Probably the greatest irony of the Mark Foley affair is one that gets little attention: if Foley had just had the nerve to act on his urges and cornhole a few of those pretty young pages in the Congressional cloakroom, he’d be free and clear — legally anyway. (The Repubs would still eat him alive for daring to be a public homo, but that’s a whole other can of worms.) In the District of Columbia, the age of consent is 16; but Foley is getting nailed under the Adam Walsh Chid Protection Act, which he himself toiled to make into Federal Law and which makes it illegal to solicit sex from a minor (under 18) via the Internet. In other words, in D.C. you can fuck the pages — just don’t have Internet sex with them.
There’s plenty of room for schadenfreude here, and I for one plan to take mine in extra-large helpings. The Republicans and conservative Democrats have made themselves both rich and powerful by plundering the American public’s fear of sex, and many people who just wanted to be left alone have paid the price.
But we’re facing a severe crisis in the fate of our Republic now, and I’m appalled that of all the things that have happened in the last six years, this is the thing that seems to stick. People are finally paying attention to the moral rot inside the Republican party, and why?
It’s not because of irregularities in two elections that at the very least make the question of whether they were stolen a very serious possibility.
It’s not because of cronyism and influence-peddling both here and in the “reconstruction” of Iraq.
It’s not because we’re appalled and ashamed at the horrors of Abu Ghraib.
It’s not because the President led us into an unnecessary war and has flagrantly used 9/11 as a political tool.
It’s not because of Katrina and the countless number of people who lost their homes and lives as a result of the administration’s cronyism and incompetence.
It’s not because we are now talking about torture as something that can be validly used by a democracy, or because we just passed a law that severely restricts habeas corpus.
No, it’s because of some penny-ante sex scandal involving a hypocritical closet case and some dirty messages to teenagers.
I think that Foley is a sleaze, but his behavior doesn’t threaten the United States as a democracy, as the other things listed above certainly do. After six years under the Bush regime, I am no longer willing to amend my words to avoid getting slapped in the face with Godwin’s Law: the vision of America that Bush and company have is a Fascist one. I mean that in the most literal socio-political sense, not as an ad hominem attack. They are Fascists.
So I worry that Foley’s downfall, and the coming fall of Hastert, is actually giving cover to the more ominous things that are now happening below the fold. There’s another thing, too: I now see my fellow progressives gleefully exploiting the same puritan fears that the Republicans have grown fat and happy on. There’s little reasoned discussion about Foley from either side; the right has long been corrupt and diseased, and the left has grown so desperate and heartbroken that we’ll seize on anything and run with it. But whatever Foley’s sins (and his greatest ones are probably the legal ones), it’s certainly wrong to call him a pedophile, as has become fashionable. At 17, you are reaching the tail end of puberty, and have your own sexual desires and thoughts, and most importantly, you are not a child. You may not be fully formed as the man or woman that you will grow into, but you are not a child. Pedophiles, by definition, are those who sexually desire prepubescents. Children who have not yet begun to develop secondary sexual characteristics such as breasts, pubic hair, etc. For a few calm words of reason on the topic, I turn to sociologist Elizabeth Wood:
What Mark Foley did was wrong because it was an abuse of power. It was a betrayal of the trust that parents put in the Congress when they send their high school aged kids to serve as pages. That is what it was. It was not sexual exploitation. It was not rape. It may have been illegal, but it was not physical or sexual abuse. It was an abuse of trust that made one young page uncomfortable, while not making another uncomfortable. (Ironically, or not, the page that was uncomfortable appears not to have received sexually explicit messages, while the page whose sexually explicit messages have been widely circulated online appears not to have been made uncomfortable.) It is wrong for people in power to treat people with less power in ways that make them unnecessarily uncomfortable.
In many states (and in Washington, DC) had Foley and these pages actually had sex it would have been legal (had they no working relationship) because 16 is the age of consent for sex in those places. So how is Foley a ‘child sex predator’ as so many groups would like to brand him right now? Is he not really, instead, a sexual harasser in the workplace? And recall that most of these interactions appear to have taken place after the pages completed their service….
Do you remember being 16? Did you flirt and talk sexually with people? Did you ever have a crush on someone much older than you? I know I did. My first serious heterosexual sex partner was 5 years older than me (I was 17 and he was 22) and I was lucky to have such a wonderfully caring and mature person to introduce me to intercourse! (link)
Although most of us would answer, “Yes, I do remember what it was like to be 16,” we flinch from extending that experience to our understanding of teenagers. Even most progressives feel like the ideal is to keep them chaste and pure until at least 18, if not beyond. But if I wasn’t yet a man at 16 or 17, I certainly wasn’t a child. Neither were the pages. While Foley’s behavior was certainly inappropriate because of his responsibilities as an authority figure, we owe it to ourselves not to eliminate nuance in favor of hysteria.