FOR a moment last month it seemed as if the White House, under pressure from conservatives, was about to propose a broad new "child pornography" statute banning some depictions of children even if they are clothed. This would have posed some interesting problems for executives from Coppertone to Calvin Klein.
When the Justice Department argued before the Supreme Court that a Pennsylvania man should not be prosecuted for possessing videotapes of young girls because they were clothed and not acting lasciviously, conservative opponents accused President Clinton of being soft on child pornography.
Civil libertarians replied that a new, more explicit and punitive law might result in pre-emptive self-censorship by publishers and librarians who did not want to be exposed to prosecution.
Subsequent developments revealed that exposure was indeed the real issue.
When the more stringent regulations were drafted, Republicans in the Senate rejected them, claiming that the current law was adequate, and "the amendments only served to provide political cover for the administration."
As usual when politics enters the realm of legislating morality, all the potential victims of exposure here are adults.
But this political skirmish was another reminder of the dangers of trying to legislate aesthetic and moral standards.
It is everywhere evident that the high and pop culture of the 1990s flirts with the most forbidden of all topics, the borderline between adult and child.
Phobic about "child pornography," riveted by allegations about Michael Jackson, American taste makers permit and indeed encourage what might be called child impersonation.
Childhood is our major cultural fetish and, not coincidentally, our major taboo.
Baby-doll dresses are on the runways, waif models are all the rage, Calvin Klein is showing dresses designed like girlish slips for the fashionable woman. Can we really keep forgetting that fashion is all about transgression, or that children are objects of desire?
When Nabokov's "Lolita," with its precocious 12-year-old heroine, was published in the superheated 1950s, it was banned in France and parts of the United States. Notoriety was as instrumental as literary merit in its subsequent popular success.
In 1956 "Baby Doll," a film made by Elia Kazan with a script by Tennessee Williams, showcased a sexy Carroll Baker in the role of a child bride. From the '50s to the '90s: Today Amy Fisher gets labeled the "Long Island Lolita" and every TV producer wants a piece of her story.
In the December Vanity Fair, the Coppertone kid, her bikini bottoms tugged awry by a frisky pup (an image that made its debut in the '50s), is wittily spoofed by the photographer Annie Leibovitz: there mega-muscled rapper Marky Mark, the underwear poster boy, is being de-briefed by a German shepherd.
We eroticize the look of youth, but are made nervous by sexy images of children -- except when they are commercially distributed by culturally approved agents: the Hollywood film, the advertising spread, the museum exhibition.
Transgression and erotic borderlines have long been powerful motives for fantasy in literature and art, as they are in advertising. Museums are filled with images of naked cherubs and mischievous putti.
We read them as allegories, as stories not about children's bodies but about something else. It ought to be possible both to safeguard children from exploitation and to acknowledge the importance in both high and popular culture of images of erotic youth.
If national attention is to be focused on defining child pornography, what we need is not a hasty stitching together of legislation by officials covering their flanks but an informed conversation about the power and ubiquity of such images.
It is worth remembering that the classical god of love was -- perhaps for good reason -- pictured as a plump and seductive child.
Marjorie Garber is author of "Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety."