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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