We are excited to share the third installment of our 2020 Student Blog Series! The student blog series highlights original pieces authored by first-year law students at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Read on for Maximillian Santiago’s contribution to the Student Blog Series.
The commercial sex trade is a rising scourge of modern society, a deep-rooted evil spanning nations and societies at all levels of economic development. Over five million people globally are victims of the commercial sex trade, according to the most recent report from the United Nations International Labor Office. More than one in five of these victims is a child, and as the UN sadly concedes, the difficulty of detecting these crimes and severe underreporting means the number of child victims could actually be far higher. Despite this global tragedy, Netflix recently dramatized the real-life sexual abuse of two young girls for their Italian-language original series Baby. Not content to glamorize sexual abuse of children in a single language, Netflix, one of the world’s largest streaming entertainment services, dubbed and subtitled Baby in several other languages so viewers from Nanjing to New York could enjoy it natively.
Baby is set in and around a private academy catering to the children of Rome’s rich and powerful. The series begins as an unremarkable high school drama, with classroom cliques and stereotypical teenage rebellion, staged in classically-styled homes befitting the Borgias or Medicis of old. For the two freshman schoolgirl protagonists, opulent parties and love troubles give way to something much darker… a chilling cycle of commercial sexual abuse, orchestrated by an initially charming middle-aged man posing as a club promoter whose actual job is orchestrating a prostitution ring.
Baby depicts prostitution as a dangerous but alluring step into the criminal underworld, a choice made by willing young women. Ludovica, the troublemaking outcast among the show’s lead characters, refuses to let her current lover pay for her academy tuition, sparking a sequence of events that ends in her accepting an offer from a local mafia member to work as a prostituted person. After an uneventful first experience, Ludovica invites her friend Chiara, the disenchanted daughter of a major Italian fashion family, to join her for “exciting” affairs for easy pocket money. Through the course of two seasons, the only time they face abuse is at the hands of a drunken mafia boss, and the only person in serious danger is Chiara’s jealous boyfriend (and occasional driver) who attacks a wealthy client.
Baby’s depiction of prostitution as an elegant vice for bored girls and wealthy older men is factually flawed and morally bankrupt. First and foremost, among this series’ sins is the uncritical presentation of the main characters’ abuse as consensual acts of prostitution. Even under Italy’s lenient prostitution and age-of-consent laws, there is no legal way for someone under 18 to engage in prostitution. Furthermore, the sort of organized prostitution – sex trafficking – as portrayed in the show is criminal at any age. As a fundamental matter of ethics (and developmental psychology), it is impossible for a teenager to consent to a commercial sexual transaction. The fact that one character’s continued education is funded by her ongoing commercial sexual abuse makes Baby’s depiction that much more heinous.
Even if the characters had been of legal age (18 years old) to engage in prostitution under Italian law, the show still unrealistically depicts the (lack of) physical and emotional abuse that commercial sexual exploitation inevitably sews. Several exposés have detailed the damnable living conditions of Italy’s legal prostituted people, almost entirely immigrants, who suffer frequent abuse from sex buyers and enjoy little access to health care or legal protection. Italy’s modern prostituted persons are not the disaffected Roman elite, embracing a thrilling underground world of luxury and intrigue; they are largely immigrants, unable to secure other work, forced to suffer abuse and exploitation just to survive.
Even as a standalone work of entertainment, Neflix’s Baby is reprehensible for romanticizing pervasive sexual violence against children. Yet Baby is not merely a twisted work of fiction; it draws inspiration from the Bella Squillo scandal that rocked Italy in late 2014. Italian detectives broke up a ring organizing the commercial sexual abuse of several children in Parioli, one of Rome’s wealthiest districts, freeing children as young as fourteen from commercial sexual exploitation. The leaders of the ring, a barkeeper and an Italian soldier, were sentenced to nearly a decade in prison. Using advanced computer forensics and old-fashioned detective work, Italian police uncovered fifty suspected “clients” who paid to sexually abuse the schoolgirls, including the husband of nationalist politician Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Italy’s infamous dictator.
The real-life story is unimaginably tragic. One of the victim’s mothers forced her to keep selling her body to help pay household bills, even as her daughter begged for a break and pleaded that her health and schoolwork were suffering. The Italian media largely ignored the plight of the teenage victims, opting to pitch a media circus around the scandal implicating the wife of Italy’s most controversial politician as a potential pedophile. While the organizers of the abuse were harshly sentenced, judges let most indicted abusers off with a suspended sentence in return for a guilty plea. In shocking act of victim-blaming, that appears at first glance as a parody, one judge went to far as to refuse the 15 year old victim’s request for restitution and instead ordered “moral restitution” – the abuser had to give his child victim 30 books on the theme of femininity and female identity.
A respectful dramatization of this tragic real-life story could have depicted the horrors of child commercial sexual exploitation and the struggle of victims to find justice. Instead, Netflix chose to spin the sexual exploitation of children into cheap melodrama, literally profiting on the shattered innocence of two Italian schoolchildren while glamorizing their abuse as a thrilling underground lifestyle and grossly misrepresenting the realities of the commercial sex industry as a whole.
Maximillian Antonio Santiago Jr. is currently a first-year student at Villanova Law. Maximillian was raised in Williamstown, New Jersey. While a student at Williamstown High School, Maximillian led the creation of the Military Hall of Honor as part of his Eagle Scout Service Project. During his undergraduate career, Maximillian was President of the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Student Association. He graduated from Rowan University summa cum laude in 2019, majoring in History and minoring in Asian Studies, with a certificate in Japanese. After graduation from law school, Maximillian intends to pursue medical malpractice.