Sex Toy Company Dame Sues The MTA For Banning Its Subway Ads

Brooklyn-based sexual health company Dame Products LLC is taking legal action against New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority for refusing to run its vibrator advertisements.

In a complaint filed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court, Dame slams the subway operator for violating its first amendment rights and calls for the MTA to enable its ads to be displayed. In September 2018, Dame received initial approval for a subway campaign by the MTA’s ad partner Outfront Media and reports it spent $150,000 and created three different rounds of ads between September and November to gain approval.

Dame submitted the third iteration of the ads to Outfront in early November. Dame did not receive any response on the ads until three weeks later, when it was notified that the ads had been rejected, citing the MTA’s updated guidelines that prevent “sexually oriented” businesses from advertising. Outfront’s message to Dame read, “I wish I had some better news. It looks like we will not be unable to run this ad content. The MTA will be releasing a new Q and A regarding advertising guidelines. I will send it over as soon as I receive it.” Those updated guidelines were dated Nov. 15, 2018 and posted as a PDF on the MTA’s website.

The guidelines, which Dame called “hastily updated” in an email to its customer base yesterday, restrict ads from businesses selling sex toys or devices, but Dame holds it doesn’t apply restrictions evenly. The company accuses the MTA of a double standard in judging sexual marketing content that’s permitted on subway premises. Ads by the men’s wellness outfit Hims for erectile dysfunction medication featuring phallus-shaped cacti were OK’d while Dame’s sex toy imagery aimed at women was deemed too taboo for subway riders.

One of the third-round subway ads for Dame vibrators rejected by the MTA.

“We’re not saying that we think others’ ads should be removed, only that ours should be allowed as well,” states Alexandra Fine, CEO and co-founder of Dame. “Erectile dysfunction companies can advertise with the MTA, and Facebook and Instagram, which are other platforms on which we also can’t advertise. To us, it’s evident that the MTA is prioritizing ad space for tools that make sex better for men/people with penises, but ignoring all of the many benefits of tools for women/people with vulvas.”

Dame’s ads banned by the MTA currently appear on New York City kiosks and bus stops via Intersectional Media. The ads would have been the first in the subway system to showcase vibrators. Dame, though, isn’t the first sexual health company to face opposition when attempting to promote its goods in subway stations and train cars, increasingly popular venues for startups.

“It’s evident that the MTA is prioritizing ad space for tools that make sex better for men/people with penises, but ignoring all of the many benefits of tools for women/people with vulvas.”

In May last year, New York-based sexual wellness company Unbound tried unsuccessfully to run subway ads for its own vibrators. Unbound founder Polly Rodriguez shelled out what she estimates was tens of thousands of dollars to commission five artists to create ads with drawings and no photography in order to not appear explicit. The drawings didn’t persuade the MTA to greenlight Unbound’s ads, but the subway agency reversed its stance when the matter caught the attention of The New York Times. It told the publication it was willing to work with Unbound on the ads.

Rodriguez reports the MTA never contacted her or her company directly about its change of heart. She was informed of MTA’s decision by The New York Times. The MTA might have overstated its willingness to work with Unbound to The New York Times, however. Rodriguez details, “When I went back to MTA, there were still problems. They said, ‘You still have to change this this and this.’” Ultimately, Unbound’s subway ads never went up.

Another of Dame’s ads rejected by the MTA.

Dame isn’t letting the MTA’s rejection of its ads go quietly. It’s urging customers to express their support for the company on social media using the hashtag #DerailSexism. Dame has provided public access to its complaint against the MTA and produced a one-minute video spotlighting its forbidden ads and the ads of a sexual nature that have been approved for subway showings.

“We feel strongly that we need to learn how to have healthy conversations about sex or we risk unhealthy practices, and we believe that this is a significant step in raising awareness about this,” states Fine. “We also, of course, would love to have our ads run on the MTA.”

Rodriguez believes the MTA’s ad approval process should be amended to include a way to appeal the MTA’s verdicts, which are decided by the ad agency, a third party, based on MTA guidelines, to even the playing field for companies like Dame and Unbound. She says, “We want to elevate the conversation around sexual wellness. We try to play by the rules, and they keep moving the goal line.”