We are over four years into building Unbound, a sex tech startup, and we’re exhausted by our society’s puritanical views when it comes to womxn and sex. (Note: when we say womxn, we are talking about cis, femme, trans, and non-binary individuals).We started a company that makes well-designed vibrators, lubricants, and accessories to sell online to womxn. It’s the same value proposition as Casper, Warby Parker, or any other direct-to-consumer startup — cut out the middleman and offer a better quality product at a lower price, combined with an approachable brand and educational content, and voila! you’ve got yourself a startup. E-commerce is kind of a no-brainer when it comes to sex toys — so much so, that when we first started working on Unbound, we kept asking ourselves, “How has no one done this already?”
As it turns out, it’s because marketing sexual wellness products for womxn is nearly impossible. Whereas Viagra, hims, Trojan, Magnum, Durex, Playboy, and Cialis all have free rein to advertise on any platform, female sexual wellness brands are banned from the majority of major platforms, including but not limited to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, Pinterest, and — of course — the MTA.
We've experienced this firsthand last May when we submitted our first ad campaign to the MTA. We commissioned illustrations from artists Laura Callaghan, Yoko Honda, Loveis Wise, Robin Eisenberg, and K Liu Wong — all of which we felt were representative of our brand without being outwardly sexual. The MTA flagged the ads for being too phallic in nature and rejected the advertisements. That very same week, Hims rolled out their cacti campaign. The line was obvious — sex can be used to sell, but it depends on who’s buying. When another sex toy company, Dame, had their ads rejected shortly after our own campaign was turned down, they decided to push back by filing legal suit on the grounds of discrimination. Companies in our industry and those who lend their voice to calling out this blatant sexism will not tire of fighting this. It’s worth fighting for, and we’ll continue as long as we have the platform to do it.
This dichotomy exists because a man’s ability to have an erection is considered a health concern, based on the biological fact that a man must orgasm in order to procreate. As a result, male sexual wellness brands are considered morally acceptable as “family planning products.” Women, however, don’t need to experience an orgasm in order to procreate, so any product that exists solely to grant women pleasure in the reproductive process is considered a “vice” product.
For the private platforms, it’s disappointing but technically legal to refuse to advertise sexual wellness products for womxn. In fact, the policies that allow these platforms to take down white supremacists and fake Russian accounts are the same ones preventing us from advertising. If it’s a private platform, they decide who can and cannot access their services. The first amendment is not applicable to Facebook's boosted ads. It’s frustrating to be denied access, but technically legal.
The MTA is a bit of a different situation. As New Yorkers, we pay tax dollars that go towards the subway. Subsequently, one can make the argument that the subway is a public forum protected by the first amendment.
Furthermore, the subway is a common experience that we all share. It’s a public utility, an art gallery, a waiting room, an inside joke that only those who faithfully ride truly get. While the rest of the country chats politely about the weather; New Yorkers bond over the packed trains, ever-present Dr. Zizmor ads, and the terrifying delight of the “Showtime!” guys. It’s the bane of our existence and a necessary institution. It matters and so does the advertising we see on it.
As a company, Unbound’s mission is to convey that the pursuit of sexual wellbeing is an act of self-love — that buying a vibrator is an act of self-love. We believe all sexuality and pleasure is something worthy of more visibility. At the very least, womxn's pleasure is as worthy of being as visible as cis men’s sexuality.
The prospect of getting on the subway and seeing a healthy depiction of sexual wellbeing makes us hopeful. It makes us feel seen. Not just as a company, but as people who have spent our entire lives being told that we can only be seen if it’s through someone else’s gaze, and then only if we're considered appropriate within the constructs of their comfort zone.
The MTA has decided that New York City is still not prepared to see womxn take control of our own narratives. It’s decided that the pursuit of sexual wellbeing is reserved for those with a penis that fit the bro aesthetic. It’s nothing new — this is the message we’ve received our entire lives — whether it’s adherence to dress codes, paying a luxury tax for tampons or pads, or even just riding the subway alongside approved ads for erectile dysfunction or breast implants. Don’t get us wrong, these ads deserve to be there, too. We’re boner enthusiasts and affirm plastic surgery as a choice that people should be free to make without judgment. In fact, we were highly encouraged by seeing the rise of erectile dysfunction ads — maybe this would open a path for a company like us too. Alas, what is deemed acceptable, passable, or appropriate is different for some. The validation of progress and representation is not felt positively among all groups.
“The rules are different.”
“But that’s for a medical issue.”
“I guess it’s a double standard, but where’s the line then, ya know?”
We know where the line is. It’s been drawn pretty clearly in front of women, sex workers, disabled people, people of color, and the entire LGBTQIA community essentially forever. The line is a comfort zone, and the bogus justification of “public decency” is the shield.
Depictions of sexuality that do not affirm cis-hetero male norms and desires are still considered scandalous, different, or in this case, “offensive.” Pushing back is why we started Unbound in the first place. If you don’t see what you want out there, create it, advocate for it relentlessly, and build a community that feels passionate about it too. There’s always another train in sight, and unlike the G train, there’s something we can do about it.