Sex Panic on Capitol Hill
Mark Foley and the Politics of Sex in America
By David Rosen
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.
[... examples ...]
Deviant sexual practice is not unfamiliar to American
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.
* * *
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
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
The FBI's statistical summary, "Crime in the United States, 1986-2005," shows that sex
crime -- along with nearly all crime -- has dropped significantly.
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.
* * *
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
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.
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.
If a sex offender was labeled a terrorist, could all the powers of the Patriot Act be applied?
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
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.