Mexico City Installed "Penis Seats" On The Subway To Make A Point About Sexual Violence

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When it comes to the subject of public modes of transportation, sexual harassment is often brought up as a frequently-occurring problem, especially against female commuters. In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority regularly displays anti-sexual harassment advertisements to address sexual violence on the subway. To address the same type of harassment, Mexico City launched its own campaign, but with a slightly different touch. Instead of advertisements, these penis seats in Mexico public transit are supposed to make you uncomfortable.

It's an interesting campaign from the United Nation's Safe Cities and Public Spaces for Women and Girls initiative. Normally, advertisements that concern sexual harassment are text-based, like the messages and alerts MTA displays on every train. From sharing statistics on harassment to public messages encouraging passengers to report incidents to authorities, the advertisements are rarely this physical. That's why the project—otherwise known as #NoEsDeHombres—is stirring so much conversation.

It's rare to see sexual harassment get depicted in such a visceral way. What's even more compelling about the campaign is how it garners commuters' attention. Instead of just plopping down a penis seat for everyone to gawk at, the seat declares "exclusively for men," bringing their attention to the epidemic of sexual harassment in Mexico City. According to a 2014 Thomson Reuters poll, Mexico City was ranked the worst public transport system in the world for women.

The seat also says, "It is uncomfortable to sit here, but that is nothing compared to the sexual violence that women suffer on their daily journeys." Ana Güezmes, a representative at UN Women, says the goal of the initiative is to appeal to the empathy of those riding Mexico City's transit system.

In purely physical terms, the campaign addresses Mexico City's sexual harassment problem directly. It is, after all, a fake penis on a train. One cannot sit on it unless he is a man. And if a man does indeed sit on it, he cannot do so without feeling incredibly uncomfortable. Plus, and perhaps most notably of all, no one can actually ignore it. It's there. This is how the campaign shows men what it is like to be a woman in public.

Many have voiced their love for the campaign and say that it depicts a woman's experience with public transit in the most realistic terms. Public transit can be exceptionally unsettling given the frequency with which sexual harassment occurs. In Mexico's case, it's particularly disturbing. According to a 2015 UN study, for example, nine in 10 women in Mexico City had experienced violence in public transport.  

But critics of the campaign believe that it fails to address sexual harassment in a compelling way. Some think that it's juvenile and even mocks the harassment women face while riding trains and taking buses. There's a likelihood that the penis seats are simply seen as crude jokes to be laughed at. This is where the power of the message may be lost on some.

Whether people love or hate the campaign, one thing is undeniable. The project gives a physical dimension and representation to the unease and discomfort a woman experiences while being exposed to something entirely unwanted.