October 2006

First published in Between the Lines on October 19, 2006

The recent scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley sending sexually explicit text messages to sixteen- and seventeen-year-old former congressional pages has resurrected the ugly stereotype of gays as pedophiles. I am no longer surprised when I hear this sort of garbage from the Family Research Council or Paul Cameron. But when the Wall Street Journal links the two by criticizing those “who tell us that the larger society must be tolerant of private lifestyle choices, and certainly must never leap to conclusions about gay men and young boys,” it makes me nervous—not to mention angry. (Congressional Democrats have been no better, playing the “child predator” card for all it’s worth.)

First, a little bit of perspective on the scandal driving this. The young men whom Foley courted were sixteen and seventeen—not adults, but not children either. The age of consent in Washington, D.C. (and many other places) is sixteen. Issues of potential harassment aside, had Foley had sex with these young men in Washington, it would have been perfectly legal.

Yet as far as we know, he did not have sex with them: he e-mailed and text-messaged them. Foley may be a jerk, a hypocrite, a creep—even a harasser—but there’s no evidence that he qualifies as a child molester.

Research shows that gay men are no more likely than straight men to molest children. Moreover, mental health professionals are virtually unanimous in recognizing that most males who molest boys are not “gay” by any reasonable definition of that term: they have no interest in other adult males and often have successful relationships with adult females. This fact should not be surprising, because a young boy is at least as different qua sexual object from an adult male as an adult female is. In other words, it’s one thing to be attracted to adults of the same sex, it’s quite another to be attracted to children of either sex. Lumping these categories together not along maligns innocent people; it distracts us from the real threats to children. (For a useful analysis of the research in this area, see this article by Mark Pietrzyk.)

But it gets worse. For the pedophilia myth is yet another case of right-wingers arguing from what is not true to what does not follow. Suppose, purely for the sake of argument, there were a higher incidence of child molestation among homosexual males than heterosexual males. Should gay men no longer be permitted to be teachers? Pediatricians? Day care providers?

Be careful how you answer. Because one thing the research does clearly show is that men are far more likely to be child molesters than women. So if you think gay men should be restricted from these positions under the hypothetical (and false) assumption that they are more likely to be child molesters than straight men, you should conclude—in the actual, non-hypothetical world—that straight men should be thus restricted, and that all such jobs should go to lesbians and straight females. We know for a fact that men pose a higher risk of child molestation and other crimes than women do.

Yet somehow, when it comes to straight men, we are able to distinguish between those behaving well and those behaving badly. This double standard was quite apparent as the Foley scandal broke. Around the same time, admitted heterosexual Charles Carl Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania and fatally shot five female students. It turns out that Roberts told his wife that he had previously molested young girls. Yet no one took this story as tarnishing heterosexuality. No one concluded, “Aha! Can’t trust straights.” That would be a foolish inference.

Just as foolish as making inferences about all gays from the case of Mark Foley—who, it is worth repeating, did not even have sex with the pages (as far as we know), much less kill anyone.

The point is that some gays, just like some straights, behave badly. This is not news. Nor is it a reason to draw blanket inferences about gays.

Some years ago I was invited to Nevada to debate a Mormon minister on same-sex marriage. One of his central arguments—I am not making this up—was that we should not support same-sex marriage because research shows that gays are more likely to engage in domestic violence than straights. I had never heard of the studies he cited, so it was difficult to challenge him directly on his sources. Instead, I asked, “So, because some asshole beats his husband, I’m supposed to stop loving mine? And everyone else should stop supporting me in my loving, non-abusive relationship? Is that what you’re arguing?”

He never had an answer to that.

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First published in Between the Lines, October 5, 2006

It is early yet to talk about “the moral of the story” with respect to Mark Foley. Foley, a Republican congressman from Florida, resigned last week after it was revealed that he had been sending sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to underage congressional pages. Here’s a sample (the spelling is left uncorrected):

Foley: what you wearing
Teen: normal clothes
Teen: tshirt and shorts
Foley: um so a big buldge….
Foley: love to slip them off of you
Teen: haha
Foley: and [grab] the one eyed snake….
Teen: not tonight…dont get to excited
Foley: well your hard
Teen: that is true
Foley: and a little horny
Teen: and also tru
Foley: get a ruler and measure it for me

The FBI is investigating, and criminal charges appear likely. Though initial reports involved relatively tame e-mails to a sixteen-year-old former page, the IM’s (such as the one cited above) appear to involve a different youth about whom little has been reported. The age-of-consent is 16 in D.C., but it’s 18 in Florida, unless the accused is under 24 (Foley is 52).

Foley was long rumored to be gay. Nonetheless, he was a popular Republican congressman who prior to the scandal was considered a shoo-in for re-election. He was also the co-chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, an outspoken foe of sexual predators on the Internet, and a vocal supporter of President Clinton’s impeachment.

Hypocrite? Almost certainly. Child molester? Probably not. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are not quite children (they’re not quite adults, either), and there is no evidence yet that Foley actually made or attempted to make physical contact with the objects of his Internet dalliance. Still, as the congressman surely knew, Florida law makes it a third-degree felony to transmit “material harmful to minors by electronic device” and defines such material to include descriptions of “nudity, sexual conduct, or sexual excitement.”

There’s also the issue of sexual harassment and abuse of power. Even former pages have strong incentive to stay in the good graces of the congressmen who employed them. While the youth in the above exchange does not seem (judging from the text) to be terribly troubled by the banter, at least one other complained that Foley’s advances were “sick sick sick sick sick…”

Without a doubt, Foley did some stupid, inappropriate, and unethical things. Granted, sexual desire causes many of us to do stupid (though not necessarily inappropriate or unethical) things from time to time. Granted, the case would garner a somewhat (though not completely) different reaction if Foley were female–and particularly, if he were an attractive female. If Foley looked like Demi Moore, the pages would be telling one another “Dude, yeah!!!” instead of “sick sick sick sick sick.”

But the “gay angle” on this contains an important lesson, one that is unfortunately likely to be either distorted or missed entirely amidst the partisan political drama. It is that gay people, like everyone else, need healthy outlets for sexual expression. When those are blocked–because of political ambition or a repressive church or a right wing bent on ignoring basic science–cases like Foley’s (or former Spokane mayor Jim West’s or former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s) become more likely, as do far greater tragedies like the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal.

This is not to deny that Foley is responsible for his actions. There is no contradiction in holding a person fully responsible for wrongdoing and holding others responsible for enhancing the conditions that make such wrongdoing likely.

The right wing is doing just that by refusing to face some simple facts: There are gay people in the world. Gay people need love and affection like everyone else. When people repress that need in themselves or others, it tends to assert itself in unfortunate and sometimes tragic ways.

Like most people, I want to shake Mark Foley and yell: What the hell were you thinking? But I also want to add the following: It didn’t have to be this way. There are young men of legal age who are not your subordinates who would have been happy to remove their shorts for you. And there would have been nothing wrong with that person. An open, honest, consensual sex life is not only possible for gay men; it’s healthy. The alternatives can be disastrous.

Yes, it is early to talk about the moral of the story. But there are lessons to be learned, and we ignore them at our peril.

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