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The anthropology of 'bikini baristas'

As a social scientist, the recent uproar over the bikini clad baristas is analytical gold. What I would like to do in this short commentary is what some scholars have termed “public anthropology,” that is, a type of anthropology that engages the public in social science.

As a cultural anthropologist — one who studies human behavior in a contemporary social context — and an instructor in the gender and sexuality studies minor at Pacific University, the Dream Girl Espresso business in Forest Grove and the Bikini Coffee kiosk in Hillsboro provide me with an opportunity to share the insights and analyses of social scientists with the community.

Central to the world view of most anthropologists such as myself is the awareness that one of the many things human culture does remarkably well is naturalize behavior patterns and certain beliefs. That is, culture makes the way we behave appear rooted in nature rather than socially created. For example, it seems perfectly natural to us that self-respecting women should fully cover their breasts.

Yet there are a good number of societies throughout the world where women would feel no more compelled to cover their breasts than they would to cover their elbows. This is because in those societies, women’s breasts are not sexualized — and therefore not viewed as something to hide.

In Euro-American societies, we not only sexualize breasts, we believe women should be demure and modest about revealing their bodies (beaches in southern France notwithstanding).

Curiously though, many women in the United States can wear extremely revealing clothing without suffering scorn from the community. We have then a moral contradiction at work, with society leaning ever more toward the acceptance of revealing attire (Daisy Dukes, plunging neck lines, half-shirts, micro-mini skirts, etc.). So why would Dream Girl incite such passionate opposition?

The moral panic, as my colleague puts it, over the various states of undress at the cafe has everything to do with context. Even though cafes around the country employ attractive young women to sell their drinks and thus increase the pleasure of consumption, they do not overtly advertise themselves as doing so.

For the middle class, whose values dominate social behavior in the U.S., overt displays of sexuality in the workplace are to be labeled as “adult entertainment” and quarantined to designated areas. For the middle classes, expressions of sexuality are kept in the private sphere.

In contrast, overt, raw displays of sexuality are viewed as lacking in taste or as “low class,” to use a popular phrase.

American middle class sexual morality can be likened to the Islamic concept of “fitna.” Roughly translated, fitna is the social chaos that erupts from unrestrained sexuality. Likewise, our popular sexual morals in the U.S. attempt to regulate knowledge, expressions and practices of sexuality in order to prevent total sexual anarchy. But this is slippery slope logic — an assumption that if one questionable practice is allowed to flourish, all hell (or, in this case, breasts) will break loose. So in response, we attempt to regulate the sexual conduct of our society’s members, hoping to maintain what is viewed as “decent” and “wholesome.”

It should be clear though, that such definitions of decency are culturally relative, arbitrary and very much class-based. When we work to shelter our children from more raw, open expressions of sexuality, what we are doing is acculturating them to a class-based orientation of sexuality that is no more “natural” than any other form of sexuality.

What might be fruitful for our community, then, is to discuss these questions of sexuality with each other and with our children, rather than attempting to regulate the conduct of others.

Aaron Greer is assistant professor of anthropology at Pacific University in Forest Grove.




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