Study Finds Sexual Exploitation of Underage Girls on TV

The Parents Television Council has some unlikely allies in its latest campaign

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According to a study released this week by the Parents Television Council, young female characters on TV shows—and the people who watch them—have a lot to be worried about. The survey, conducted as part of their campaign for respectful images of women and girls on television, included 238 episodes of scripted primetime TV (that aired during 2011 November sweeps and 2012 May sweeps) and found that underage girls are more likely than adult women to show up in a scene classified as “exploitative.”

Taken at face value, the numbers are pretty shocking:

  • About two thirds of the episodes contained sexual content in a scene with a woman in it; about half of that content was exploitation.
  • Underage females are more likely than adult women to be in a sexual scene presented as humorous (rather than sexy, scary, etc.).
  • A little more than a third of all the exploitation was meant to be funny.

The PTC’s president, Tim Winter, said in a statement that the group used the United Nations definition of sexual exploitation and that the study was undertaken in light of research showing that children’s behavior is affected by the entertainment they see. In another statement connected with the survey, sex-trafficking survivor Holly Smith (also the author of a forthcoming memoir on the subject) said that she believes that the images she saw on television—which she links, for some reason, to growing up with two working parents—led directly to her being sexualized assaulted at a young age and then, eventually, falling prey to the man who eventually trafficked her.

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While the Council (PTC) is technically a nonpartisan organization, it has a history of taking a more conservative stance about what’s appropriate for viewers’ eyes—and, looking at the detailed examples provided, there’s some reason to question their methodologies and conclusions.

The full report provides examples of the content about which they’re concerned, and some of them (like two characters on Glee playing strip poker) seem fairly innocuous. Secondly, the report also includes procedurals like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit which by their very nature include sex crimes—and which treat those crimes with complete seriousness. Thirdly, though still objectionable to many viewers, shows like Family Guy—a repeat offender in the report—are intended as satire. Fourthly, the actual numbers, rather than percentages, aren’t quite so high; the 200+ episodes contained only 14 scenes involving underage girls and exploitative content. And, though no examples are listed in the report, the survey doesn’t leave room for subjectivity in situations where mentions of sexual content might be just fine, or even healthy, rather than exploitative (eg. an adult woman discussing pornography).

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Still, this does seem to be one case where the PTC’s squeamishness is based on more than just prudish standards—and, while the PTC often advocates for things like FCC fines and stronger decency laws, the petitions attached to this particular campaign are to encourage the media to produce more non-sexual images of women and girls. The incongruousness of the PTC calling out the pervasiveness of the male gaze has some commentators taking notice. Percentages aside, the fact that the two sides of the television-content aisle agree that young girls are being portrayed in an oversexualized way is a statistic worth considering.