I’m not kidding about the Law, but it isn’t the law you were thinking of.
“In a short, sheer, baby-doll negligee and coordinated pink panties, Candice Law is dressed to work at a drive-through espresso stand in Tukwila, and she is working it.” That’s the first line of a 2007 article in the Seattle Times, which you can see here, if you like. And here is Candace Law.
When I reach into my grab bag of tricks to help me understand what Americans are doing, collectively, I often divide us into a polity, an economy, and a society, as the chart below shows. The polity is where the legal authority rests, the economy is about who sells what to whom for how much, and the society is the home of the small groups, with their habits and values, that make communities what they are.
This story is about the eroticization of drive-through coffee shops in the Seattle, Washington area. From the standpoint of this story, the job of the government is to define the playing field and make sure that whatever competition there is stays on the field. It turns out that state law requires “that employees cover their breasts and buttocks.” I try and fail to imagine the legislative debate over that bill. Was there a minority report?
I did use an excerpt of a longer sentence about state law, however, and the whole sentence leads to the next topic. “Bowden [Laurie Bowden, owner of a string of the Cowgirls Espresso Stands, seven of them in 2007) said law requires that employees cover their breasts and buttocks, so there will be no ‘Thong Thursday,’ as some customers have requested.”
So here is a business (the economy) which is prevented from meeting the demands of its customers (the society) by rules laid down by the legislature (the polity).
If you are going to run a business on the basis of consumer demand, you need to ask just what the consumers are going to demand—it raises, that is, the question of the values that the members of the community hold and express. If you were thinking of cutting back on this enthusiastic lasciviousness, you need to know that the best you could hope to do is cut back on the values the community expresses. How the values are expressed. Modifying the values the community actually holds is another matter entirely.
There are, apparently, enough customers who like to get steamed at the same time their lattes are getting steamed to make these “sexpresso stands,” as they are called, profitable. Here are some things to consider.
“One recent morning, she [Candace Law] served 400 customers between about 6 a.m. and noon. So, 400 customers in 360 minutes is about 1.11 minutes per customer and if they are selling drinks at $4.00 a piece, that’s a lot of money.
Also: “If I’m going to pay $4 for a cup of coffee” said one male customer, “I’m not going to get served by a guy.”
And further: When Ryan Reed pulled up to Best Friend Espresso for his usual, a 24-ounce iced vanilla latte, on a recent weekday afternoon, he knew what to expect. “The owner [Wayne Hembree] always hires super-hot girls,” Reed said. “That’s basically his philosophy.”
In other words, if the advent of “sexpresso stands” is undesirable, there are three ways you can go. You can tighten up the law. Make it read “fully covered at all times” or something like that. You can change the values of the customers, who at the moment, like to see women as sex and service objects and are willing to pay for the privilege. Or you can prevent the owners of these stands from requiring their employees to market their bodies as a way of attracting customers.
You can, to say it another way, intervene in the polity, the economy, or the society.
So let’s take a look at Wayne Hembree, who, according to satisfied customer Ryan Reed, “always hires super-hot girls.” Well, Wayne Hembree does not, in fact, “hire super-hot girls.” What he does is this. First, he “requires his girls to “dress classy;” dresses, skirts and a nice top. Like this barista, for instance. That sounds like most of the sales people I saw on my last trip through Nordstroms. Second, he also “requires staff members to wear makeup and do their hair.” That still sounds like Nordstroms to me.
You know what doesn’t sound like Nordstroms? Hembree adds “What I think most of them have found is that their tips are better if they wear short skirts.” Now short skirts is a long way from “bikini-clad baristas,” not to mention “Thong Thursday,” but it is the mechanism Hembree uses that caught my attention here.
The customers will train the girls. Sex as advertising is written about and talked about, so it requires a little bit of effort to imagine the step I am about to describe. Try. This would work perfectly even if the baristas didn’t know what they were being rewarded for by the customers. You really don’t need to know what you are doing that “works” in order to find yourself doing it more often. As has been shown over and over in social science labs, students can master nearly any game you can devise for them so long as the payoff matrix is stable. They can learn to win huge amounts of “laboratory money,” whereas the new people fail miserably. So why don’t the veterans tell the rookies how to master the games? Because they don’t know. They know how to do it, but they don’t know just what they are doing that works. It would work exactly the same way if the baristas worked with a stable payoff matrix—which, apparently, they do.
On the other hand, they probably do know what they are doing that causes the tips to go up and choosing to do it because they like the response (“Your customers freakin’ adore you,” says Candace Law) or because they like the money (Law said she makes more in tips than she ever did as a waitress) or, of course, both.
This very close, mutually defining, relationship between the customers and the baristas indicates how hard it would be to change the values that are expressed in this exchange. Feminists say, correctly in my view, that “women as a category” are the losers when some women define the gender by exchanging sex for money. But the women who are directly involved in this trade don’t look at it that way and asking them to forego the income so as to change “the image of women” generally, is asking a lot. Similarly, asking the customers to refrain from choosing an activity that they like and that the baristas apparently like and that is entirely legal, is also asking a lot.
So probably, it isn’t going to happen. Coffee anyone?