Mark Foley and the Politics of Sex in America

Sex predators are prowling the halls of Congress — and America is up in arms. Mark Foley’s rapid resignation of his House seat and departure to a rehab center has failed to sweep the growing scandal under the proverbial rug. While everyone in Florida’s 16th District and in Congress seems to have known that Foley was gay (and is reported to have had a lover for many years), no one wanted to “out” him, least the Republican party or the local press. Given the wink-and-a-nod morality that characterizes Republican politics, as long as he stayed in the closet–and his particular predilection remained a secret — the party would support his reelection. However, following the law of unintended consequences, the Democrats just might retake the House in the upcoming election due to the Republican coverup of the Foley incident.

Sex scandals are not new to Washington. Much has been made of earlier scandals involving Democratic Congressmen: Gary Stubbs had sex with a page; Mel Reynolds had sex with an underaged campaign worker; and Barney Frank facilitated his lover’s male prostitute ring. But these pale before the impeachment of Bill Clinton for his liaison with Monica Lowinsky–to say nothing of his relations with Gennifer Flowers and who knows how many others.

Clinton’s dalliance seems quite innocent when compared to other presidential indiscretions. One need only recall John Kennedy’s trysts with Ingra Arvad, Marilyn Monroe and Judith Cambell Exner, among others; Franklin Roosevelt’s love affair with Lucy Mercer; Warren Harding’s affairs with Carrie Fulton Phillips, Nan Benton and others; Andrew Jackson’s marriage to Rachel Jackson (they were married before her divorce was finalized); and, of course, Thomas Jefferson’s relation with Sally Hemmings, the African-American slave who was his wife’s half-sister (the daughter of Martha’s father) and with whom he had six children. Deviant sexual practice is not unfamiliar to American politics.

The media seems especially captivated by Foley’s peculiar sexual predilection–his erotic fascination with adolescent youths. Most disturbing, they don’t know how to make sense of it. Media thugs like MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson have labeled him a “child molester” and others have called him a “child predator” and “pedophile.” However, his particular sexual fetish may be what some analysts’ label “ephebophia,” the adoration for adolescent youth.

Speculation as to Foley’s sexual proclivities is just that–speculation. Little is really know about his psychological makeup or sexual practices. At this point of the unfolding saga, Foley seems to have committed no applicable sexual crimes, particularly solicitation. He also seems to have adhered to Washington, DC, age of consent laws that place consent at 16 years (in Florida its 18 years of age). In addition, he seems interested only in post-pubescent boys, not pre-pubescent children–thus, technically, he’s not a pedophile. Finally, and what seems perhaps most disturbing to conventional media pundits, Foley’s interest in youthful lads seems to be an asexual fascination–he seems to have never sought to consummate (i.e., violate) his attraction for underage boys who he pursued so indiscreetly.

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Besides terrorism and immigration, the war against sexually unacceptable practices seems to be one of the most pressing national security concerns. More disturbing than hurricanes, corporate scandals and political corruption, sex offenders–especially alleged pedophiles — have become the nation’s obsession. Bill O’Reilly regularly rants against them and NBC Dateline runs an ongoing series exposing child “predators”; reports about pedophiles and other sex offenders appear regularly in local press and TV coverage across the country. Even Oprah Winfrey has joined the battle against pedophiles with a recent show promoting Child Predator Watch; she showed mugshots of ten fugitives which led to two arrests. She offered viewers a $100,000 reward, noting that it was the “[b]est money I ever spent.”

This fervor is not limited to the media. The federal government, together with states and localities across the country, are moving aggressively to increase penalties for a growing list of sex offenses. They are seeking to limit access to birth control and abortion services, prohibit teenage sex, neuter sex education, suppress pornography, restrict homosexual encounters and close down sex clubs and swinger get-togethers. A new sex war is gaining momentum.

Ironically, this puritanical revivalism is taking place not only amidst America’s fourth “sexual revolution,” but during a period in which sex crime is declining. The FBI reports that in 2005 there were some 550,000 registered sex offenders living throughout the country. The number is alarming and says a lot about America’s sexual culture. It includes men (and a handful of women) who have been convicted of everything from pedophilia, child kidnapping and rape as well as child pornographers, their customers and some who failed to pay child support. “But,” as Steve Chapman reports in the Baltimore Sun, “the truth about the incidents of rape and other sex crimes is no mirage: It has declined drastically and is still dropping.”

FBI data confirm Chapman’s assertion–and undercut much of the media hype about today’s sex crime “epidemic.” In 2002, an estimated 203,087 arrests were made for sex crimes. These include 28,288 for forcible rapes (e.g., forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object and forcible fondling); 95,066 for statutory rape, incest and other sexual offenses; and 79,733 for prostitution and commercial vice arrests (e.g., assisting or promoting prostitution). Still other sex-related crimes involve the distribution of obscene materials (especially child pornography over the Internet); disorderly conduct (which can involve lewd public display); and Peeping Tom incidences. However, in 2002, sex crimes represented 1.5 percent of all arrests.

The FBI’s statistical summary, “Crime in the United States, 1986-2005,” shows that sex crime–along with nearly all crime–has dropped significantly. Forcible rape, the only sex crime tracked, peaked in 1992 at 110,000 and, by 2005, was at 94,000–a 14 percent decline. The Justice Department found that, in 1979, the rate of rape per 1,000 people was 2.8 and, a quarter-century later, it had fallen to 0.4 per 1,000 people. In addition, FBI data reveals that between 2002 and 2004 other sex offenses (statutory rape, incest) were down 31 percent and prostitution and commercial vice was down 19 percent.

No offense disturbs the popular imagination more than sex crimes involving children and youths–which helps explain part of the media’s fascination with the Foley scandal. Yet, as public outrage about such crime escalates, it is actually declining. USA Today recently reported that sex assaults against those 12-17 years declined 79 percent during the 1993-2003 decade and sex abuse of all children under 17 dropped by 39 percent during the same period. Scholars estimate that 80 to 90 percent of all child molestations are committed by people who know the victim. The FBI reports that juveniles under 17 years commit 15-20 percent of all rapes of young people and 30-60 percent of all child sexual assaults.

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In the face declining incidents of sex crime, cities and states are vying to impose tougher penalties for sex-crime convictions. Many cities have established “child protection zones” near schools, playgrounds and other locations and two cities, Binghamton, NY, and Brink, NJ, have passed banishment laws. Five states (i.e., Florida, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma and South Carolina) permit the death penalty for some sex crimes. Under “Megan Laws,” all states require sex offenders to register and most have websites with registered offenders listed. Some states require convicted offenders be electronically tracked for life and others are considering inserting RFID tags in those deemed predators. Texas has a new scarlet-letter law requiring offenders post a sign in their front windows: “DANGER: REGISTERED SEX OFFENDER LIVES HERE”; Arizona, California and other states are keeping offenders in prison (or incarcerating them in asylums) after they have completed their sentences; and New York is planning to open a special prison for up to 500 sex offenders at Camp Pharsalia.

Most sex crimes come under the jurisdiction of local authorities. Federal agencies, however, get involved when, for example, female sex slaves often from Asia, Central Europe or Latin America are smuggled into the U.S. to staff low-end massage parlors and escort services or when child pornography is transmitted (particularly via the Internet) across state lines. The Bush administration is aggressively pursuing sexual offenders through the Justice Department, FBI, FCC, Customs and the Postal Service.

The Justice Department has created an infrastructure that is facilitating a sex panic. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, following in the footsteps of John Ashcroft, has prioritized the prosecution of pornography and child exploitation. It has successfully prosecuted nearly forty obscenity cases. It recently launched the national sex offender’s registry that integrates state registries. The FBI, as part of its cyber crimes program, the “Innocent Images Initiative,” opened 2,402 cases in 2005 (up from 113 in 1996); between 1995 and 2004, it arrested more than 3,000 people on child-porn related charges; one child pornographer and (until recently) one polygamist were on its “10 Most Wanted” list. If a sex offender was labeled a terrorist, could all the powers of the Patriot Act be applied?

The conservative right’s criticism of the judiciary, particularly “activist” federal judges, further fuels the new sex scare. Their displeasure with some recent Court decisions is similar to their attacks on Row v. Wade, Oregon’s euthanasia practice and the Terry Schivo decision. They are most disturbed by the 2003 landmark Supreme Court decision, Lawrence and Garner v. Texas that, while strengthened privacy rights, overturned the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision that found sodomy a crime. In striking down Texas’ century-old sodomy law, the Court not only affirmed the rights of two gay men (who were of different races), but set a relatively high bar for local police and prosecutors to challenge permissible adult, consensual and noncommercial sexual practice. Two other recent decisions, the Court’s finding that the Child Online Protection Act violated free speech protection and (at the regional level) the Pittsburgh District Court’s dismissal of the ten-count indictment against Extreme Associates for obscene video porn, were similarly criticized.

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America has witnessed repeated sex panics, both at the local and national level. Most recently, a daycare child-abuse panic swept the country from 1980 to 1992. During this prosecutorial nightmare at least 311 alleged child sex rings were investigated in 46 states and innumerable childcare workers, parents and total strangers were sent to jail. All appear to have been innocent. However, two even earlier panics illustrate just how bad things could get.

Some might recall that, in 1950, Congress undertook an investigation into the role of “homosexuals and other sex perverts” in the U.S. government. It found (with its own emphasis): “In the opinion of this subcommittee homosexuals and other sex perverts are not proper persons to be employed in Government for two reasons: first, they are generally unsuitable, and second, they constitute a security risk.” In the wake of this hearing, a Washington, D.C., witchhunt purged thousands of “perverts” from government jobs. Congress also conducted hearings into the porn industry and, in cities throughout the country, innumerable porn publishers, retailers and purchasers were arrested and their works confiscated. Vice squads arrested countless streetwalkers (and some johns), homosexuals and transvestites; innumerable men where prosecuted for alleged pedophilia, rape and lust murder and either were jailed or imprisoned in psycho wards.

Few, however, know that during the period from 1917 (when the U.S. entered the Great War) through the early ’20s, the government closed more than one hundred “red light” districts throughout the country and “quarantined” some 30,000 women to safeguard the war effort. These women were seized walking down the street, forced to undergo medical testing and (if found infected with a venereal disease) indefinitely incarcerated. America’s entry into the war empowered local authorities to suspend habeas corpus, effectively denying Fourth Amendment protections. It permitted the arrest of any unescorted woman simply walking down the street on suspicion of being a prostitute and, thus, considered a “domestic enemy,” undermining military morale.

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Sex has never found a welcoming home in America. From the earliest Puritans to today’s religious zealots, sex has been a constant source of discomfort in terms of both personal physical experience and social relations. This discomfort is, at root, what drives the Foley scandal and the public’s peculiar fascination with it.

Traditionally, those who have challenged conventional notions of acceptable sex have often been greeted with public ridicule and the pillory, the jail cell and psycho ward–if not worse. Yet, since the earliest colonization of North American four centuries ago, the boundaries of acceptable sex have slowly but steadily expanded. Today, masturbation and oral sex are no longer sins; premarital sex, adultery, interracial sex and homosexuality are no longer criminal offenses; oral contraceptives and abortion still a woman’s choice; Viagra and breast augmentation surgery the hottest medical innovations; tattoos, piercings and stud collars fashion statements; movies, television, magazines, online and fashion celebrate a nonstop erotic spectacle; and pornography is a $10 billion business. Only nonconsensual (e.g., pedophilia, incest, rape, bestiality) and commercial sex (outside Nevada) remain beyond the pale.

Mark Foley may well have crossed the line between unconventional (if inappropriate) flirtation and nonconsensual behavior with a minor — it’s too early to tell how the various Congressional and FBI probes will turn out. But it’s clear that Foley (if not the Republican Congressional leadership) will have to pay for their sins. No matter how the scandal affects the upcoming election, one likely outcome will be the adoption of laws tightening intergenerational contact. Not unlike anti-terrorism and anti-immigrant laws, politicians have to look tough–whether they address the root problem or not. Thus, we should see laws not simply making more behavior (perhaps even the most innocent) off limits, but also see an increase in the penalties for those convicted of such conduct. Some pundits, including Pat Buchanan, have questioned whether homosexuals should be barred from holding federal office.

America is today at a sexual crossroads. The forces of moral rectitude, led by Attorney General Gonzales, are seeking to limit the forms of sexual expression and experience. They are likely to exploit the Foley folly — as well as the very real issue of sexual violation — to attempt to further restrict access to birth control and abortion services, limit pornography, prohibit homosexual encounters and closedown adult sex clubs and swinger get-togethers. We are watching the culture wars becoming the sex wars.

DAVID ROSEN is completing the manuscript for Perversions: America’s Secret Passion for Deviant Sexual Pleasures. He is author of, most recently, “Sex & the City of Orgies,” a book review of Sex in the City: An Illustrated History (by Alison Maddex) and NYCSEX: How New York City Transformed Sex in America (New York Museum of Sex) for Sexuality and Culture. He is also author of Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films (Grove), originally commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project, and has written for Red Herring, Hollywood Reporter, San Francisco Focus and other publications. He is convener/ executive producer of Digital Independence, the forum on creativity, technology and democracy. He can be reached at:



David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out