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The Foley Follies

I confess to feeling my share of schadenfreude at the fall of Florida Congressman Mark Foley, once chair of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus, and author of the “Foley Provisions” in the Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, accused of sending sexual online messages to former and serving Congressional pages. Here is more exposure of the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, publicly pious, privately prone to the same range of prurient behavior as those its targets. Or at least that’s how it looks to many Americans, enraged by Foley’s “perverse” behavior. That image will likely weaken an administration that ought—for any reasons at all—to be weakened as much as possible before it tries to nuke Iran. But I want to be fair and objective too, and rational about the sexual issues here, mindful that nuanced opinions aren’t popular.

The unmarried Foley has not denied that he is homosexual or bisexual; in fact he’s implied that he is, by pointedly declining to comment on that issue since 2003. He supported the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2000. His appearance of hypocrisy stems less from the revelation that he likes males than the fact that he likes rather young males, whom he has contacted through the web, having coauthored legislation to protect children from online predators.

I see two charges here so far. The first is that beginning in August 2005 he sent five emails to a former page who had been assigned to his colleague Rep. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana. The page had sent Foley a thank you card for some reason, maybe including his email address, and Foley had thereafter contacted him after his departure from the page position with messages that inquired about how things were going in general, and what he wanted for his birthday. That last request understandably made the youth uncomfortable, as did Foley’s request for a (presumably G-rated) picture of himself. So the ex-page forwarded the messages to Congressional staffers last October, stating, “Maybe it is just me being paranoid, but seriously. This freaked me out,” and “sick sick sick sick sick.” He made it quite clear he did not wish to be the object of the Congressman’s affection.

Foley maintained that the exchanges were merely friendly, explaining that he routinely requests photos of former staffers who might wish for letters of recommendation in the future. Republican officials, including Page Chairman John M. Shimkus determined that the letters had been “over-friendly,” and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois has said that he did not view the emails as “sexual in nature.” Anyway Foley was ordered to cease contact with the former page. Apparently the emails ended then, and the boy’s parents indicated that they did not wish to pursue the matter. According to Rep. Alexander, “They told me they were comfortable with it and didn’t want to pursue anything, didn’t want to talk about it anymore.” Foley for his part insisted he had done nothing “inappropriate.” But the youth (unidentified) was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times last November as saying he felt the request for a picture was indeed “very inappropriate.”

All the above was reported as of last November, but Foley’s follies only became a blockbuster news story last week. (Six weeks before the midterm-elections. Coincidence?) On September 28, ABC News carried specific excerpts from the emailed messages, including:

“did you have fun at your conference…”
“what do you want for your birthday coming up….”
“what stuff do you like to do”
“how are you weathering the [Katrina] hurricane….”
“are you safe”
“send me an email pic of you as well….”

Embarrassing, perhaps, for the Congressman, but indeed explainable as “over-friendly” and indeed, as Hastert has put it, “not sexual in nature.” Those journalists referring to these emails as “sexually explicit” must be leading some very sheltered lives.

But then there’s the second charge, involving the instant messages. Instant messaging of course differs from email in that people can communicate over the internet in realtime. Some of the reporting has misleadingly conflated the merely over-friendly emails so far revealed with the IMs exchanged between Foley and the pages. The segue, in any case, was smooth. The day after breaking the Foley story (Sept. 29) ABC expanded it, claiming that “after we posted that story online, we began to hear from a number of other pages who sent [copies of] these much more explicit, instant messages. When the congressman realized we had them, he resigned.”

In these IMs there’s no subtlety; it’s just raunchy talk about getting naked and masturbating. ABC has kindly provided excerpts to the public. One of the boys (whom Foley calls his “favorite stud”) chats amiably with the Congressman, tells him details about his (heterosexual) activity, tells him how he masturbates, informs him when he has an erection, then says he has to go.

Then there are these exchanges, between the Congressman and one or more pages, revealed by ABC. (“Maf54” = Mark Foley).

Maf54 You in your boxers, too?
Teen: Nope, just got home. I had a college interview that went late.
Maf54: Well, strip down and get relaxed.

Maf54: What ya wearing?
Teen: tshirt and shorts
Maf54: Love to slip them off of you.

Maf54: Do I make you a little horny?
Teen: A little.
Maf54: Cool.

The Washington Post reports that Patrick McDonald, a former House page who is now a senior at Ohio State University, says that “three or four” pages from his 2001-02 class received sexually suggestive messages from Foley. You might say that this material is more damning, simply because it is so explicit. On the other hand it also appears quite mutual. It is one thing to receive unsolicited emails and to protest, as the Louisiana boy did, another to engage in ongoing repartee online with someone online. I think it likely that it was widely gossiped among Congressional pages that Rep. Foley was attracted to teenage boys, since he had made advances to quite a few of their number. Those receiving the instant messages seem quite familiar with the Congressman’s sexuality, and I think it best not to make too many assumptions yet about their reactions.

Of course even those expressing some mild interest in Foley’s advances might well have been grossed out in fact, but playing along with him out of opportunism, out of the desire not to alienate a powerful politician who might be important to their careers. And one could argue that even if they enjoyed the chitchat, it doesn’t matter, because they’re too young to know what they enjoy or should enjoy and that the exploitation of their vulnerability is an unconscionable use of adult power. But pages are typically high achievers, worldly and sophisticated, and high school students these days in general tend to be sexually active by age 16. No doubt some are gay, and high school students who want experience in the halls of Congress are probably attracted to power. While we probably find a pattern of sexual harassment here, it would be na├»ve to assume that all the male pages involved feel they were victimized by Foley, take pleasure in his downfall, or see that fall as anything other than a reflection of homophobia.

Foley–if he were to openly acknowledge his sexuality–might declare that he just happens to like (just barely legal if legal-aged) boys, and has engaged them in mutually enjoyable private conversations over the net which are simply nobody else’s business. (No one has yet charged to my knowledge that he has had illegal physical intercourse with underage youths. That may come, but I haven’t read that yet.) But most seem convinced already that he’s guilty of the attempted seduction or at least efforts to corrupt “children.” The Republican leadership in Congress, dismayed at how the Democrats are using this, and frightened by the media spin on the story (“may well threaten Republican control over Congress”) has decided to throw the book at its formerly esteemed colleague. Hastert, Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri now accuse Foley of “an obscene breach of trust,” and declare “[Foley’s] immediate resignation must now be followed by the full weight of the criminal justice system.” Obviously they want to seem, like the hypocritical French policeman in the film Casablanca, “Shockedshocked!” by the news.

But what, specifically, shocks here? Congressional pages must by current rules be at least 16 years old, the minimum age having been raised from 14 during the last big Congressional page-related sex scandal (in 1983, in which Hastert’s Illinois Republican colleague Rep. Daniel B. Crane was involved). In many states, 16 is the age of consent for males, and in some of these, homosexual relations are not illegal. These include Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. In Hawai’i, consent age is 14. In Washington DC, it is also 16 and there is no law on homosexuality. (In Louisiana, the age is 17 and gay sex is technically still illegal.)

In other words, Mr. Foley could have consensual sex with 16 year old boys in much of the country, including DC. If that’s the case, you’d think it would also be legal (however “inappropriate”) for Foley to engage in sexual banter over the internet with such boys.

But I don’t know, and I don’t expect the laws to be logical. I haven’t looked closely at the laws that might pertain to this topic. I notice Foley was one of 25 cosponsors of the “Protection of Children From Sexual Predators” Act that became Public Law 105-314 in 1998. It doesn’t really address this question of men chatting up 16 year old boys about sex on instant messenger. But among the “Foley Provisions” in H.R. 4472 (the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006), we find a section 1470 that involves the “transfer of obscene material to minors.” Does the legal definition of “minor” include all 16 year olds, including those reckoned by state law to have attained the age of consent? And does the IM, “Do I make you horny?” constitute “obscene material”?

Former Foley friend Hastert (worried sick, maybe, that he’ll be accused of covering up Foley’s behavior) now opines that the disgraced Congressman’s actions could violate federal law, because they involve interstate communications, and soliciting an underage person for sex online is a federal crime. Indeed if any of Foley’s chats were by a legal definition “obscene,” and any of the boys legally “minors,” the Florida Republican could be hung by his own rope.

* * * * *

Remember Jocelyn Elders, Bill Clinton’s first Surgeon-General? In 1994 at a conference at the UN she was asked if adults should promote masturbation among youth as a way to discourage risky sexual behavior. “I think that it is part of human sexuality,” she replied very rationally, “and perhaps it should be taught.” This of course led to her downfall, as religious fundamentalists rallied against her and a spineless president tried to cut his losses. Oddly enough Mark Foley has been encouraging youthful masturbation, not in the sense the former Clinton official envisioned but as a personal participatory exercise.

Dr. Elders later generated further controversy when she wrote the foreword to Judith Levine’s book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (winner of the Los Angeles Times 2002 book prize). In that book Levine declares, “the threat of pedophilia and molestation is exaggerated by adults, who want to deny young people the opportunity for positive sexual experiences. The research shows us that in some minority of cases, young – even quite young – people can have positive [sexual] experience with an adult.” Levine and Elders think the topic deserves rational discussion. So maybe Foley in his rehab retreat and his lawyers should read Levine’s book with its Elders intro as they prepare a defense against the “full weight of the justice system” whose approach to such issues Foley has himself helped to devise.

Good luck, hypocrites.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu