How can you not love the implosion of Republican Mark Foley? It’s a great example of the deep-running moral hypocrisy of the “family values” types out there – I have always felt that if you scratch a public prude you’ll find a sex maniac right underneath. Often wrapped up in bondage gear.
The problem is that I look at the coverage and I find myself really troubled by one thing – the guy is being labeled a “sicko” and a “pervert” and, most damning of all, a “pedophile.” First of all, it’s troubling because it’s not accurate – a pedophile has sexual feelings for pre-adolescent children. The youngster in this case was 16, definitely falling outside the strict definition of what a pedophile is. It’s semantic, but I think it’s important – pedophilia is a very specific thing, and it shouldn’t be watered down.
I look at other cases of adult/adolescent sexual contact (it’s worth noting that while there is currently no evidence Foley had contact with any teen, the case isn’t over yet), and I see an interesting dichotomy – Mary Kay Letourneau, the 35-year old female teacher who slept with a 13-year old student (and had his baby!) becomes a mini-celebrity. She gets coverage on Entertainment Tonight, who paid her for an exclusive interview. Can you imagine what would have happened if the sexes in the Letourneau case were reversed? The male teacher would certainly not be doing Entertainment Tonight. He’d be experiencing something much more along the lines of the harassment aimed at Ronny, the sex offender in Todd Field’s new film, Little Children.
It seems to me that the problem isn’t that Foley was involved with a 16-year old, even though that’s creepy, but that he was involved with a male 16-year old. Look at the film American Beauty – in it, Kevin Spacey’s Lester character is erotically obsessed with his daughter’s friend who, according to a script I found online, is 16. Looking through the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes I found very few critics who referred to Lester as a pedophile, at least until I found reviews written from a right wing point of view. The people who found the film’s entire morality disgusting would often refer to Lester as a pedophile; some say he’s a would-be pedophile, which is interesting. You don’t need to consummate a sexual relationship with a child to be a pedophile. You just have to be sexually interested in children – which, by the way, doesn’t fit this case, as the girl in question is not a child.
Of course American Beauty is just a movie while Mark Foley is real life. While I haven’t yet come up with a way to disprove those statements, I do think that the way we react to movies tells us a lot about ourselves. In Little Children the character of Ronny went to jail for exposing himself to children, not for touching them. In a blog entry, critic and pundit Jeffrey Wells says “When it comes to child molesters, there’s a serious temptation to say ‘throw them into the wood chipper.’" It’s an interesting reaction, and one that the film itself expects and deals with in the first act, when one woman who believes Ronny should be castrated admits that her brother used to flash her as a child. When asked whether he should be castrated too, the woman says at least her brother didn’t flash strangers. I can’t wait to see what the debate is on the internet and in the public when the film is finally released wide – and when it gets the Oscar nominations it deserves. Wells’ statement certainly tells us on which side he stands when it comes to the divide of fear that this film chronicles, and I think a lot of people – most people – will agree with him.
But American Beauty does have one aspect that makes it rather appropriate for discussion here. Sure, it’s a movie. Sure, Kevin Spacey has no interest in Mena Suvari in real life (!). It’s all make-believe. Except the line between make-believe and reality is always very thin, and the reality of it is that anyone watching American Beauty is watching a film in which a 17-year old girl is topless in a sexualized context. Thora Birch takes off her top to entice the creepy boy across the way, and at the time she was under the age of 18. Her parents had to sign off to allow this to happen. Did you ever watch this scene and have a sexual thought come into your head? Did you find Thora Birch to be hot? Guess what – you’re a pedophile under the current media definition. Don’t worry, I am too.
And I could look far beyond American Beauty for the sexualization of technically underage women. Look at Britney Spears’ entire early career, for instance. Older men certainly pay attention to, and are sexually attracted to, these women. They’re seen as creepy (occasionally endearingly so, like the drunks in old movies), but very rarely called pedophiles. The Foley case becomes more clear cut as a homophobic scenario the more you think about it – the abuse of power here is wrong, but it’s not “perverted.” And if trying to fuck your underlings is “pedophilia,” somebody invite Michael Bay into NAMBLA.
Yesterday I saw the film version of Augusten Burrough’s Running With Scissors, ostensibly a true memoir. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know what’s different or the same in this adaptation, but in the film Burroughs gets into a sexual affair with a 35-year old man. Watching the movie I knew that Burroughs was young, but I wasn’t sure how young until very late in the proceedings a voice over told me he was 15. It seemed like the movie was keeping this information close to the vest, and it made me wonder what the public reaction to that will be, especially since the film makes it pretty clear that while the relationship is very bad news, Burroughs isn’t being molested.
It’s a gray zone, one movies very rarely deal with. In America today our youth are involved in a very sexualized culture while the establishment freaks out about it. Dateline has a very popular series busting “cyber-predators,” and you sort of can’t help but feel sorry for these creepy idiots. Not because they have some kind of compunction (and I don’t dismiss the idea that real pedophiles are mentally ill and need help, not chemical castration) but just because they’re getting punked so very, very hard. And then stay tuned on this local NBC channel for Heroes, aimed at the 18-35 demographic and starring a very hot high school girl in a cheerleader outfit. It’s a symptom of a culture at war with itself, a culture that’s trying to figure out where the lines are drawn. Sadly for gay men, the line is apparently not as flexible as it is for straight men who like naughty schoolgirls.
I’m glad Mark Foley lost his job, and not just for partisan reasons. The abuse of power is unforgivable. And the lack of judgment shown in approaching a 16-year old page sexually is inexcusable. I just wonder had he been given to hitting on the female pages would we even know his name today?