It’s hard to imagine a sexual issue that is more “in the public square” right now than the Mark Foley scandal and yet I’ve stayed out of the discussion so far because I think anything I say might get me into trouble if I string more than two sentences together. But let me try it anyway, and let me make my first two sentences unambiguous:
Coercion, abuse, violence, and exploitation are always wrong. They are wrong no matter the ages or genders of the people involved.
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.
The most explicit of the IM transcripts circulating is of a conversation that took place between Foley and a 16 year old young man who didn’t seem to mind the conversations and was not the source of the complaint. In fact, today’s New York Times reports that when the St. Petersburg Times investigated the sources of some of the IM transcripts, one young man who said he would allow the use of his name, also said he “did not have a problem with the messages” he received from Foley. The St. Petersburg Times decided not to run the story at that time in part because their only nameable source didn’t appear to be a “victim.”
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!
And while we’re talking about the page system it seems terrible that most of the time, according to the pages who’ve been quoted so far, they often enjoyed Foley’s attention – and not all of Foley’s attention was inappropriate – because the much more common experience was to be ignored by congress members. What does that say? Is that appropriate treatment? Is that respectful, to ignore the young people who are serving you?
Let’s calm the hysteria and panic. The pages involved were not children. They were teenagers, some of whom at least were old enough to consent to sex in DC. Some enjoyed the attention they received from Foley partly because they understood they were there on the Hill to make connections, because he was friendly, because teenagers often enjoy being treated like adults and enjoy being taken seriously and because they often dislike being ignored. Let’s also remember that when the parents of the 16 year old who was alarmed by the emails from Foley complained, he was directed to break off contact, which he apparently did. And also note that nobody was actually harmed. And that Foley made no serious attempt to disguise his identity, and in a sense, wittingly or not, gave the pages with whom he corresponded a certain degree of power by making his statements in writing, in an archivable form (IMs and emails) rather than making sleazy comments in a hallway somewhere, leaving the page in a “he said, he said” position which would be much harder to confront.
Let’s deal with the real issues that are presented in this case: the hypocrisy of a House member who wrote and supported legislation that he then proceeded to violate, the harassment of pages, the page system in general, and even our infantilizing of teenagers by denying them sexual agency. But let’s not obscure those issues by calling Foley a “child sex predator.” That won’t help us to talk about the real issues here, nor will it help us to make sensible policy that protects people. And it is so important to get that right!