As a forensic psychiatrist, I have been called upon more than once to provide an expert opinion to a court on how dangerous an adult male is who has had a sexual relationship with a 14- or 15-year-old girl. Such relationships are illegal in almost every state and can carry very long prison terms. This is true whether the man engaging in the sexual acts with his underage victim is 19 years old or 29 years old. And it is true whether he is the girl's first sexual partner, or her tenth (as is sometimes the case).
There is no question that society has a valid interest in keeping adolescents safe from the prurient interests of adults. But I don't think the courts should be our only line of defense if we truly want to insulate our young people from such sexual relationships.
It isn't clear to me that we are resolute about this goal. Our society is accelerating the sexualization of girls and boys at an ever-increasing rate. It is now commonplace for major American retailers to sell 10-year-old girls and 11-year-old girls (who, given the plummeting age of first menses, may well be biologically capable of having children) short-shorts emblazoned with the words "Juicy" or "Pink" on the backside. They can find strapless "tube tops" to wear with high heels. They may well have cell phones and email accounts - like mini-adults. And they are likely to have been taught all about sex in school and may even have been shown or given condoms.
Television programs on the Disney channel and Nickelodeon ooze with sexual innuendo from adolescent actors and actresses who read lines about romance that could easily have been written for 22-year-olds. Coy camera angles capture curves clearly meant to seduce young viewers.
Why is there no outcry from parents or community leaders?
It seems to me that our society may be unconsciously reacting to the way technology can dehumanize us and depersonalize us by using sex as a kind of vaccine - immunizing ourselves, including our young people, with bodily pleasures that ward off the possibility we would become automatons, wholly owned by the computers we operate.
Yet this is not the most productive way to reassure ourselves that we are still human. And it is certainly not a path to be followed without understanding where we are going and why.
There is, after all, the immunity from depersonalization to be found in spirituality and in poetry and in athletic competition and in the spectacular beauty of our oceans and mountains. Could we not resolve to use those reservoirs of humanity to resist losing ourselves in a Web of sterile information?
We are creating a generation of adolescents who we give license to be very sexual while we jail for decades young adults who engage in sexual activity with them. We are of two minds about what we now consider normal and expected for our children. We would be wise to have a meeting of those minds sooner, rather than later.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.