Pop Culture Paves the Way

Brooke Shields was just 15 years old when she declared that "nothing comes between me and my Calvins" in a TV advertisement for jeansmaker and fashion-industry icon Calvin Klein.

Beyond the allure of city life and the wads of cash flashed in front of a hungry street child, aspects of popular culture are also softening traditional lines of resistance toward prostitution, experts say.

Music videos, advertising, movies, and television talk shows frequently portray teenagers as sex objects and prostitution as an alternative career "choice."

Child prostitution experts call it the "Pretty Woman" syndrome - after the 1990 movie of the same name in which actress Julia Roberts played a prostitute who wins over a millionaire and marries him.

While movies have long depicted the "hooker with a heart of gold," Hollywood only recently has begun to portray prostitution in glamorous terms. Movies like "Pretty Woman" and "Milk Money" glorify prostitution and make it socially acceptable, says Ross MacInnes, a retired Calgary, Alberta, police officer trying to help children leave prostitution. "This feeds into the illusion most of the world has that these kids are engaging in it of their own volition - and that it really isn't that bad an activity," Mr. MacInnes says.

One such barometer of pop culture is the tabloid talk show "Ricki Lake," which last month debated the topic: "Who needs a girlfriend? I'd rather go to a prostitute." On the show a used-car salesman named "John" told the audience "my girlfriend was costing me more than the prostitutes were."

Some social workers say the drumbeat of such pop culture messages is having an impact. The result, say street workers like John Turvey in Vancouver, B.C., is that children on the street dressed in "hooker clothes and makeup" are automatically sexualized - instead of being seen as children who should be pulled off the street and protected.

"I've been working with street people for 20 years," he says. "There were always a few kids on street, but now the culture accepts it and tends to exploit it. Men tend to, 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink,' when they see a child prostituting on the street - they don't say, 'Hey, look at the child.' "

Peter Dalglish, who heads the Quebec-based Youth Service Canada, which works with youth organizations nationwide, says North American society is hypocritical.

"Our society rightly condemns sex exploitation of children," he says. "But at the same time it condones and promotes the use of 12- and 13-year-old girls to sell household products - their sexualized images are used to sell everything from jeans to soap."

Calvin Klein was recently forced to pull television jeans ads that the company says were misunderstood as implying a child pornography photo session. But that was only one of the more egregious examples, Mr. Dalglish says.

"We condemn someone who molests a 14-year-old," he says, "but we're putting out the message that 12- and 13-year-old girls are sexually available. Is it any wonder that males are exploiting young children?"

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