectile dysfunction product company Roman, featuring far more sexually suggestive text and imagery than Dame's, like cactuses shaped like penises in wilted and erect states.
"The MTA’s decision to reject Dame’s advertisements reflects no legitimate principle of law," Dame wrote in the complaint. "Instead, it reveals the MTA’s sexism, its decision to privilege male interests in its advertising choices, and its fundamental misunderstanding of Dame’s products, which have transformed the sexual health and wellness of more than 100,000 consumers."
Fine said that filing a lawsuit wasn't the company's first choice, but conversations with the MTA have been futile. "We hope that by filing a lawsuit that we can achieve long-lasting changes in MTA advertising policies that allow for more fair advertising processes," she said, "and of course, that we too will be able to advertise amongst our sexually-oriented peers."