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Sun., Oct. 6, 2013

Jamie Tobias Neely: Baristas and what we value

I hate to bring this up.

I realize I can easily be dismissed as just another interfering middle-aged woman, my mom jeans hiked, my lips pursed and my finger pointed at those bare-breasted baristas. The very picture of puritan self-righteousness.

If you, gentle reader, can move beyond the stereotypes you might have of women of a certain age, whether more Michele Bachmann or more Dana Carvey Church Lady, I would implore you to hear me out.

Last week, the Spokane City Council chose not to take action to regulate local coffee shops that employ scantily dressed servers. The majority opinion seemed to be a jovial sort of live-and-let-live tolerance. The conservative voices, who did sound a tad hysterical, were drowned out.

But it seems to me there’s a middle ground somewhere here. My reactions, like those of others I respect in the community, include a sense of concern about the well-being of the young women who work in these coffee stands.

I wonder what their presence says about our community’s values.

Are we driven solely by a desire to protect one another’s personal freedom to do whatever we want no matter how troubling?

Or would we prefer to create a community that supports and enhances our individual and collective well-being?

Admittedly, the young women who were quoted in a Spokesman-Review article by Jody Lawrence-Turner a week ago seemed to have few qualms about their work. They said they earned a minimum of $80 in tips, as well as hourly pay, for five-hour work shifts and mostly were troubled by the judgment they hear.

When I called Big Shots Espresso last week, the young woman on the other end gave me only a quick “no comment.” It’s not easy to discern the motivations of the women involved. Nor do I remotely imagine that they’d welcome my concern.

But the topless barista industry is an area of commerce that leaves me uncomfortable. I face similar discomfort, on a continuum, related to the sale of any sort of body part or function. Sex trafficking and child pornography lie to the far, most disturbing extreme. But along the continuum lie strippers, exotic dancers, Hooters waitresses, topless baristas, and then kids who pay for college textbooks by selling their sperm, their eggs, their blood. Even the thought of cash-strapped young mothers selling breast milk leaves me slightly queasy.

Sociologists would say that some exotic dancers, for example, find their work empowering. Others argue the work is degrading. It’s possible it’s both.

Research in the field of psychology finds links between childhood sex abuse and the decision to work as a prostitute or exotic dancer as an adult. Young people whose boundaries were violated early on are less likely to have healthy adult limits that keep them safe. The work allows the women to simultaneously establish some sense of control while remaining mired in circumstances similar to those they faced as children.

Meanwhile, even if our topless baristas are in school preparing for a better life, these jobs certainly won’t reflect well on their resumes. They deal with leering customers, some of whom may be untrustworthy, if not downright dangerous.

We could, as Kitsap County has, add requirements for fencing or landscaping that would keep these women out of our view. They’d disappear from our consciousness, and many of us would give them little more thought.

But that lets us off too easily. A clear view impels us to ask: What does the presence of topless baristas say about Spokane? Do we need to work harder to care for kids from difficult backgrounds? Provide more viable employment options? Make public higher education truly public again?

Moreover, should the fact that these young women lack strong boundaries relieve us from any obligation to listen to our impulse to protect them?

The triple-X baristas make many of us uncomfortable. And maybe, just maybe, that’s actually healthy.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former member of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board, is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is


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