Miley Cyrus, the extremely popular 15-year-old star of Disney's Hannah Montana, became the focus of a national controversy this week after photos of her appearing topless and covered only in a bed sheet were published in Vanity Fair magazine.
Although the release of the photos brought immediate condemnation on the emerging star that many assumed to be a good role model for their children, others criticized the magazine for what they said was "manipulation" of the young star into an act amounting to sexual exploitation.
In a tearful apology to her fans, Miley – who has often spoken openly about the importance of her Christian faith and beliefs – said that she felt duped by the magazine into an uncomfortable situation.
"I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be 'artistic' and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about," she said in a statement.
Disney spokeswoman Patti McTeague also commented on the incident, adding that the magazine had deceived the teenage star to improve its ratings.
"Unfortunately … a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines," she said in a statement.
Free For Life Ministries, a faith-based organization based in Nashville, Tenn., dedicated to combating sexual slavery, went one step further and called the recent photos by Vanity Fair magazine an act condoning pedophilia.
"Any media outlet that exhibits a child as a sex object needs to understand the degree to which this type of behavior is harming our society as a whole and putting our young women at risk," the group said.
"For this reason we are calling Annie Leibovitz, Vanity Fair magazine, and the parents of Miley Cyrus to task for their lack of leadership and good judgment in this publicity stunt," Free For Life added. "There are literally millions of young women trapped in the living hell of sex slavery as our media continues to blur the lines and increasingly treat our young women as sex objects. Nobody knows how these pictures and the countless others we see across the web, TV, movies and magazines will affect the perpetrators of these crimes. All we know is that this cancer is spreading out of control, and we need to take drastic steps to curb the appetites of a society out of control."
Meanwhile, a media spokesperson for one of the nation's most prominent pro-family groups said although the photo spread shows a serious lack of judgment from Cyrus and her parents, it will give parents and children a chance to talk about a number of issues.
"The vast majority of American parents aren't really explicit with their expectations for their kids," explained Dr. Bill Maier, a vice president and Psychologist in Residence at Focus on the Family, according to OneNewsNow.
"They don't sit down and talk about [their] family [and explain that] these are the moral values that we've chosen to live by," he added. "And unfortunately because parents don't do that, it creates a vacuum. And where do teens go for moral guidance, where do they go to find their role models? They go to the media."
Maier encouraged parents to seize the opportunity presented by the current photo flap, contending that the incident can be used to discuss principles such as sexual purity and morality.
With more than 3 million regular TV viewers and netting over $1 billion annually through the sale of merchandise and concert tickets, Miley Cyrus and the Hannah Montana franchise represent one of the biggest cultural icons in the nation.