There's something about reading final exams that makes me want to surf the net for ten minutes at a stretch, reading about things that are none of my business. Here is something that was quite a flap for a week or so recently. Fifteen year old Singer and actress Miley Cyrus appeared in a series of photos (I think the fourth one in the slide show is probably the so-called "topless" shot) in Vogue Magazine, some of which seem obviously sexual and just as obviously aimed at adults. One feature that drew a lot of ire was a video on the Vogue web site in which she snuggles with her dad in ways that some people found creepy (it seems to have been removed). There was a chorus of "you slut!" from her fans, an apology, some back-pedaling. (If you think the above picture is one of the controversial ones, you should probably take a look at the Vogue slide show. Or maybe time-travel to an earlier century.)
The largely negative reaction to the photos begot its opposite reaction, and some have suggested that Ms. Cyrus is simply a teen who is taking charge of her life, exploring her sexuality, and good for her (hat-tip here to Hugo Schwyzer). As an ultra-libertarian and the parent of a teen, I have a lot of sympathy for this reaction, at least for the values that lie behind it. But I think the facts of this case are probably a lot more complex than this interpretation makes them sound. This is not, after all, just some high school sophomore exploring her alternatives. Aside from the semi-relevant fact that young Mylie does not even attend high school, there are several powerful causal agents involved in addition to her own deliberation and choice: a high-profile photographer, her parents*, two giant business corporations (Disney and Conde Nast, the owners of Vogue), and positively shocking amounts of money. To some extent, I am sure she is being used by agents who are basically moral idiots.
There is one other feature of the situation that dampens what might otherwise be my enthusiasm for Miley's exploratory behavior. Many girls discover at an early age that they have a peculiar sort of power over men. With just a little practice, they can get them to do amusing things: stammer, bump into things, give them peculiar amounts of drooling attention. It must be very tempting to inspire this sort of reaction as an end in itself. After all, it is a sort of power. But power over people, when sought as an end in itself, is always evil. It is power over nature that is good. (This was Ayn Rand's revision of Nietzsche.)
Here someone will want to object: "Power?" -- there's nothing coercive about it, and if men make fools of themselves over women, it's their own darn fault. And besides, the behavior you are talking about is perfectly natural. And, besides, without the pursuit of this sort of power, whole branches of art and popular culture would not exist. All this is of course true. It means, among other things, that the question of how parents and others should respond to this sort of behavior is a deep and difficult one. A coercive response, including parent-on-child coercion, is not justified. That being said, it is also true that the typical behavior of the coquette, the tease, the thousands of web cam girls shaking their money-makers on YouTube and amateur pornography sites is ethically problematic. Surely, at a minimum, such behavior, in children, should not be encouraged by adults. The fact that said adults stand to make money off it only makes it worse.
* They seem to be wonderful examples of the type of over-wealthy ignoramus that America n capitalism produces in such abundance. They named her little sister "Noah." Her dad is famous for one of the worst songs ever to soar into the stratospheric portions of the top 40. (I almost said the worst song, but I had forgotten about "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Why would my memory play such a trick on me, I wonder?) By the way, notice that the one detail in the elder Cyrus' signature song that makes it stick in the memory like a splinter under a fingernail -- namely, substituting "achy breaky" for "achin', breakin'" was his idea.