If years of hysterical media coverage have taught us anything, it's that lusting after children is wrong. Paedophilia - the great cause everyone can get behind and feel safe raising a flaming torch or pitchfork to. It's immoral, and always will be. The legal definition of a child can vary from country to country - and even states within countries - but it is generally agreed that you can't go around dreaming about a teenager in their underwear until they have passed that great invisible milestone, the age of consent. Or if you do, you don't talk about it.
Consider, then, Rolling Stone magazine's circulation-chasing battle cry for its August issue. "HOT READY LEGAL" it excitedly proclaims, alongside a picture of what looks like somebody who doesn't yet know their way around a can of Gillette shaving foam. It is, of course, Justin Bieber - tween YouTube star turned teen singing sensation turned great big throbbing hulk of sexuality, or so Rolling Stone would have you believe.
But what's the sudden change? Why is he "hotter" than before? More trips to the gym? A new haircut? Well, maybe. What is he "ready" for, exactly? More hits? Increased adulation? No doubt about it, but that's not what the magazine is getting at. In case you needed a neon sign with a huge flashing erection on it to get their general thread, they've made it easy for you, by shoving the word "legal" on the end. Oh, right, I see. The big change here is that Bieber's been blowing out some birthday candles recently. I can stop looking at him and thinking him a cute kid and instead imagine him undressing and getting in the shower with me! Result! Right?
The anticipation at Bieber's balls finally becoming legitimate fantasy territory is nothing new. Kisses from child stars are usually the dream sequence of only fellow children, but that's never been enough for the world of showbiz; adults have long wanted to get into the act of crushing on super-talented underage celebrities. Polite society has, quite rightly, flagged concerns that the press counts down the days to young females' sexual availability, but as yet it's perfectly acceptable to let out a barely concealed "phwoar" at the vision of a teenage boy in his scants. Witness the on-going chest-clutching surrounding everything One Direction do, especially floppy-haired, MILF-loving teenage lothario Harry Styles. Your mother's opinions of him are likely to relieve you of your lunch.
See also Olympic diver Tom Daley, who's been photographed in his speedos since he was 13, the media very careful to remain appropriate. Once he was 16, they held off still - the frustration probably making them froth at the mouth - as Daley continued his studies with his A-levels. Even a schoolboy past the age of consent is still a schoolboy after all. Thankfully, on 21 May this year, Tom finally got to climb up to the top diving board and turned 18, leading to an inundation of articles about how sexy he was, complemented by pictures of him canoodling models or leaping about in his underwear, under the guise of "Well, he's a diver; it's OK to show him in next-to-nothing." One wonders how long these pant-wetting articles, by men and women, were sitting on ice within computer hard drives, just waiting for the calendar to change.
In a world obsessed by sex and sexuality, we still haven't worked out how child stars fit in with our very rigid ideas of appropriateness. "Can we fancy them yet or not?" scream our loins, in desperate need of moral guidance. Thank goodness the press is only too happy to spell it out for us. Actress and tabloid punchbag Lindsay Lohan was herself the subject of a Rolling Stone cover once she became "hot, ready and legal". And, boy, did she shake her pigtails loose. It was almost as if the press had been waiting for the day it could stop reporting on rumours of a chaste kisses with members of McFly and get down to the hard stuff - the DUI charges, lesbian love affairs (have we forgotten Samantha Ronson so soon?) and the revolving door into rehab.
She wasn't just sexually available; she was everybody's property, every saccharine childhood headline eviscerated with harsh, adult, sexually active reality - like a punishment for growing up. Rolling Stone was also responsible for Britney Spears's first photoshoot in her underwear, shortly after the release of her very first single. Britney wasn't quite "hot, ready and legal" enough then, so she had to make do with "Inside the heart, mind and bedroom of a teen dream" as her pretty tame coverline instead. And we all know how that one played out.
On both sides of the pond, Charlotte Church was a child chanteuse who did all her growing up in public. She had the voice of an angel, but it wasn't her acrobatic vocal cords the red-tops were interested in. Once she reached 16, the school uniform off and the Juicy Couture jogging bottoms on, every aspect of Church's sex life became standard tabloid fodder - all 'bad boy' lovers and drunken snogs. A switch had been flicked and very firmly set to 'on'.
Child stars confuse the media because the easiest thing for a magazine or newspaper to sell is sex. Get a muscled male or doe-eyed half-naked babe on your cover and watch the circulation fly. But to be taken seriously, you can't do it too often, or you get a reputation for having no substance beyond flesh flashing. Say a prayer for Sky magazine, which talked itself all the way to the gallows for having one peek-a-boo topless cover too many. Child stars are popular, and also have the advantage of attracting younger followers, the kind of audience that the media is eager to hook onto. You can't put a child on your cover and expect your older audience to get excited, but whisk them onto it within seconds of them passing their 16th or 18th birthday, and with a cute little vest on, and you're in business. Hey, they're legal, OK?
It is perhaps a reaction to society being frightened about accidentally sexualising children that we take the first opportunity we get once they've reached the age of maturity. From the scandal of a childrenswear store selling what was perceived as 'sexy lingerie' in the 1990s to agonising over the early performances of Christina Ricci and Natalie Portman in sexually ambiguous roles, we've long had a fear of being the subject of our very own Salem witch trials.
Our stars are getting younger and younger, but Joe Public isn't growing up fast enough. Youth is everything. Kidults of 35 can nod their heads to Willow Smith's 'Whip My Hair' and nobody will bat an eyelid (well, almost nobody; it is a bit weird). But when it comes to our crushes, shouldn't we leave the young to the young and start picking on someone our own age for a change?
Any adolescent reading Rolling Stone and in love with Justin Bieber doesn't care whether he's 'legal' or not, so who is that message actually for? For people in their 20s and 30s? "Don't sweat it, guys, you can jerk off to the Bieber and not worry about being sent to prison", is that it? Thanks for the heads-up, Rolling Stone, but I'm good, honestly.