Netflix has a chance to shape our cultural response to sexual exploitation…but will it be for better or for worse?
In the age of #MeToo, and the heightened cultural dialogue surrounding sexual harassment, assault, and consent, Netflix has attempted to demonstrate corporate responsibility by cutting ties with one of its early stars—Kevin Spacey—after the actor was accused of sexual assaults. This was a laudable decision that rightly sets a precedent for the relatively young company moving forward.
However, in a shocking display of cognitive dissonance, Netflix has ordered a new drama called Baby which is focused on the commercial sexual exploitation of young teenagers.
This 8-part series is a re-make of an Italian drama, which features a cast of high school Roman teenagers and the imposing political figures who buy and use them for sex.
The series is loosely inspired by the “Baby Squillo scandal” where the husband of Mussolini’s grand-daughter was charged regarding a racket that pimped out girls as young as 14 to 15 years old.
The mother of one of the girls in this real-life crime was convicted of forcing her daughter into the sex trade.
But far from using this story to highlight the dangerous harms of sexual exploitation, the new Netflix series is described as “a fictional coming-of-age story that follows a group of Parioli teenagers in their quest to defy societal norms.” No doubt it will be replete with glamorous scenes of girls buying designer clothes and going to exotic parties.
Erik Barmack, VP of International Originals at Netflix, said: “We are proud to continue to invest in original content in Italy, and Baby is representative of the new, edgy programming from talented producers that we cherish. We couldn’t be more excited to start work on this show.”
This “new, edgy programming” is actually poised to perpetuate two dangerous myths around commercial sexual abuse:
Myth #1: that “teen prostitution” is distinct from sex trafficking.
Under U.S. federal law, anyone engaged in commercial sex who is under 18 years old is by law a sex trafficking victim.
When society normalizes the idea of “teenage prostitution,” it becomes more difficult for law enforcement to convict the sex traffickers, pimps, and sex buyers who are abusing them.
One member of the Denver Police Department said, “When I have a jury pool, and I am trying talk about this 17-year-old or 25-year-old that has been victimized, the jury pool thinks they want to be in it. Aren’t they putting themselves through college? They think they are making all this money and drinking champagne and driving in Bentleys.”
Myth #2: that prostitution is a glamorous, if risky, entrepreneurial adventure.
Netflix’s Baby is likely a competitive response to HBO’s original show, The Deuce. The plot of The Deuce is centered around the prostitution and pornography industries, featuring rampant eroticized sexual use and abuse of women, while portraying commercial sex as empowering and feminist.
Unfortunately, the producers didn’t do their homework.
Even in “VIP” prostitution rings, prostitution is rarely an empowering or lucrative venture.
“Most women involved in high-paid, high-clientele absolutely have a trafficker that is taking 100% of their money,” says prostitution survivor Rebecca Bender.
By its very nature, prostitution is sexually violent and dangerous.
A study in San Francisco interviewed 130 prostituting persons (women, men, and transgender men, aged 14-61) regarding violence in their lives and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Types and amounts of violence experienced while in prostitution included:
- 82% physically assaulted; 55% of physical assaults were perpetrated by sex buyers;
- 80% of physical attacks by pimps and sex buyers resulted in serious injuries;
- 83% threatened with a weapon;
- 68% were raped; 48% were raped 5 or more times;
- Of those raped, 46% were raped by sex buyers;
- 49% had pornography made of them while in prostitution;
- 32% were upset by attempts to make them act out pornography;
- 88% wanted to leave prostitution.
Another study found that actively prostituting women were nearly 18 times more likely to be murdered than women of similar age and race.
These are hardly the statistics one sees associated with empowering and equality-based careers.
Producers for shows like HBO’s The Deuce, and Netflix’s upcoming Baby, often hide behind the veneer of denial that they are actually working to “critique” or “expose” the darker sides of the sex trade. Yet, at the same time, they profit by using the sex trade as a convenient backdrop for intermixing soft-core pornographic scenes with scripted drama to attract viewers.
The characters on Baby or The Deuce may be fictional, but there are countless real women and girls who are living the horrors these producers so thoughtlessly recreate and normalize in an effort to appear “edgy.”
And those real women and girls suffer when society turns its back on them.
If Netflix really wants to be a responsible corporate actor, to stand against sexual abuse, it’s time for them to be consistent and to stop production on shows that promote or normalize sexual exploitation.
Baby is set to start production in 2018.