06/08/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

Lolita on Long Island: How Sexy Should A 12-Year Old Be?

New Yorkers are not known to be easily shocked. They ride the subways and sit happily unperturbed between hookers and hedge fund managers. Barely dressed? Barely noticeable. Dressed to kill? Yawn.

So, how is it that almost every man and woman at a birthday party for a 13-year old girl on Long Island stood stunned as a group of 12-year old girls strutted around the dance floor dressed in tight, nearly see-through skirts that stopped at the line where thighs turn to buttocks, 4-inch platform shoes and make-up that would be too much for Phyllis Diller? This was not just above the knee. This was beyond belief.

They were not rebels, these pre-teen sex titans. They didn't bring their clothing with them illicitly, tight skirts folded neatly and tucked into handbags, or high-heels hidden with a present inside a bag full of tissue paper. That would have been more understandable, almost more acceptable.

They were dropped off by their mothers -- and sometimes their fathers -- at the front door to the country club where the party was being held. The girls tumbled out of Lexuses, BMWs and Escalades, they squiggled in their shoes on the uneven pavement and tugged on their skirts, wiggled their fingers "ta-ta" as their parents pulled away, talking to someone invisible through their Bluetooths.

The young men who worked the valet service stared with obvious and unabashed, jaw-hanging lust as each of these girls giggled past them. The parents drove away, still talking, oblivious or obtuse.

Few of us adults at the party knew what to make of it. When had this become acceptable? None of the parents in attendance at the party had children dressed that way. In fact, even the birthday girl was dressed far more modestly, opting for a more "fairy princess" image than... what can we call what we were seeing? Sex kitten? No, it was hardly Ann Margaret we were looking at. That was a woman who oozed sexuality, but she would never have been taken for a street walker. What we were looking at was not budding, healthy, beckoning sexuality. What we were looking at was neon-blazing sex-for-sale that had been approved and promoted by the fashion industry, where the name of the game is the walkway: PAY ATTENTION TO ME! BUY ME! The drive shaft of Seventh Avenue had become the cultural fuel for little girls.

How did the parents of these girls wind up going for this? How did they convince themselves that this sort of "styling" was, if not appropriate, then even cool? If not decent, then even attractive?

I asked the parents there. And every one of them said something to the effect of: "I have no idea." "I'd ground my daughter if she tried to go out of the house dressed like that." "No way we'd ever buy her something like that to begin with."

Americans have never had a straightforward relationship with sex. As a culture, we flip-flop from rigid dogmatism to a mania-rich sexual addiction, from Disney to hard core porn. We don't know what we think about sex for the most part except that we think about it a lot. Every show on television uses it in sweeping splashes, whether it's primetime or not. Then we prattle on about family values and wellness, we drone for hours on our treadmills running after a longer life and perkier pecs, buy vanilla latte soy milk non-fat grande whatevers and blame the schools when our children don't behave well, their relationships are miserable, or they don't succeed as expected.

Here's what I could make out of what I had seen: It's not the sex that's the problem. It never was. A truly sexy woman -- or man -- is sexy no matter what they're wearing. That sort of sexual attractiveness is not created by flashing genitalia. All of you have met or seen people who have been wearing less than you wished they would and you've inwardly winced, "Please cover that up!" Anyone who's been to a nude or semi-nude beach has had that unique experience. The body en flagrante is not the sum total of what attracts us. True sexual attraction is something far less easily defined than this or that part.

So, what were these girls doing? What were their parents doing?

For one thing, the girls were definitely not thinking on all thrusters and the parents were certainly not parenting, or they would have noticed the painful lack of synaptic activity on their daughters' parts. They would have started to point out the difference between selling sex and becoming fully sexual, the enormous chasm between dressing as if you were going to lean over a car door and ask, "Looking for a date?" and dressing as a young woman with all the promise and beauty and allure that holds for a young man. They would have started to talk about relationships. They would have taught them something about love and the incredible joy that brings to sex, the feeling that is so, so much greater than the quick validation from the sloppy ogling they could get with napkin-sized skirts and hooker-high pumps.

I remember when my eldest niece was getting married. My brother, who had been a fair-minded, middle-of-the-road dad with a good heaping of protectiveness for his only daughter, mentioned their upcoming honeymoon. I don't recall my exact words, but I said something (stupid) to the effect of, "So long as they don't have sex." And he turned to me so quickly he blurred and said, "Are you kidding?!?!?! I want grandchildren!"

Of course, he was right. And he got three beautiful ones. He had a realistic view of sex, I think.
But, as my husband asked later, after leaving the party, even if their parents didn't talk to them about love when they were shopping at the mall, even if they were not nearly so lofty or abstract, might someone have just minded their manners?