This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.

We're so confused. An extra day's digestion of the Miley Cyrus/Vanity Fair photo "scandal" hasn't cleared much up for us in the way of morals, betrayals, exploitations and career management of the young Hannah Montana star, but the public meltdown has alerted us to a more basic truth that is helping guide us through the fog of outrage. This isn't about Miley Cyrus without a shirt on or if she's been seen somewhere in her lingerie, or if her father dropped the ball.

It's simpler than any of that; this whole thing comes down to a picture of a 15-year-old looking like she just got the shit fucked out of her. And if there's anything America loves more than a war, it's teenagers fucking.

This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.

And a culture war about teenagers fucking? Sign us (and Bill O'Reilly and Hilary Duff and the women of The View and...) up! We should have seen it coming last week when 14-year-old Taylor Momsen was seductively featured in her underwear on the cover of New York Magazine's Gossip Girl issue. Not to be outdone, the gang at VF — expert flesh-spotters from waaayyy back — coaxed their own peek at the bare back of a billion-dollar Disney franchise, adding signature flourishes of bedhead and smudged lipstick. To hear Cyrus tell it in VF, it was an "artful" touch by her photographer, and "you can't tell Annie Leibovitz no."

Subtle rape inferences aside, Disney can tell Annie Leibovitz no, and a few hundred million dollars' worth of Hannah Montana franchise decline will only illustrate how quickly the company would have interceded had it had the chance. The kicker, of course, is that the plunge is inversely proportionate to our interest in seeing Miley Cyrus (and Taylor Momsen, Hayden Panettiere, Lindsay Lohan and, years ago, Brooke Shields and God knows who else before her) appearing rode hard and put away wet. Is it right? Is it wrong? It doesn't matter, because teenagers fuck.

In fact, we were once teenagers fucking — underage, illegal, the whole thing — and we recall this being an issue then as well. The social critics who decried us fucking were helpless against our hormones and the mass-culture monolith that endorsed it all the way; the Miley Cyrus case reaffirms that dynamic more than a decade later. Except now, faced with the most mainstream "perversion" yet, a little more intellectually honest approach is required.

For starters, nobody was exploiting anybody — at least not any more than VF would have otherwise. A publicist probably blew it somewhere along the line, but Miley Cyrus is 15 — at least a year older than her target demo — and she knew what she was doing. She made a choice, and her apology was not for offending her fans but rather for acknowledging that, again, teenagers fuck. She is a teenager, and if she's not fucking yet, then she will be. This is not debatable. Naturally it would be criminal, but like millions of other law-breaking, fucking teens, she and her partner(s) will gleefully do it anyway. Hopefully they use protection.

Also, teenagers fucking is a billion-dollar industry. Juno, for example, would not have been a lucrative, laureled darling of both the Christian right and the hipster left had she and Paulie Bleeker not A) fucked and B) kept the baby they conceived. Superbad was a more pointed argument for the appeal of teenagers not only fucking, but fucking well. Then there's Gossip Girl and the cult of Britney, the latter of whose teen sexuality only spiked as a cultural commodity after she became a mother in her 20s. Crazy! But as the previous generation's iconic teenager fucking — with a partner like Justin Timberlake, natch (yes, guys are also teenagers fucking) — that's part of her brand.

Finally, while we respect the values and basic laws protecting minors from sexual abuse and exploitation, we do not think one photo or the tone of those around it compromises social order the way, say, a polygamist sect or a basement full of kids made with one's own daughter might. This is Miley Cyrus growing up in public like hundreds of teens before her and countless more to follow. She's a sexual creature at 15, just like the rest of us were, are or will be. Hannah Montana has its own universe, and if teenagers don't fuck there, great. Here, however, teenagers fuck, and love it or hate it, that's the world we crave. It hardly seems like news.