In the #MeToo era, we have seen countless women bravely come forward to share their stories of sexual assault and harassment. Many of these accusations have been brought against powerful men who have used their status and rank to take advantage of vulnerable or young women, holding their lives, careers, and emotions hostage. One of the most depressing but important things to come out of this movement is that it has changed how we talk about the sexual exploitation of minors, from reanalyzing Woody Allen’s relationship with his wife/sort-of-former-step-daughter, Soon-Yi, to the accusations that rapper R. Kelly sexually abused minors, while still profiting from a successful career. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long road ahead of us and, sadly, we still manage to take steps backward in our handling of child sexual exploitation.
In November, Netflix released a six part original series called Baby, an Italian show that is described on IMDB as a, “story of Roman teenagers on their journey of self-discovery.” With its equally vague trailer, this new show stirred up both trouble and confusion when the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) called for the show to be pulled before its release date.
Baby is loosley based on the “Baby Squillo” teen prostitution scandal, that came to light in 2013, when it was revealed that teenage girls ages 14 and 15 were selling sex in order to have money to buy designer clothing. The clientele included members of the Italian elite, and one of the girls mothers was arrested for sex trafficking in relation to the scandal. If one were to go by the description on IMDB, by the trailer, or by Netflix’s show bio which promised a series about “teens facing forbidden love, family pressures, and shared secrets," the gravity of the story would not be made clear.
One might say that just like with any other show, you simply need to watch it and then you will know the story, but that’s the problem: Netflix trivialized underage sexual exploitation and prostitution by excluding certain information about the show that could be triggering to someone who is a survivor of sex trafficking or confusing to young, vulnerable teens.
For this article, I watched the show, and I was puzzled that the prostitution storyline was not introduced until the third episode. By the time the prostitution is glibly introduced, it seems out of the blue. In many ways, Baby reminded me of an Italian spin-off of Gossip Girl; the portrayal of vice is carefree, and teens operate in a no consequences, glamourous universe. The average teen probably can’t relate to this experience, but the idea of this life might spark curiosity or look appealing to an outsider looking in. This trivial depiction is exactly what the NCOSE was objecting to. NCOSE, along with 55 sexual exploitation survivors and experts wrote a letter to Netflix objecting to the purchase and release of the show. In the letter, they outlined their reasoning for believing that the show could be harmful:
Not only is Baby associated with the real-life sexual exploitation of 14 and 15-year-old girls, but it is already being billed as a “coming of age” story about teenagers “defying social norms” that will attempt to eroticize the exploitative system of prostitution. There is little doubt that the sex trade will be used as a convenient backdrop for intermixing scripted drama with sexually graphic scenes of actresses portraying teenage girls. In doing this, you will be normalizing the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Under U.S. law, there is no such thing as “baby” or “underage” prostitution. Rather, This is an important distinction because it defines the children caught up in sex trafficking and prostitution are victims. However, despite this supposed protection, in many states children are still arrested for child prostitution. While under different circumstances what happens to these children would be criminalized and considered statutory rape or assault, the child is sometimes held responsible because it involved a transaction for a service.
Baby further displays its cavalier attitude about the sexual exploitation of minors by portraying consensual sexual relationships between minors and adults in a positive light. The sad reality is that the portrayal of these sexy “consensual” relationships, in which the concept of love is tossed around, only serves to confuse viewers about the nature of consensual minor and adult relationships and prostitution. Any sexual relationship between a child and an adult is sexual exploitation, regardless of consent. The adult is in a more powerful position where they are able to take advantage of a minor’s vulnerability. In the show, the girls are being groomed by their pimp, who at one point justifies his actions by saying that he’s simply helping the girls to do something that they freely chose to do.
The show writers did very little to convey that the girls weren’t doing this of their own accord. In fact, the line was blurred between an empowered choice and grooming, by showing the girls escaping from a life of pain to one of having power, choice, and financial independence from the prostitution. However, when it comes to sex trafficking, minors are not empowered because they cannot consent. The letter from NCOSE dove into this in great detail, and included important statistics and research about sexual exploitation. “By acquiring a series featuring the sexual exploitation of young girls by older men of means and influence and which characterizes the girls as selling sex to buy designer clothes and the latest electronics, Baby will normalize the sexually exploitative attitudes and behaviors perpetrated by many men in real life and cast blame on their victims. These are the very attitudes and behaviors the #MeToo movement seeks to a eradicate.”
The bottom line is that prostitution is not sexy, nor is it empowering. It isn’t for consenting adults, and it isn’t for children. It strips individuals of their dignity and rights, making them nothing more than a commodity to their clients. I find this cavalier portrayal in Baby horrifying, and as an outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement, it shocks me that Netflix would think that purchasing, promoting, and airing this show was in line with our cultural tone.
Framing explicit sexual exploitation as “sexy” or “edgy” is dangerous. As a true story, Baby could have been used as a powerful tool in our #MeToo era. However, it represents the very reasons why we still need the #MeToo movement.