Monday, October 02, 2006

the foley affair

Wordsworth idealized children while Freud de-idealized them. Marx was the Wordsworth of the proleteriat. It's Freud is still to come. -- Bertrand Russell.

I have to admit that there's a certain gleeful irony that the party of moral posturing a.k.a. "family values" is now being forced to come to terms with a Representative who seems to have had a rather unseemly fondness for post-pubescent male teenagers. But it's also a symptom of our culture that a case, where no physical abuse was involved (no revelations as yet) and where the victims in question were all sexually active teenagers, still manages to create a furore about -- what exactly?. Oh yes, that teenagers are sexually active and yes, that they can be (un)remarkably mature about sex. (Well, did you expect a politico with a fondness for teenagers to not create a furore?-Ed. No, not really -- my point is that what Foley is doing is basically unremarkable. Let me explain.)

About a month ago, James Kincaid, writing about the JonBenet case, argued that our obsession with "child exploitation" is the result of our morbid fascination with children's sexuality. It allows us to sexualize children by proxy, while at the same time, indulge in a lot of hand-wringing about sexual predators. Mostly though, it lets us ignore the real problems children actually face: hunger, poverty, homelessness and just simple physical abuse -- abuse not necessarily perpetrated by dirty old men (or sinister homosexuals, that favorite trope of the Religious Right). Kincaid's piece is a little melodramatic (and it caused Lee Siegel to accuse him of paedophilia, igniting a series of events that led to Siegel's ouster from The New Republic) but I think it has a kernel of truth to it. All the hysteria about child abuse is because of our idealization of children as non-sexual beings, even hundred years after Freud.

About two years ago, I saw a documentary called Capturing the Friedmans, about a Long Island family, significant only because father Arnold and son Jesse spent time in jail for child abuse -- none of which was conclusively proved. The film's point -- though never explicit -- is that the prosecutors and the police allowed themselves to carried away by the hysteria that swept through the population of Long Island and relying only on hearsay, and the testimonies of young children -- who, in turn, were manipulated into saying things by adults -- , arrested the Friedmans. (To see what I wrote about the documentary, click here). Debbie Nathan, who appears in the film as a talking head, wrote an article about it in the Village Voice, detailing her involvement with the film and her dealings with Arnold Friedman. Paedophiles, she pointed out,

...seldom use overt threats and violence. It's far more common, say Jackson and Skadegaard, for pedophiles to seduce through their gentleness and sensitivity, and for their abuse to take the form of undressing, fondling, and oral sex.

If victims fail to report the crimes, it's often because they're ashamed that they enjoyed the abuser's attentions, or worried he'll go to jail. While molestation can of course leave kids with grievous psychic wounds, research by Philip Ney of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues (published in 1994 in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect) suggests that physical and verbal abuse and neglect tend to be far more emotionally damaging to children than molestation. Research by Bruce Rind and colleagues, published by the American Psychological Association in 1998, indicates that many children seem wholly unaffected by sexual contact with adults. This should not surprise. The Arnold Friedmans of the world are kinder to kids than many normal adults.
The real reason why sexual contact between adults and children is prohibited gets lost in this hysteria and our terror of paedophiles. Paedophiles are punished not because they fellate little boys but because they abuse their authority as adults, taking unfair advantage of kids, who, whether they like it or not, do not really know what they are getting into. The age of consent is not some spiritual frontier that separates innocence from experience. It is a heuristic -- a point when we let teenagers decide what they want for themselves. There is a possible case to be made for reducing the age of consent -- though I think eighteen is about right since it marks the end of high school -- but the hysteria has got to stop.

Which leads me back to where I began, with Representative Foley. Take a look, if you will, at the transcripts of Foley's emails to his "pages" and worse -- his IMs. It shows a middle-aged man, who's a little too interested in 16 year old boys. But what's remarkable about those IMs is also how unremarkable they are. Anyone who has chatted in an online gay chat-room --hell, any chatroom -- on the internet has had these conversations and sometimes has had a hard time telling people that their attentions aren't wanted. What is even more interesting is how amused the boy himself seems. He doesn't really want to have this conversation but can't really say so -- not to Representative Foley. He also finds Foley attentions wierd and funny and embarassing -- but also seems to like Foley enough to keep humoring him. The boy clearly thinks Foley is making an ass of himself, is a little flattered by the attention but somehow can't bring himself to tell Foley so. (See how many embarassed lol"s appear in that "Sick sick ......" email).

My first reaction on reading those IMs was: what on earth was Foley thinking exchanging IMs like that with a teenager? Did he think it would not come out (no pun intended)? Did he not think that even if the pages found his attentions funny, their parents, if they discovered it, would most definitely not? Most of all, did he not understand that IMs can be stored very easily and reproduced at the drop of a hat? As the New York Times says, what was he thinking? How could a seasoned politician be so indiscreet, so stupid, even? Andrew Sullivan, makes the best (and most sympathetic case) for Foley: the closet makes gay men "act out" and this was Foley's way of doing it. I think it did.

All of which is not to say that Foley shouldn't be taken to task. He should be -- and has been. But he should be taken to task for abusing his authority -- like Bill Clinton -- and not because he exchanged "communication harmful to minors over the Internet", whatever that means.

UPDATE: In Counterpunch, Gary Leupp has the same take, but expresses it so much better than I did. [Via 3QuarksDaily].

UPDATE 2: Uh oh. More Foley IMs at Slate. The man wasn't quite a predator but he was definitely a nuisance. Also from Slate: Forget legally, Foley isn't even medically a paedophile. And finally, Matt Yglesias argues for the same with a great analogy.

And oh, oh, Foley now says he was molested as a child. Excuse me if I don't believe a word of it.

UPDATE 3: Read Andrew Sullivan's longer take here.


raj said...

Let me start by thanking you. I chanced upon your blog by accident, was looking for a long lost friend, your namesake. Apart from my fascination with American life, we seem to have arrived (culturally, educationally & dare I say intellectually) from a similar background. Afraid ’am neither as erudite nor as articulate so I rarely blog, & when I do it’s never about things I want to blog about but something rather daft. So, thank you for this wonderful resource that you call your blog. There is hardly anything on it that I’m not interested in. Agree with much of what you have to say, and God, believe me, that is SO rare.

raj said...

hi, me again,

seems rather daft now :-p

I wonder if the recent scandal expedited this agreement:

Shreeharsh said...

He, he, who knows?

I found this line funny:
Foley & Lardner also agrees not to refer to itself as "Foley" in written or oral communciations unless the word "Foley" is used in a context that would be "reasonably understood" to be referring to Foley & Lardner.