Madonna sang about feeling like a virgin, but she never claimed to be one. Things are different for today's pop princesses Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Jessica Simpson. Back in July of 2000, just six months after the release of her first album "Baby One More Time," Britney told a German fashion magazine, ""I have very high morals. I don't believe in sex before marriage. I don't believe in drugs or smoking. I believe in God."

Three years and change later, the tabloids have acquainted us with Britney's married "boyfriend" and Esquire is featuring her nearly naked, sumptuously lit in their November issue. Bette Midler, no schoolmarm herself, called Britney and Madonna's slobbery televised kiss "tacky and irresponsible," since they both "knew 11-year-olds were watching." More recently, Kendel Ehrlich, wife of Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, offered that if she had a daughter instead of a son, she'd take Britney out and shoot her. Oh, and Britney smokes.

But back in 2000, Britney, and her 2 million units sold in less than two months, was the pacesetter for the record industry. Other teen stars soon were championing chastity too, either by their own choice or by order of their management. Jessica Simpson, the daughter of a Baptist youth minister who got her start touring Christian youth conferences performing tunes like "True Love Waits," broke onto the scene five months later, proudly proclaiming herself a virgin. A month later, on her debut "So Real," Mandy Moore sang about boys being as sweet as candy, but in her stage shows her outfits didn't rise to expose her navel, much less anything else. Christina Aguilera, always the most blatantly sexual of the inescapable ingenues, never addressed chastity directly. But about the time of Britney's virgin talk, Christina got some press for her spirituality in teen magazines and she reportedly toned down the sex in her hit "Genie in a Bottle."

Waiting for marriage wasn't Britney's invention. At the time, chastity was enjoying a faddish popularity, and the young women wanted, or thought it would be a smart marketing move, to support it. But having jumped on the virginity bandwagon, it now looks like they're looking for a way off.

Each has hoed, so to speak, her own row. After Britney made the cover of Rolling Stone in her underwear, Christina upped the ante by posing wearing not much besides a guitar. Soon afterward Aguilera adopted a persona she named "Xtina"--she's the one covered with mud, sporting chaps and rutting in front of a hundred mud-spattered lads in last year's MTV-award nominated video "Dirrty." Meanwhile, Jessica Simpson, by all accounts, did hold off until she was married to Justin Timberlake knock-off Nick Lachey, though on their MTV reality show, "Newlyweds," Simpson makes no secret of the fact that she and Nick are, as her dad blurts out, "doing it until she's blue in the face." Mandy Moore is the only one who seems to have kept her libido offstage. (Anyway, she is dating tennis ace Andy Roddick, and everyone knows touring tennis stars have no time for that sort of thing.)

Britney has already proclaimed herself "ashamed" of the appearing in 95 percent of her glory in Esquire. In her ambivalence, she embodies our own apparent mixed feelings. Nobody was surprised exactly when Britney revealed to W Magazine earlier this summer that she was no longer a virgin, yet, somehow, the reaction was one of disappointment when the pure pop princess was not so, well, pure. Alternately, some news outlets that mocked Britney's proclaimed innocence are now mocking her attempts to explain her loss of it. But almost anyone who saw the Esquire shots was left wondering: What in the world is she doing that for?

The conventional wisdom is that Britney is attempting to attract a more mature audience, since her music alone isn't likely to do so. When Britney sang, "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," she wasn't only describing herself, but her core audience, 'tween girls. And 'tween girls, after all, grow up into women. Early in her career, Britney said that she wanted to have a career like Madonna's, but "without all the scandal." Perhaps now, the thinking goes, she has come to see that Madonna owes her masterly longevity to the scandal end of things.

There are a couple of problems with this line of thinking. First of all, Britney herself disputes the assumption. She told Esquire that when preparing the media blitz for her upcoming album "In the Zone" that she actually fought the powers-that-be when it came to "sexing up" her image. "The record label wanted me to do certain kinds of songs, and I was like, 'Look, if you want me to be some kind of sex thing, that's not me.'"

The second and perhaps sadder point is that Britney hasn't outgrown her audience, but that her audience--or rather the new ranks of 'tweens that have risen up to replace the old--have outgrown Britney. By the time they are heading into adolescence, America's youth has already graduated to harder stuff. If Britney's recent publicity stunts seem desperate, it's because they are. It's the desperation of trying to stay relevant outside the pages of US Weekly.