Oy gevalt, Mark Foley.

Where to begin with this one?

I think the first place is with com­men­ta­tors who won­dered what Foley was think­ing. I’ve got a pretty damn shrewd guess what he was think­ing. I think he was think­ing: Woo-​​hoo, I’m gonna get me some teenaged tail!

In other words, Li’l Mark was doing all the think­ing for him.

There are some who are out­raged by Foley’s exploita­tion — or attempted exploita­tion — of chil­dren; there are some issues with that out­rage that I’ll address in a few more grafs. Add to this the bizarre note of Foley’s coau­thor­ship of leg­is­la­tion meant to pro­tect kids from sex­ual exploita­tion. Was he being hyp­o­crit­i­cal? I don’t know, hon­estly — and that is some­thing else I’ll take on in a lit­tle while.

And … and then there’s the mount­ing (sorry) evi­dence that he had been doing this for years, more than a decade, and may in fact have suc­ceeded in at least one tryst over that time.

Then there’s Foley him­self putting in for alco­holism rehab. Yes, drink­ing a lot, and drink­ing reg­u­larly, will indeed fuck you well up (effects can include a more or less total loss of judg­ment and a stun­ningly self­ish approach to life); and I wouldn’t be sur­prised to learn that at least some rapists and child moles­ters are alco­holics; but I don’t know that it’s valid to make a cause-​​effect cor­re­la­tion here. That is, does drink­ing heav­ily make one more likely to chase under­age teens, or does the guilt and stress of chas­ing under­age teens require one to drink often as a sort of escape from responsibility?

But there are some prob­lems with the prob­lems that I think should be addressed, and I’ll begin with my own rea­sons for pow­er­fully dis­lik­ing this man and what he tried to do. In order to pro­ceed I’m going to work from the assump­tion that Foley has in fact engaged in a sex­ual rela­tion­ship with at least one con­gres­sional page, for the sake of argu­ment. If that is too trou­bling for you as a reader, instead of “Foley”, sub­sti­tute “a man in a posi­tion of power and authority”.

Here’s my premise. Even if he pro­duces a page who was 18 and claims to have vol­un­tar­ily engaged in sex­ual con­tact with him, I’m pretty sure that Foley is guilty of rape.

Not because of legal wran­gling, but sim­ply because I don’t see how coer­cive fac­tors could not have been in play here, whether sub­tle or overt. Think about this for a moment. Here’s a well-​​off white man in a posi­tion of national sig­nif­i­cance. He’s got at least the illu­sions of power and wealth on his side. And while Matt Drudge may have it right that today’s teens are quite sex­u­ally sophis­ti­cated, there’s still a naiveté that is the sole bourne of youth, and which could eas­ily be exploited, manip­u­lated, degraded and taken advan­tage of by a man who appears to be an expert at hit­ting on boys.

On top of that you have the Republican power machine, which has been work­ing over­time for more than a decade; and you have Foley’s his­tory to shield him from back­lash. (Who are they gonna believe: Some kid from the sticks, or a con­gress­man with a his­tory of speak­ing and act­ing out against child molesters?)

That’s a key rea­son I think Foley was out of line. Even if he did some­thing that is legally above the board, it was still uneth­i­cal and should not have happened.

But a lot of the out­rage doesn’t seem to be grounded — it seems more like a knee-​​jerk reac­tion than some­thing based in rea­son­ing, and that both­ers me, and I think we should look into what’s hap­pen­ing here on a scale less involved in the details of this par­tic­u­lar case and more open to a larger picture.

For starters, I think we can agree that a sixteen-​​year-​​old can­not be called a child unless you really want to stretch the def­i­n­i­tion of the word. Additionally, it is pretty clear — and becom­ing more so — that the young men involved here were rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing, which car­ries with it the illu­sion of con­sent (leav­ing aside the ques­tion of whether it was present or not).

But we don’t need the moral out­rage to find wrong­do­ing here; we can base it in strictly ratio­nal grounds, which in my expe­ri­ence always makes a bet­ter argu­ment than sim­ply assert­ing some­thing to be wrong.

Here’s an exam­ple. There really is noth­ing wrong with smok­ing pot — well, beyond what hap­pens to you when you actu­ally smoke any­thing; the point is that weed is sim­ply not very dan­ger­ous. Unlike alco­hol, it is not habit form­ing, doesn’t destroy your body in whole chunks, can’t be over­dosed on, doesn’t leave a hang­over, and doesn’t lead to vio­lence. Strictly speak­ing pot is safer to use than booze. Yet it’s ille­gal, and it’s ille­gal because it’s “wrong” to have or use the stuff. In other words there is no ratio­nally defen­si­ble rea­son for pot to be ille­gal; so laws against hav­ing, sell­ing or using it should be repealed.

Well, a sim­i­lar argu­ment could be made in favor of decrim­i­nal­iz­ing cer­tain behav­iors with indi­vid­u­als of a cer­tain age — and in fact in many nations the age of con­sent is what we, in the US, would regard as shock­ingly low.

Wait. Let me fin­ish. I’m not at all argu­ing in favor of Foley, what he did, or what oth­ers have done; I’m not argu­ing in favor of adult-​​teen inti­mate rela­tion­ships; I’m not work­ing from a pro-​​perv plat­form. What I’m sug­gest­ing is that if the ick fac­tor is the only rea­son we have made adult-​​minor sex ille­gal, we can — and should — do bet­ter. We have to have bet­ter rea­sons for our laws than sim­ply that they are laws.

In an ideal world, laws against adults engag­ing in inti­mate rela­tions with kids wouldn’t even be nec­es­sary — because the adults would all damn well know bet­ter. What would they know? That there is always an inequity in power; that this inequity can lead to masked coer­cion that doesn’t even seem like coer­cion at the time it’s hap­pen­ing, but is still a kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal rape; that an adult can too-​​easily manip­u­late a kid into doing things that, under other cir­cum­stances, would never be agreed to; that any adult engag­ing in an inti­mate rela­tion­ship with a youth is, at best, detached from real­ity and not see­ing the larger pic­ture or the unlike­li­hood of a long-​​term option; that being the first one to break a kid’s heart is not a posi­tion to be cov­eted or desired.

And I think this is a big rea­son we have laws in place intended to pro­tect minors. The idea, it seems to me, is to stop the manip­u­la­tion of a kid’s mind, heart and body by cyn­i­cal adults who are too cal­loused to care, to empathize, to feel. Situations such as the one Mary Kay Laterno found her­self in are incred­i­bly rare, and the fact that she believes she was able to find the love of her life in a twelve-​​year-​​old boy doesn’t say as much about the boy’s matu­rity as it does hers. Laterno is the excep­tion, and she cer­tainly isn’t much of a champion.

Debbie LaFave is prob­a­bly closer to a female Mark Foley than any­one else I can think of off the top of my head; see­ing her inter­view with Matt Lauer a few weeks ago left me with the dis­tinct impres­sion that she hasn’t inter­nal­ized the idea she did some­thing wrong; I have a hunch we’ll be see­ing her up on charges again even­tu­ally for sim­i­lar actions, unless she works a lit­tle harder at chang­ing her inner landscape.

I chose those two exam­ples specif­i­cally because there is a pre­vail­ing atti­tude that the boys involved with these women were lucky. Well, maybe they were in one way; con­trar­ily, I think it’s safe to say that their para­mours are emo­tion­ally under­de­vel­oped, prob­a­bly nar­cis­sis­tic, and likely very inse­cure people.

I think we could argue that Foley fits this descrip­tion as well. I would be sur­prised to learn that he used threats, black­mail or phys­i­cal force to have sex with any pages — that is, there would be no indi­ca­tion what­so­ever of vio­lent or overtly coer­cive rape — but again, given his posi­tion of power as both a con­gress­man and an adult, how can any­one ratio­nally argue that coer­cion was not a factor?

So how lucky is a teenager, really, to fall into a rela­tion­ship with some­one who is arguably a dys­func­tional — emo­tion­ally and men­tally mal­func­tion­ing — adult? Someone will­ing to use his influ­ence and author­ity to sub­tly manip­u­late, delib­er­ately or not, some­one else into bed?

And what about Foley’s hypocrisy?

Well, is he really being a hyp­ocrite in his mind? Or is he instead com­part­men­tal­iz­ing? Is he think­ing of chil­dren as being pre­pu­bes­cents — and teenagers really as young adults? If so, we can see how he might ratio­nal­ize away his behav­ior to him­self — and it gives us more insight into why we should have solid, defen­si­ble rea­sons for the laws we have. Otherwise we can have cases where almost any­thing can be self-​​justified, where almost any action can be seen as acceptable.

We don’t have laws against adults hav­ing sex with kids to keep pre-​​sexual youths from being abused; we have laws against adults hav­ing sex with kids in order to pro­tect all kids, regard­less of their age or phys­i­cal level of devel­op­ment, from being used, manip­u­lated, taken advan­tage of and oth­er­wise hurt, phys­i­cally, men­tally or emo­tion­ally, by peo­ple they should be able to trust.

That’s what really trou­bles me about Foley. He’s stunted, a user, truly a sad exam­ple of abuse of power and priv­i­lege. He’s to be pitied more than loathed — and, hope­fully, he’ll be able to get the help he so obvi­ously des­per­ately needs.

But while we’re focus­ing on han­dling this loose con­gres­sional can­non, let’s also try to remem­ber that how we deal with the kids he affected will color their out­look on what hap­pened (if any­thing). Our reac­tions will have a trans­for­ma­tive effect on their young lives, some­thing with reper­cus­sions that will carry through­out their lives. If we focus too intently on the vic­tim angle of things, we could make them feel at once guilty and hate­ful: Guilty for hav­ing enjoyed the atten­tion it seems clear that at least some of them liked; hate­ful toward any man who might feel attrac­tion to any other male, regard­less of age. We could, if we over­step, turn them into self-​​hating homo­phobes, some­thing we already have too much of in the world today.

We’re too will­ing to talk about peo­ple who are vic­tims of this or sur­vivors of that — let’s be sure the adjec­tives fit before we force any­one to wear them. If we are able to fear­lessly face any cir­cum­stance, regard­less of how dis­tress­ing it may be, and ana­lyze it lucidly and sen­si­bly, we will be set­ting a far stronger exam­ple of matu­rity and respon­si­bil­ity than any num­ber of politi­cians — or school­teach­ers — can undermine.


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