Should Bikini Baristas be Regulated as Sex Workers?

Sunday, April 12, 2015
Bikini barista Pat Hall in 1950 Los Angeles (photo: Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library)

The Pacific Northwest features an odd hybrid of Starbucks and topless bar. Drive-through coffee stands featuring bikini-clad or even topless women are a frequent sight along roads in Washington, Oregon and some other states. Now some jurisdictions want to regulate the coffee stand employees the same way exotic dancers are.


“In my mind we’re talking adult entertainment,” Mike Fagan, a Spokane city councilman who tried unsuccessfully to regulate the shops, told The Atlantic. “We don’t want to shut down the stands. We want to say, ‘Look, you either put the bikinis back on, or you move your business to an appropriately zoned area.’”  An attempt earlier this year to ban the shops by instituting a public nudity law did not make the ballot.


Using scantily-clad women to sell food and drink is nothing new. Hooters pioneered the practice, starting in Florida in the 1980s and moving across the country. More recently, other chains such as Tilted Kilt, featuring Scottish-themed short uniforms for their female servers, have become popular.


But the bikini coffee shops are a new wrinkle. Servers are required to wear at least bikini bottoms and pasties, so they’re not so much X-rated as a hard R. In addition, partitions are placed between the building and the street to protect children and others who don’t want to see the servers. Coffee stands whose workers wear regular clothing often declare themselves to be “family friendly.”


And even though there’s no real physical contact other than handing coffee to customers, some still say the bikini baristas are sex workers. “I think bikini baristas are sex workers, because their work involves using sexual appeal,” a woman with the stage name Savannah Sly, who works with the Seattle Sex Workers Outreach Project, told The Atlantic. “Because they may be stigmatized or their place of employment scrutinized due to the erotic nature of the work, I deem it worthy of the label of sex work.”


But other women, including those who work in or own those shops, disagree. Sarah Birnel, who owns both bikini and regular coffee stands, said: “When a woman is actually saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to make money. I’m going to make money with what I’ve got,’ how is that not empowering?”

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

‘Just Because I Work Here Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Respect Myself’ (by Leah Sottile, The Atlantic)

Exposure Law Proposal Focused on Spokane Baristas Falls Short on Signatures (Spokane Spokesman-Review)


Samantha 9 years ago
Wait, do people in the comments not realize that sex work is a real job? Just like a teacher or a dentist?
Janine 9 years ago
"Sex workers"! LOL!
Chet 9 years ago
Might as well regulate female lifeguards in bathing suits as sex workers, too.

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