"Not even in the brothel are there such scenes as yours," said a critic of a nude religious fresco that was widely condemned and to which another artist added loin cloths. What was this censored piece of art? Michelangelo's The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. History does not look kindly on this act of Renaissance-era censorship, yet art bans remain prevalent half a millennium later, even in progressive places like New York City.
Mere days after an ad campaign for erectile dysfunction dominated Grand Central Station, the company that manages the MTA's public transit advertising rejected artist-driven ads for Unbound, a sexual wellness company that produces intimate toys, body care and accessories. The all-female artists are noteworthy—Laura Callaghan, Loveis Wise, Yoko Honda, Robin Eisenberg and Kristen Liu-Wong (with nearly a million combined followers on Instagram)—and their ads celebrate female sexuality without being explicit or showing nudity. Nevertheless, the company prohibited the Unbound ads because they contain "offensive sexual material" and expose minors to "indecent material." (As if any trip on the subway doesn't involve some level of indecency.)
Unbound says it strives to educate and empower women, yet the censorship of its new ad campaign turned out to be an education in discrimination: It's okay to empower men to get boners but not to empower women to embrace their sexuality. Or as Loveis Wise posted on Instagram today, "WHAT THE FUCK MTA." PRØHBTD spoke with Unbound CEO Polly Rodriguez to learn more.
Let me start by asking how these ads encapsulate Unbound's vision for elevating sexual wellness.
The art represents our brand's approach to sexuality, which is the belief that each person should define it for themselves. Our approach was to pick each individual artist for their aesthetic and then send them our products so they could form their own opinion and relationship with them. Our ask was simply to depict their view of sexuality using their artistic lens and what they created was nothing short of incredible.
The MTA rejected your ad campaign on the grounds of "offensive sexual content" even though they do not contain nudity or sexual acts. Were you able to get the MTA to define what constitutes "offensive" material?
No. The MTA sets the rules and guidelines, but then chooses not to be involved with the brokering of the ad space, so it's ultimately up to the agency [Outfront] that manages the subway ad spaces to interpret the rules. In this case, they felt what we submitted was sexually offensive. We obviously disagreed, but there's no formal appeals process for even having a conversation.
Do you think these images would have been rejected if you replaced the female characters with men?
I mean, we know that if it was a Viagra ad, it would be approved. Both Hims and Roman are generic Viagra brands that both have advertising not only on the subway and in public places, but also on Facebook and Instagram where we're banned. It's that the ability to get an erection and orgasm [for men] are viewed as sexual health and necessary/important, whereas products like vibrators and lubricants that service the exact need for women are deemed inappropriate and offensive. And at the root of that logic is blatant sexism.
How does censoring these ads contribute to the lingering stigma involving female sexuality?
It furthers the stigma by confirming that female sexuality is something that cannot be out in the open. It says to young women everywhere that male sexuality is more important and more visible and that their [sexuality is] not to be seen or talked about unless it's 1) breast augmentation a.k.a. from the male gaze or 2) behind closed doors.
Tell me about the #WTFMTA hashtag campaign on social media.
It's a grassroots movement to call out the MTA's sexist ad policies. We've been so encouraged by the droves of supporters who have shared the artwork below which blatantly highlights the hypocrisy.
You can support Unbound by sharing the artwork on your social media with the #WTFMTA hashtag and by visiting the Unbound website.
UPDATE: "The MTA has always and will continue to ensure that our policies are applied evenly and fairly," said MTA spokesperson Jon Weinstein in a statement. "We’re going to direct our advertising partner to work with the company toward a resolution that is agreeable to all parties and allows their ads on the system."