It's Called What?
A few weeks ago Washington City Paper picked up on a scuffle going down on Twitter and Instagram over a DC ice cream start-up's new packaging for a vegan frozen dessert. Milk Cult decided to showcase the new packaging for one of their frozen treats: Bangkok Brothel.
Yeah. That didn't go down so well, at least after some of us noticed it. Owners Ed Cornell and Patrick Griffith said their vegan frozen dessert had been around since last summer and were surprised that the name was upsetting to folks almost a year later.
When I found out about this gaffe, my first thought was that the owners likely weren't trying to be cavalier about a sex trade that includes thousands of trafficked and underage sex workers. My second thought was that the best way forward for them was to do damage control with a group that advocates for sex workers. So it was a pleasant surprise to read their statement and see that they had done just that! The owners of Milk Cult had a sit down with HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive), an organization focused on harm reduction services, advocacy, and community engagement for sex workers, and issued a statement indicating that they had come to a much better understanding of sex work generally and specifically in Thailand. They went on to say that not all sex work is coerced and that positive, sex worker-run operations also exist.
Milk Cult will now add information to their packaging about sex work and plans to donate 5% of proceeds from the vegan ice cream to both HIPS and Empower, a direct service oriented organization doing on-the-ground work for sex workers in Thailand. And to that we say Bravo! But, they have no plans to change the name.
HIPS executive director Cyndee Clay is compassionate and compelling in her stance regarding the name change.
"They were unaware, potentially, about the level of controversy and obviously didn't mean to do what they did," Clay says. She is happy with the outcome and won't be pushing for a name change. "They see their mistake and they're trying to do the right thing and spread the word and to make everybody more knowledgeable about an issue that doesn't get a lot of balanced and good conversation."
While she doesn't think it's a good idea for an ice cream flavor, she does think it could be an opportunity to reclaim brothels and sex work as ipso facto negative spaces, calling attention to the bad ones and recognizing the “empowering and sex-worker run” operations as something to support with harm reduction techniques and respect.
And l understand that. However I think that reclaiming language is tricky at best, and often hard to accomplish, as these erudite people have expressed. I also don’t think that changing the name would be 'sweeping it under the rug,' as the owners put it. With their public statement, donations made to HIPS and Empower, and information on the packaging educating about sex work, they have done a whole lot to air this out and fix it. It seems peculiar to say that they're going to leave the name as is, in an effort to show that they're not running away from their mistake. Keeping the name seems to be a doubling down of their explanation that they had seen nothing wrong with it and that it wasn't to be taken too seriously. The easy solution would be to change the name and then include a backstory and let that be the intro to whatever information they already plan on including in packaging. Makes sense, right?
Perhaps what may have made less sense was what I was aiming to accomplish through my comments to the City Paper about the name, as evidenced by some of the comments from aggrieved readers wondering why someone in my position felt it was OK to use the language I did. Part of what I was doing was baiting the reader with a statement I thought would get much more criticism than it did. I wanted it to become a jumping off point for a counter-argument and discussion about several different things - things like what sorts of jokes are OK and which aren't? Why is it hard to navigate such humor? And who's allowed to say what? So, let's get into it, shall we?
A Bag of Dicks: A close reading.
Having just commended Milk Cult's damage control actions and plans, I gave my take on the name change. Here's what I rattled off to Jessica Sidman at the City Paper while pulled over in a gas station parking lot off 95, somewhere in Connecticut.
"If they wanted to be provocative and tongue-in-cheek and edgy, there's so many things they could have done. You could call this thing 'a bag of dicks,' and I would have eaten the hell out of it," Puloka says. But as much as she loves dirty jokes, she thinks there's a way to be sexy and edgy that isn't also "misogynistic and shitty and cavalier about marginalized people."
There’s a lot going on in that statement, and I want to unpack it for you here.
"If they wanted to be provocative and tongue-in-cheek and edgy, there's so many things they could have done.
I have no problem with provocative, edgy, and even outright crass humor. What I have a problem with is the lack of imagination, whether naïve or deliberate, that is so often behind jokes at the expense of marginalized groups. Why can't you come up with something that's funny and not at the expense of women and not in the service of reinforcing this limited practice of not-clever provocation?
When someone like me calls out this allegedly harmless fun, critics would say that I can't take a joke. Such a statement implies that it's a lack of a sense of humor on my part. It also suggests that humor and jokes that further attack and demean an already vulnerable population are one and the same, that you can't be funny if you're not sticking to the tired and lazy punchlines full of women and bitches and hookers and their bodies and sexualities. That retort often goes something like this, from the comments on the City Paper article:
Nope, that's not what I’m upset about. It's not the allusion to sex or the celebration of the cheek of sexual innuendo. It's just the part where you're contributing to the lack of seriousness paid to the struggles these punchlines live with to have control over their bodies and exist in safe, productive spaces.
On Twitter I had suggested they change the name to 'Coco-Nut in My Mouth, Not on My Face Please.' You might get the idea that this frozen treat features a coconut flavor. It's also quite sex positive – an articulated request of what you do and don't want from a sexual escapade. Also, you put the ice cream in your mouth -get it? You can be funny, edgy, and rife with sexual innuendo and it doesn't have to be with the hackneyed punchlines that reinforce women's marginalized positions. Jokes don’t have to shore up a world where sexual objectification is standard and healthy sexuality and agency are absent. You can be funny and flaunt standards of PC language while not reinforcing harmful stereotypes.
You could call this thing 'a bag of dicks,' and I would have eaten the hell out of it," Puloka says.
Here's an example of me not having a problem with crass and vulgar humor by using that language and then saying I would happily purchase and consume that vulgarity with gusto.
But as much as she loves dirty jokes, she thinks there's a way to be sexy and edgy that isn't also "misogynistic and shitty and cavalier about marginalized people."
As a heterosexual identifying woman who enjoys the company of men and their dicks, my name-change suggestion is also a true statement and one I offer up without embarrassment and with the challenge to find what's wrong with it. It is sex positive and doesn’t come at the expense of anyone’s humanity.
If what is wrong with it is that it is crass, ask yourself if it is more crass to see a pint of ice cream labeled 'Bangkok Brothel'. The erasing of the realities of the sex trade in Southeast Asia behind an alliterative front is crass and vulgar in its insidiousness. I bet these guys would have given pause before calling peach flavored ice cream 'Plantation Passion'. Maybe culturally there are enough cues that a name like that might offend as it makes cute the idea of the Plantation and maybe even makes light of the forced and coerced sexual relationships and abuse between masters and their slaves. So if we find 'Bangkok Brothel' to be unsavory but ultimately harmless maybe it is because our awareness around sex work exists largely as cultural tropes and wink-winks about those lovely Thai prostitutes and the playland that awaits privileged western travelers. Or even worse, sneering jokes disparaging sex workers, full of the stale and harmful and unfair punchlines that paint them as dirty and without value -thereby reinforcing their vulnerability to dangerous conditions. Light hearted jokes about serious issues not taken seriously in the first place reinforce the injustice by separating the issue from reality and keeping it at the edges of what is worth one's care and attention.
If something about me in particular is what rubs the reader the wrong way, I say it is fair to validate someone's boundaries of decorum, and I can see that my comments are indecorous and you are entitled to thinking so. Without criticizing that opinion I am asking for an examination of why you may find my statements crude. If it's because the phrase coming out of a woman's mouth is harsher, cruder, and more distasteful than if a man had said it, that's a telling thing to explore. Soraya Chemaly talks about the higher standard of politeness expected out of women, such that identical behavior is seen as acceptable or not depending on your gender. And that has serious ramifications. Women who dress a certain way are seen as less deserving of safe spaces, women who are overtly sexually or speak crassly get framed as 'bad girls' who aren't smart enough or cultivated enough to behave properly and therefore don't deserve the safety of respect and acceptance. As Amy Schumer points out, if you're a woman talking about sex with blunt, crude humor then you are just that, but if you're a man you can do far cruder and still be considered intelligent and dynamic. She gets labeled a sex comic perhaps because her sex schtick stands out against her male counterparts. I don’t think that’s fair, and that is one way women get constrained and restricted from the same livelihood and expression that men are allowed.
So there you have it. Badly named vegan ice creams and how the way we talk about and label things affects how we understand and value them. And this gem. Indeed, what's wrong with it? Asking that question is an important starting point to explore where our beliefs and values come from and why, and can be an opportunity to challenge and change those that are harmful.