Keep track of sex-café openings and you'll have seen reports that a café that offers blowjobs with your coffee is set to open in London in the near future. Everyone got very excited about it yesterday, but many failed to ask the obvious question: how could such a place exist in the United Kingdom, where laws against brothel-keeping are so restrictive they don't allow two sex workers to share a flat for safety?
Called Fellatio Café, the business would offer coffee, pastries, sandwiches and blowjobs, with a condom applied by the sex worker. Customers – promoters seem to presume all these to be cisgender men, although they promise to open cafés for women if there's any interest – could enjoy a coffee and a 15-minute blowjob for £50.
"[The launch] is an extraordinary moment not just for London, but for the entire country," said a spokesman, who wishes to remain anonymous. But solicitor Myles Jackman, a leading sexual freedom advocate, disagrees: "While I have campaigned for and support the movement for sex workers' rights on the basis of protecting sex workers' safety," he said, "I am struggling to see how multiple sex workers operating from the same premises does not constitute brothel keeping under the current legal framework prohibiting organised prostitution."
The founders, however, are optimistic. "In many ways, our café will bring sex into the mainstream, and onto the high street, for the first time," said the spokesman from BumPix, the escort "social network" that hopes to launch fellatio cafés in Geneva, where brothel-keeping is legal, and London by the end of the year.
Violating the brothel-keeping law could land owners in jail and wreck the lives of those working there. The strict law certainly prohibits a café serving blowjobs alongside lattes and biscuits, and while brothel-keeping itself is only illegal for the brothel's organiser, the sex workers selling services are not themselves charged. But that doesn't mean they don't face any legal risk from working in a fellatio café; sex workers working in brothels that are raided by police can get arrested or detained, beaten, outed to their communities or deported.
If the founders were to launch today, they'd also be breaking other laws. The café website advertises coffee and fellatio for a set price of €60. If the London café were to set prices for sex acts, owners and managers could be prosecuted for controlling the sex workers involved. And if the owners were to receive any financial benefit from the sex work at the café – like a cut from each sale – they could be breaking the law against profiting from "immoral earnings".
BumPix's spokesman described a planned online contest to choose the café's sex workers: "In order to work at the café, the sex worker has to send us her application," he said. "This application would be submitted to the vote of the BumPix community and regular customers. If the sex worker gets more than 50 percent yes, she's hired!"
He didn't fully answer my questions about legal issues; issues around work status, price setting and profit sharing, he said, would all be addressed with unspecified "changes in legislation". BumPix is working with a lawyer, he said, and the café would not launch without legal clearance. But even with recent positive developments on the UK legal front – last month, Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee recommended the repeal of laws prohibiting sex workers working together – it is unlikely that all the laws the café breaks would be changed in time for its scheduled launch.
Just as concerning is that BumPix doesn't seem to care about creating an environment where sex workers feel safe and in control of their working conditions.
I asked the spokesman several times about how the café would screen out dangerous potential clients. In our email interview, he said only that customers could choose their preferred sex worker – and she would greet them before beginning fellatio so they'd know she was the one they picked.
Sex Worker Open University, a campaigning group led by sex workers, was also concerned about the café's business model. They said in an emailed statement:
"As a sex worker-led collective, SWOU's main aim is to defend the human and labour rights of sex workers. Whilst our preferred models of workplaces are sex workers-owned cooperatives, at the moment, the majority of sex workers work either (legally) in isolation or together for safety (and can be still arrested for brothel-keeping).
"When working under management or for a third party, sex workers have little opportunity to denounce exploitation or abuse. Sex workers have been organising and advocating tirelessly for the decriminalisation of sex work – now widely recognised as the best way to protect sex workers' access to health and justice.
"However, supporting decriminalisation of sex work also means being intensively aware of exploitation happening in the sex industry. Whilst we doubt the business will be authorised in the UK, we hope that sex workers in Geneva or Thailand or wherever else sex workers work under management have the resources to self-organise against their exploitation. This means proper health and safety, decent pay and working conditions, ability to form a union and support from unions themselves to engage in industrial actions such as strike."
When sex workers gather, sometimes we might talk about what we would do under decriminalisation. Many of us imagine innovative brothels serving delicious food and drink – but the proposed Fellatio Café doesn't resemble our dreams, which involve much more than a coffee and a blowjob. In our dreams, we're running the brothels ourselves, and if we're serving coffee, we're not just pulling the shots – we're calling them.
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