In parts of post-Taliban Afghanistan, women seen talking to men who aren't their family members risk being arrested and given hospital examinations to determine if they've recently had sex.

In Nigeria, a 31-year-old unmarried woman who had a baby is in hiding to avoid being stoned to death.

Here in the United States, singer Christina Aguilera declared her "independence" by shaking her booty in her appropriately named video "Dirrty." An uncomfortable number of middle school girls consider oral sex "safe." And at esteemed Howard University, a homecoming fashion show featured lingerie-clad models accompanied by clips from pimp-themed documentaries. One topless model's "bra" was her cupped hands.

Are we on the same planet?

Comparing life in our freewheeling country to that in nations whose political and religious laws oppress and even kill women -- and men -- for behavior we see as commonplace is impossible. So is forcing our increasingly loose standards onto others.

But compelling women anywhere to adopt unwanted norms is never the point, insisted Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch in a recent op-ed piece urging the United Nations to increase its human rights mandate in Afghanistan.

"What is necessary is to allow women and girls . . . to make choices for themselves."

Of course. Making choices for yourself is as basic as the Constitution -- and as scary as . . . well, life itself.

What are we, if not our choices?

But what, in an increasingly secular society, are young American women basing their choices on, especially in regards to sex? I'm thrilled that they have a smorgasbord of life choices, but wonder:

Are many of them making the right ones?

Why did two women students create Howard's "Pimp Harder" spectacle, thus enraging more-serious classmates, male and female? The organizers said they meant to challenge students to "become pimps in their own right."

The show represented "a movement about no longer being the victim," said one organizer, "a movement where women do not have to take some of the crap that men dish out" -- an explanation that on the honesty scale matches Trent Lott's insistence that what he really admired was Strom's 1948 defense posture.

The show was about making money and appealing to its audience's basest instincts. But the fact that women created it -- and that women sex columnists far outnumber men offering similar advice at U.S. colleges -- is fascinating.

How liberated are young American women? The National Opinion Research Center's most recent poll shows that 45 percent of women ages 18 to 30 think premarital sex is "not wrong at all." But an impressive 84 percent think extramarital sex is "always wrong," with 9 percent saying it's "almost always wrong."

Still, young women face a world of choices. In it, some may be trying too hard to be like men, theorizes my single friend Jason, 22. "Now you have 'she-macks' and 'she-pimps' -- once, women used to set the better example," he says. "It's confusing."

No kidding. "Girls are taught that sex means something -- to be smart with it," says Georgetown journalism student Candie Jones, 21. "At the same time, you're supposed to be the sexy girl that guys want."

Ultimately, "I think many women don't even deal with what they want," she continues. "I've never had one guy friend cry after the end of a 'just sex' relationship and say, 'I thought she cared!' The girls I know who say, '[Expletive] him, he didn't [have sex with] me; I did it to him,' never really convince me."

Many young women "are exhausted with playing this 'flip the script' thing -- 'We're pimping you, not us,' " concludes Jones. "What's so empowering about women saying, 'Aha, now we're exploiting you'? It doesn't change the emotional dynamic or what's wrong with being pimped out in the first place."

Our freedom-celebrating culture is right to challenge governments where no freedom exists. Yet we're loath to examine our own freedom's costs. We avoid admitting how many mistakes we freely make.

Personal trainer Michelle Flores's "very traditionalist" upbringing is reflected in her sexual attitudes. "For most people, it's impossible to separate yourself emotionally from a seriously physical relationship," says Flores, 21. "It's even harder for women."

Early on at college, she admits, "I felt I needed to be very sexy, very sexual to attract a man." Invariably, she attracted men who were "attracted to the type of girl I hated -- I pretended to be one because that's what I thought it took." In reality, she says, "I don't always feel that sexy -- I can feel frumpy, a little clumsy."

Now she's making the ultimate choice. Rather than pimp anyone or play games, she's being herself.

"Hopefully," she says, "that will be enough to attract the right guy. When you try too hard, things go wrong."

She pauses.

"Unfortunately, in this society, with all these roles not just to try on but to master, women feel they have to try hard."