When discussing the world of advertisement, a commonly heard phrase is, ‘sex sells.‘ This is true, it seems, until the advertisement is promoting female sexual wellness and a healthy pursuit of sexual pleasure.
Unbound, a woman-owned company that sells everything from vibrators to lingerie, recently submitted a series of artwork to the Metropolitan Transportation Agency in New York City. “The art we submitted sought to convey the idea that the pursuit of sexual wellbeing is an act of self-love. Our goal was to showcase the belief that women’s sexuality is something worthy of more public visibility.” Says Polly Rodriguez, CEO of Unbound. Unfortunately, the MTA rejected the artwork, claiming the images were too sexually explicit.
Looking at the artwork, however, not many would say it’s sexual explicit. In fact, there’s no nudity, no mention of the word ‘sex,’ and unless you look very closely, many wouldn’t even noticed the sex toys that are hidden throughout.
While the artwork does include images of sex toys, you essentially need to play a game of ‘I spy’ to find them. In contrast, ads with erectile disfunction prominently displayed, and provocative advertisements for the Museum of Sex, have been approved and plastered all over the subway system. The MTA has claimed that Unbound’s advertisements were rejected due to their policy against sexual obscenity, but it seems if the sexual matter is related to male pleasure, that policy is overlooked. Despite Unbound’s advertisements being stylized artwork used to promote a healthy view of female sexual pleasure and empowerment, they were still deemed unsuitable.
While this censorship is unjust and infuriating, it isn’t surprising. Women’s bodies have been sexualized and used in advertisement for years. The idea of a woman’s own pursuit of sexual pleasure and empowerment remains taboo, ignored and is often considered improper to speak about. “At this point, male sexuality is viewed as a crucial, life-changing health concern, while female sexuality is not given that same degree of attention or respect.” Rodriguez tells FLURT. “This rejection re-emphasized stigmas against female sexuality, even when innocuously referenced, in comparison to more blatant displays of male sexuality.”
This isn’t the first time the MTA has rejected ads that promoted women’s wellness. In 2015, Thinx, a menstrual underwear company, submitted a set of ads, one featuring an image of a cracked egg, and another featuring a woman in a tank top and underwear next to a picture of a grapefruit. These were declined due to the images of the egg and grapefruit being “inappropriate,” and for the woman apparently showing too much skin. These issues didn’t seem to be a problem, however, in a series of breast augmentation ads, which began appearing in the subway system in 2014, that featured close ups of a woman’s cleavage. Or in a different set of ads for the same plastic surgery firm that show a woman holding a pair of grapefruit in front of her chest.
Since coverage of Unbound’s rejection has increased, the MTA has stepped back and stated that they are willing to publish the advertisements, but only if Unbound is willing to meet them halfway. Polly explains that Outfront, the MTA’s advertising partner, has reached out to begin a conversation about re-submitting the artwork to the MTA, but she is unsure what that will look like at this time. “We want to make certain we’re not just putting a band-aid on this issue by making quick fixes, but really doing our best to change the policies that resulted in this dispute in the first place.”
While the fight to break down the stigma surrounding female sexuality isn’t easy, the end result is worth it. “If we can get more accustom to treating female sexuality with the same reverence that we do male sexuality in our society (i.e. giving it more space in public places & conversations), we’ll begin to empower everyone to own their pleasure and to really allow formerly marginalized communities to celebrate one of the most universal human traits.” Rodriguez says. “Ultimately, we’d love to be able to make a lasting impact on the policies that have, and obviously continue to, discriminate against companies that cater to different genders and versions of sexuality”
Unbound will continue to fight not only for their own company’s ads, but for those who follow them. “What good is it to blaze a trail if others can’t follow in your path?”