Internet Impact

04.26.12

‘Sexy Baby’ Documents How the Cyber Age Changed Women and Sex

A 12-year-old girl, a 22-year-old labiaplasty patient, and a 32-year-old former adult film star: all are subjects of ‘Sexy Baby,’ a documentary premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival that explores the relationship between women and sex in the online era. Marlow Stern spoke with the filmmakers and subjects.

“This is the scariest movie I watched,” said Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal. She wasn’t referring to a slasher flick or rape-revenge saga but to an eye-opening documentary exploring the oversexualization of girls and women in the cyberage.

Sexy Baby, directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, a journalist and a photographer, respectively, at the Miami Herald, analyzes how pornography, social media, and pop culture are affecting the sex lives of girls and women through the eyes of its three female subjects. There’s Winnifred, a precocious 12-year-old growing up in New York City who struggles to balance her public and private lives in the age of Facebook; Laura, 22, an elementary school teacher in North Carolina whose porn-obsessed boyfriend is pressuring her to get a “labiaplasty,” a plastic surgery procedure that reduces the labia; and Nichole (aka Nikita Kash) is a 32-year-old ex-porn star who teaches housewives and co-eds pole-dancing lessons while trying to settle into a more conventional role and start a family.

Like the recently released documentary Bully, Sexy Baby is an important—and at times chilling—film meant to provoke intelligent debate.

The Daily Beast sat down with the filmmakers and four of the film’s subjects—Nichole, Winnifred, and her parents—to discuss how women and parents deal with the social pressures they face in the 21st century.

Why did you decide to tackle this subject?

Ronna Gradus, Co-Director: We were both working at the Miami Herald—Jill’s a writer, I’m a photographer—and I was just photographing the club scene one night and was really taken aback by all the stripper behavior. It was College Night Out in Florida and all the girls were dancing on poles.

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The cast and co-directors of Sexy Baby, from left: Dave, Nikita Kash, Rocco, Ken Alpart, Jill Bauer, Ronna Gradus, Winnifred Bonjean-Alpart and Jennifer Bonjean in New York on April 20, 2012. (Larry Busacca / Getty Images)

Jill Bauer, Co-Director: She posted a slideshow online and I was really surprised by how tuned-out all the guys looked, like, “Been there, done that.” You’d expect that if there was a stripper pole out and women dancing, guy’s mouths would be agape, but they were tuned out.

Ronna, Co-Director: We thought about doing a newspaper story on it but when we spoke with a lot of the subjects, they all had interesting anecdotes to share, so Jill thought we should make a movie. We started working on it four years ago and moved to New York and worked on it full-time 3 1/2 years ago.

How did you find these three people?

Jill, Co-Director: We went to a porn convention in Miami Beach and we found Nichole there selling stripper poles. We noticed at the convention that the mainstream world and the porn world converged. There was Jenna Jameson and then a regular, everyday high school girl right there idolizing her. We spoke with Nichole and she told us about moms coming to her to take pole-dancing lessons, and how they’d post videos of themselves dancing on poles on YouTube with their young sons and daughters right there watching. We found Laura through her [plastic surgeon], and then someone told us about Winnifred’s acting troupe [The Arts Effect] and she was so smart.

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Former child model and Newsweek and The Daily Beast photo editor Cara Phillips gives her perspective on the perils of growing up in front of the camera.

The doc dedicates a lot of time to Lady Gaga, and how even though she has a positive social message—acceptance, anti-bullying—she’s still selling it through sex.

Jennifer, Winnifred’s Mom: Sex is the undercurrent of all aspects of pop culture, in terms of selling it and marketing it. You can have other messages, but ultimately, selling sexual imagery is still there. Does it minimize the good she’s doing? Not necessarily. But it’s important to understand and talk with your kids about how [Lady Gaga] is doing good things, but there’s this element of sexuality that you’re being impacted by.

Winnifred, what else influences you these days in pop culture?

Winnifred: I like the show Skins. I think it goes back to the whole idea of what actions are rewarded. On TV shows these days, there’s so much partying, drinking, and sex. It’s really glorified, so that’s going to influence kids my age. Girls are thinking, “Oh, that makes me more of a fun, interesting person if I take these pills and party.”

It’s interesting to view this issue through the prism of MTV, which has long held a mirror to youth and pop culture, and has evolved from a music channel to a reality TV network.

Ronna, Co-Director: There is this celebration of the average—that you can become a celebrity by just doing extreme things.

Like the 21st century version of the Horatio Alger myth.

Jennifer, Winnifred’s Mom: Boys her age are growing up on watered-down porn—on MTV and stuff like that—and they haven’t even had sex, but it’s what’s shaping them. Back in our day, you’d sneak into the basement and pop a tape in a VCR for three minutes before you stopped because you were nervous you’d get caught. Now these kids have hardcore porn available at the click of a mouse.

Right. Back then you’d pop a porn film in your family VCR or look at dirty magazines, but by engaging in that awkward information-delivery process, you’d know you were doing something risqué. Nowadays children don’t even know it’s taboo because hardcore porn is so readily available.

Jennifer, Winnifred’s Mom: Porn is the new sex ed. Young boys and girls are trying to mimic something that they’ve seen, but it’s really staged and fake, so it poses a huge challenge to dating or getting to know someone.

What role does Facebook play in the oversexualization and objectification of women?

Winnifred: I think it teaches people to objectify themselves and put themselves out there, and then it gives 900 people permission to judge not only my photos, but everything I say. It promotes self-exploitation and for a lot of adults, it’s impossible to know completely how to deal with it because they didn’t have it.

There’s a scene in the film where you post a semi-risqué photo to your wall and there are all these awful comments underneath the photo with your “friends” calling you names like “slut.”

Jennifer, Winnifred’s Mom: As a culture, this is how we’re teaching our kids to conduct themselves. When you have people getting famous off of sex tapes and constant reality shows on TV with people displaying their private lives for the world to see, the message to young people is that this is acceptable and accepted. Exposing yourself to the world is the norm.

Winnifred: I think Facebook is very addictive, but it’s a distraction. If it didn’t exist I’d be doing better in school, would be better in social situations, would be better with guys—everything would be more natural. Interacting with actual human beings is harder. I could hypothetically deactivate my Facebook, but then I’d be an outcast unless everyone else canceled theirs too.

Jennifer, Winnifred’s Mom: As parents, it makes our jobs more difficult because we’re constantly monitoring them. There used to be a time when if your kid was on the phone too late, you’d just kick them off. But now I always feel like I have to be policing and looking at my Facebook Newsfeed to see what comes across it.

Jill, Co-Director: Back in the day, people would take sexy pictures or write in their journal, but then they’d put it in a drawer. Today it all goes up on Facebook.

Nichole, let’s talk about how the porn industry has devolved. It seems to be very misogynistic these days—basically, a guy jack-hammering away at a woman who doesn’t seem to be enjoying it very much at all.

Nichole, Former Porn Star: It is misogynistic. Everyone’s trying to win awards and make a name for themselves, so they’re all trying to outdo each other and take it further and further. It also stopped being art and started becoming, “The girl next door can do this?” So now, when boys or girls have their first sexual experiences together, they actually expect that to happen because they saw it in a porn movie.

What role do men—and the “male gaze”—play in all of this?

Ronna, Co-Director: Women are self-objectifying much more than ever. This isn’t something that men are responsible for.

Nichole, Former Porn Star: There are people like me who objectify themselves to men. I wouldn’t have put myself in that position if there weren’t a demand, but there are willing women.

Winnifred: Porn apps are pretty popular. It’s just one example of how open boys are to porn. They talk about it 24-7 and watch it almost every night. With girls, we don’t really watch it that much or talk about it.

It’s interesting how women are objectifying other women these days. We ran a story recently by Ashley Judd about how people, including many women, were passing judgment on her for her “puffy” appearance.

Winnifred: There’s so much pressure from guys to be a certain way personality-wise, to look a certain way, as well as sexually, so there’s this constant competition between girls to outdo each other. It really sucks when you’re considered not up to par—when girls or boys criticize you. And boys are rating girls all the time on their looks and judging them, saying what girls they’d do what to, and it’s kind of ludicrous.

Jill, Co-Director: People are utterly confused, and stuff is just being thrown at us constantly. We talked to a lot of people in bars, and met guys in their 20s who had never had sex sober. And we’d meet women in their 20s who talked about men pulling “porn moves” in bed. I really think that people are confused about what to do. We also caught up with the Girls Gone Wild bus every once in a while, and young girls would ask me, “You used to get asked out on dates? I’ve never been on a date.” Nowadays, it’s, “Let’s hook up, and if you pass muster after a few hookups, I’ll take you out on a date.”

Ronna, Co-Director: Women are being deconstructed and analyzed in a way today that boys don’t have to deal with. And they have the pressure of being compared now to everybody else and the celebrity ideal, which is in our face all the time.

What impact do you hope this film has?

Ronna, Co-Director: We want this exact type of conversation to happen all over the place!