Naming Your Ice Cream "Bangkok Brothel" Apparently Leads to Controversy

A Washington, DC-based creamery has found itself in hot water after giving one of its ice creams a name that makes light of Thailand's prevalent prostitution problem.

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Apr 14 2015, 7:45pm

Photo via Flickr user Jason Bagley

Ice cream flavors are so crazy these days, am I right? You can get whiskey-flavored ice cream, cod-flavored ice cream, pickle-flavored ice cream, the works. And some of the names for these varieties are a little off-the-wall—I mean, hey, let's not forget the Clusterfluff controversy.

Irreverent as it has come to be, ice cream rarely offends (Clusterfluff excepted). But one ice cream company is learning the hard way that sometimes, lighthearted ice cream humor can fall flat, especially when it pertains to sex work. Oops.

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Washington, DC-based creamery Milk Cult is currently in hot water after advocacy groups caught wind of its Thai-inspired flavor, "Bangkok Brothel," which is made with Thai basil, coconut milk, cilantro, chili peppers, and lemon zest. The uproar isn't about the ingredients, but about its name, a clear jab at the prevalence of prostitution in the Southeast Asian nation.

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Milk Cult's Bangkok Brothel ice cream. Photo via Milk Cult.

Known for its multibillion dollar sex tourism industry, Thailand has long been a destination for Westerners looking for illicit fun—often with minors. An estimated 70 percent of the male tourists who visit Thailand each year are in it for the nookie. So while Bangkok's association with brothels may be justified, it's not necessarily savory—literally or otherwise.

Milk Cut has been selling the flavor since last summer, but it was only recently that controversy was spurred after advocacy group People Against Rape Culture caught wind of the title and took to social media to point out its potential implications.

Milk Cut founders Ed Cornell and Patrick Griffith were surprised by the sudden attention, but are hoping to pivot it into an opportunity to raise awareness about sex trafficking and the other social issues that are tied into prostitution. After meeting with the local nonprofit HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) to do damage control, they announced that they will add text to their packaging to raise awareness about the issues surrounding prostitution in Thailand, as well as donate 5 percent of sales of the flavor to advocacy groups.

Some have argue that the unchanged name continues to present an issue, donations and disclaimers aside. PARC president Liz Poluka told the Washington City Paper that she commends the changes, but argues that "if they wanted to be provocative and tongue-in-cheek and edgy, there's so many things they could have done." She continues to find the name "Bangkok Brothel" "misogynistic and shitty and cavalier about marginalized people," but not all sexually charged names offend her. "You could call this thing 'a bag of dicks,'" she said, "and I would have eaten the hell out of it."

When reached for comment, Cornell told me, "We don't really know what we're going to do yet with the name. We're going with HIPs.org and another group called Empower based out of Thailand that helps women working in dangerous situations: addiction, sex trafficking. We're just trying to get advice from them." Cornell is concerned that changing the name now could undo some of the possible good that could come from raising awareness through the flavor. "Our concern is what's the social utility with keeping or changing the name," he said. "If we were to change the name right away, it would look like we were trying to sweep something under the rug, as opposed to having a real open dialogue about what this means."

In a statement on Facebook, Cornell and Griffith explain that prior to the controversy, "neither of [them] considered ["brothel"] a slur." But they hope to rectify the issue by using it as a platform to open up discussion about the topic.

"We hope that working with these groups, people in troubled situations lead a healthier life and achieve self-determination," the statement reads. "Stigmatizing or forgetting disempowered people is just as unhelpful as using them as a punchline."