Underage Girls Sexually Exploited on TV, Study Finds

by Brenda Pitt

My personal fave teen drama, Pretty Little Liars


At the ten year anniversary mark, my fiance and I recently marathon-viewed the first season to teen soap The O.C. I love the show, but as adults looking back on the teen characters, seeing how sexualized they are, we felt a tad uncomfortable. Some of the scenes are refreshing explorations of teen sexuality, wherein both women and men embrace desire, lust, and love. But some just weren’t, like the shots of girls’ buttocks in sex scenes. 


Some of the more sexually charged scenes in teen TV shows are poignant and beautiful, but some seem like they are designed simply to turn viewers on. And some of these actors, let alone characters, are legally underage. Mischa Barton was only sixteen when she began work on The O.C, and she has since explained that aspects of the show and her fame made her childhood difficult. 


Time’s Lily Rothman explores the implications of a study done by the Parent’s Television Council that points to a shocking amount of “exploitative” depictions of teen girls on television. The PTC used the United Nations definition of “exploitation,” which reads as follows: “The term ‘sexual exploitation‘ means any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.”



Although the PTC doesn’t have a history of being open minded to sexuality on TV, it is of note that, at least in theory, the study excluded sex-positive representations of teens. Rothman suspects that the PTC might still have given the study a conservative twist: “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,” she explains.


But Rothman and I agree that in this case, their data is “worth considering” because exploitative and objectifying images of teen girls can be profoundly damaging. Sex-trafficking survivor and author Holly Smith feels that images and ideas portrayed on TV “led directly to her being sexualized [… and] then, eventually, falling prey to the man who eventually trafficked her.” 


My vote is that we take the study not as gospel but as a serious warning. Sex-positive, moving images that teen girls can relate to can be done without exploitation, without negative stigma, and without damaging women’s sense of self. What do you think? Is the PTC on to something?


 Thanks to Time

 Images via Total Frat Move and No White Noise 

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