In Shared Hope’s 22 years of fighting against the sex trafficking of minors in the USA, we have watched the sexualization of children change with the culture.
The 1950’s Coppertone billboard of the tan little girl with her dog pulling down her swimsuit, is now a tame discussion as we’ve watched ads for all sorts of products slowly slide towards the exposure of more flesh to sell products of every kind. Usually it is female flesh being made into an object for the benefit of sales. But showing children in compromising positions hasn’t been mainstream. There seemed to be more of a code of respect for children, to not expose them to sexuality that they weren’t emotionally ready to handle, both as the models, and as the viewers. Most of the public agreed, let’s let them be innocent for a while.
The Cuties production came to Netflix on August 18th and the stir it created isn’t slowing. The film took real children and made scenes with them in sexually compromised and vulnerable positions in front of cameras. When they are scripted to simulate sex acts, the camera zooms in on various body parts. I agree with a description of one scene that I watched, posted on Netflix as “most crazy scene that crossed the line”: “There was a scene outside of the dance – a ritual in which the little girl was on her knees in her underwear gyrating, with her grandmother throwing water on her, while the camera zooms in on her underwear that are becoming wet, with water all over the floor as she is ‘cleansed.’ But it looks like nothing more than an 11–year–old having an orgasm; it’s a disgusting scene and I wish I could unsee it.
Some would say that sexualization isn’t the intent of the film, but with something this blatant, intent may not matter, because the act itself is, by definition, sexualizing a child. The reason why a child is sexualized loses its meaning. This isn’t like a book where you’re telling a story about this happening. That might be a different consideration. These are real children who have been placed in adult positions on camera, and someone is profiting from it.
With PornHub pumping sexually explicit images of children into homes and on devices in mass quantities, what do you think pedophiles are doing with this type of material? “Pornhub is generating millions in advertising and membership revenue with 42 billion visits and 6 million videos uploaded per year. Yet it [Pornhub] has no system in place to verify reliably the age or consent of those featured in the pornographic content it hosts and profits from.”*Would anyone be surprisedthat YouTube clips of Cuties most disturbing scenes have garnered hundreds of thousands of views in just the first four few days?
“The majority of children up to the age of six years enter into a phase known as latency, that corresponds to the period between childhood and adolescence. Occurring at the right time, this phase conceals temporarily a desire that the child as yet is not apt to understand and administer, due to the immaturity of their mental and physical structure. It is in this period that a child channels the production of sexual energy to their socialization and learning process. It is also a time of opportunity to reach genital maturity, and for the construction of psychological barriers that will later help to contain and administer sexual instinct. Nevertheless, this phase of latency is like a light sleep from which a child can be prematurely roused in the event he/she is exposed to messages inappropriate for his/her age. It is for this reason that stimuli of an erotic nature prior to the establishment of this process can be responsible for many disturbances.”**
The film and entertainment industry pushes sexualization into their media and streams it to the public, now completely available online with the touch of a few buttons, which doesn’t require going to a theater or a show. The rate of exposure and potential damage to young children is frightening. “From one moment to the next, the little one jumps from diapers to the sensual clothing of a famous dancer, or the high heels of a top model brand, turning into a bizarre spectacle in front of their own family that, without realizing the danger, influences the child to expose his/her sensuality.”**
Described as Precocious Erotization in the document Why Advertising is Bad for Children, it states that “A childhood that is preserved and cared for is the basis of a healthy adult life. While playing, children learn to exercise their creativity, their innate talents, and form their personalities in a pleasant and lucid way. Entering prematurely into the adult world with a body and mind still in formation, a child, or even a pre-adolescent, does not have the physical and psychological structure to defend his/her rights, control his/her impulses, demand respect and even less so, identify within themselves a genuine desire to have sexual relations.”**
A quote from Rebecca Bender, one the nation’s leading trainers in the anti-trafficking movement, and a survivor of sex trafficking, sheds more light on the result of the video’s apparent child sexual exploitation, “Snippets of ‘the most horrible scenes from Cuties’ have now been viewed millions of times by viewers on YouTube. In an effort to share the dangers of the growing hypersexuality of youth, the filmmaker missed the mark and just gave access to child porn on our mainstream media. There were absolutely children harmed in the making of this movie.” Rebecca Bender, Founder and CEO of Rebecca Bender Initiatives.***
“On many occasions, the entertainment industry has played a valuable role by offering constructive social commentary and highlighting the many threats facing our children. However, regardless of intent, any portrayal of a child that objectifies them or depicts them in an indecent or exploitative way is cause for great concern. We encourage people to learn more about the true harm of child sexual exploitation from NCMEC and other organizations dedicated to the protection of children.”
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Shared Hope works closely with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and are one of those organizations dedicated to protecting children. NCMEC’s assessment of the film which offered a clear-sighted analysis:
“While we commend Maïmouna Doucouré for exposing the very real threats to young girls having unfettered access to social media and the internet, we cannot condone the hypersexualization and exploitation of the young actresses themselves in order to make her point.” Lina Nealon of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation****
When our culture accepts and propagates sensuality in every area of what is described as art: music, film, paintings, sculpture and ads showing sexualized images, the backlash damage done to a child when they are made to see themselves as a sexual being before they see themselves as a unique and valued human with purpose, may do irreparable harm as they:
- Begin to compare themselves with others solely on their physical appearance and measure their acceptability to that of their peers’ appearance.
- Suffer from insecurity by these comparisons, and seek to become more acceptable or attractive to the opposite sex, by being sexual before they are ready to weigh the responsibility of such decisions.
- Rely on emotional responses and urges that may be destructive at a time in life when their minds are yet undeveloped in the ability to weigh consequences and make decisions that are useful and helpful.
Predators will pursue, study and exploit these vulnerabilities by identifying the desires, fears, and dreams of a young person and finding opportunity to become the fulfillment by making promises. The child becomes dependent emotionally as the trafficker/pimp gains their trust and builds a fraudulent relationship that lures them from their safe networks. At some point, the trafficker begins to turn the relationship to control—who they’re with, who they speak to, what they do and where they go. The young person is so sure of the relationship’s veracity that they will do anything to keep the connection, despite the control. The emotional push and pull creates an uncertainty and causes compliance just to be with the person they have come to believe they love.
What makes a kid vulnerable to being recruited by pimps or traffickers?
Many children experience factors that put them at risk:
- Sexual, verbal or physical abuse
- Drug or substance abuse, addictions & unstable home environment
- Poverty, Truancy, Homelessness
- Incarcerated or Absent Parent due to divorce, death or poverty
But all kids commonly experience:
- Feeling disconnected, looking for a future, having hopes and dreams they can’t see a way to fulfill
- Being insecure or lonely
- Having trouble at home
- Feeling misunderstood or minimized
- Wanting to fit in, be loved, have friends
Simply being a child puts them at risk of being vulnerable to predators.
These are reasons why Shared Hope seeks to protect the innocence of children, and to guard against their objectification and sexualization so as to provide a safe environment for them to grow and develop into healthy adults who can respect themselves and others.
**** Lina Nealon of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/cuties-anti-exploitation-organizations-weigh-in/
By Jo Lembo, Director of Faith Initiatives & National Outreach/ Shared Hope International