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A strange new world

Fact and fiction shared unsettling similarities as I read fresh headlines about the tempest at Milton Academy and the final chapters of ''Prep," a novel moving up the bestseller lists and into the literary canon of adolescent angst.

Having read reviews comparing Curtis Sittenfeld's debut effort to J.D. Salinger's ''Catcher in the Rye," I decided to preview the novel for my 14-year-old daughter. I discovered a compelling coming-of-age story with a painfully insecure female protagonist. I also encountered a lot of casual sex.

Sittenfeld's fictional Massachusetts prep school is not Milton Academy, and her main character, Lee Fiora, is not the 15-year-old Milton girl who performed oral sex on five male classmates in a school locker room. But both the scandal and the novel raised troubling questions for this reader about what constitutes social coercion and consent in a popular culture that sexualizes teenagers at ever-younger ages.

There is no legal ambiguity, of course. A child under 16 cannot legally consent to sex. Prosecutors will determine whether criminal charges will follow the expulsions of the Milton boys. The Department of Social Services will decide whether the tony prep school met its statutory obligation to report the incident in a timely fashion and whether Milton Academy will be held to the same standard that would be applied to an urban public school.

But it would be a mistake to limit our concerns to the official sphere, to ask the authorities to resolve the legal uncertainties while we evade the difficult questions we would rather not confront ourselves. Don't we need to ask what is going on in the wider culture that would embolden a group of boys to make such a request of a classmate and what would prompt a girl to acquiesce?

Is a girl servicing a group of classmates, reportedly as a birthday present to one to the recipients, just the logical extension of ''hooking up," and ''friends with benefits," the trend toward teenage sex without even the pretense of romantic affection? Could we imagine a young man doing the same for a girl, with no expectation of mutuality? On the school buses where students have been caught in the act of oral sex, it is always the boy that is the recipient. What does that say about the continuing culture of female subservience?

Has the erotica of ''Sex and the City" filtered down from post-collegiate urbanities to the middle schoolers who set their cellphone alarms on Thursday nights to alert them that ''The O.C." is on?

''It is not like sex in high school is new," says Sittenfeld, at 29 barely a decade removed from the experience herself. ''What is new is that teenage girls are so explicitly sexualized in popular culture."

A part-time English teacher at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., Sittenfeld said yesterday she was unfamiliar with the particulars of the episode at Milton Academy and unqualified to seriously assess modern adolescence. ''I am no sociologist; I am a novelist who wrote about a particular set of characters," she said. ''But I do think it is true as a teenager that the dominant culture influences your idea of what's normal. At high school or in college, if that culture says everyone is hooking up, it is hard to shake the notion that that is not what's normal."

What is considered normal changes with time and circumstance. At the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 60 percent of college students thought that oral sex was not really sex. That percentage is probably even higher now.

''Plenty of people as teenagers make choices and decisions that are either a huge mistake or no big deal, depending on the context," Sittenfeld said of her fictional characters. ''The meaning of an event can change depending on the context. When you are a teenager, you don't really have a context for your own experience. Sex is a strange new world, and you can feel all alone."

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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