A Milk Cult vegan coconut milk ice cream made with Thai basil, cilantro, hot Thai chili peppers, and lemon zest is getting blowback for trivializing prostitution and sex trafficking with its name: Bangkok Brothel.
D.C.-based advocacy group People Against Rape Culture took to Twitter to shame Milk Cult for “praising” human rights violations. “Are forced & survival sex funny?” the organization tweeted, along with “misses the mark if you’re trying to be informative or edgy.”
An Instagram photo of a pint of Bangkok Brothel posted by Union Kitchen, where Milk Cult makes its products, also elicited further criticism in the comments section. The photo has since been removed.
Milk Cult founders Ed Cornell and Patrick Griffith say they have been making this flavor since last summer, but no one has had a problem with it until now. They don’t plan on changing the name. But in response to the controversy, the ice cream makers met with D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive). They now plan to donate five percent of Bangkok Brothel’s sales to HIPS and Thailand-based Empower Foundation, which work on prostitution, sex trafficking, and addiction issues. They also plan to provide information with their labeled packaging about these groups in order to raise awareness of the issues. (Y&H has contacted HIPS for further comment. UPDATE: see below.)
“When we originally thought about the name we didn’t want to avoid using a word like ‘brothel’ just because some people in the community would be afraid to have a conversation about what that means,” Milk Cult’s founders wrote in a statement posted on Facebook. “Moreover, neither of us considered it a slur. But, after speaking with some members of the community about the name, we realized that trying to use the ‘taboo’ technique without providing the appropriate context provides disinformation and is irresponsible. For that, we sincerely apologize.”
People Against Rape Culture President Liz Puloka says she’s “psyched” about the apology and the steps that Milk Cult has taken. “The best thing for anybody to do in the situation is say, ‘Mea culpa,'” she says. “I’m really glad they’re being proactive about proceeds and working with HIPS.”
Still, Puloka thinks that Milk Cult should change the name.
“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.”
Puloka suggests that Milk Cult hold a contest to come up with a name that would be provocative and cheeky without being “icky in the way that it is right now.”
“There’s no real easy way to sell sex work as an ice cream flavor,” she says.
UPDATE: HIPS executive director Cyndee Clay says her organization first contacted Union Kitchen to open up a discussion about the name after receiving concerned emails from their supporters. Clay then met with Union Kitchen leaders and Milk Cult’s Cornell yesterday.
“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.”
Read Milk Cult’s full statement below:
Hey folks, we wanted to address something here on our facebook page after some people reached out to us about the names of one of our ice cream products. We hope they read this message and continue the discussion.
Last summer, Patrick and I wanted to come up with a South-East Asian inspired ice cream that was based on flavors from the region and uses a coconut milk base so that we could offer it as a vegan option.
We’ve gotten a lot of responses on every level of the spectrum from all kinds of people. When we originally thought about the name we didn’t want to avoid using a word like “brothel” just because some people in the community would be afraid to have a conversation about what that means. Moreover, neither of us considered it a slur. But, after speaking with some members of the community about the name, we realized that trying to use the “taboo” technique without providing the appropriate context provides disinformation and is irresponsible. For that, we sincerely apologize.
Because we are ill-equipped to completely understand the context in which we offended people, we sat down with some people who could. Out of that meeting, we decided to partner with the folks at HIPS.org a non-profit organization that works to provide support and education to individuals involved in the sex workers rights and related issues to possess health, rights, and dignity. Part of our conversation involved trying to find a way not to avoid controversy by trying to sweep a stupid move under the rug in the hopes that people will just forget.
With this partnership, we’re going to be donating a portion of our sales to the non-profit advocacy groups of HIPS.org, & Empower (Thailand based NGO), which do on the ground work in the worlds of sex work, decriminalization advocacy, prostitution, sex trafficking, and addiction. The funds donated from sales will help provide STD testing, crisis response services, support groups, meals, and increasing the public’s understanding of evidence based, human rights based approaches.
Along with our labeled packaging we are going to provide information about these advocacy groups and the work they do so that when people see the product on shelves, it will hopefully continue to raise awareness. We hope that working with these groups, people in troubled situations lead a healthier life and achieve self-determination. Stigmatizing or forgetting disempowered people is just as unhelpful as using them as a punchline.
The more people talk about a problem, the closer they come to a solution.
With apologies and hope for a better future,
Ed Cornell & Patrick Griffith of Milk Cult
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Photo courtesy Milk Cult