As I watch various television news programs, visit liberal blogs, and listen to conservative talk radio hosts, I have a hard time taking a firm stance on this controversy. There are several issues that contribute to this.
1.Previous Political Sex Scandals
Mostly I am thinking of one similar incident that many conservatives are bringing up. They keep mentioning Democrat Gerry Studds. I had no idea who this guy was so I looked it up. It seems in 1983 two congressmen were given slaps on the wrists by the Ethics Committee for having affairs with under 18 pages. One of them had an affair with a 16 year-old female page and he was very remorseful and didn’t run again. The other was Gerry Studds who had a sexual relationship with a male page, who I think was 17 years old when they had their affair in 1973, ten years before the actions were made public. Unlike the other congressman, Studds did not apologize. In fact, he held a press conference with that page standing by his side in which they both claimed that the affair was completely consensual and no one else’s business. Studds was re-elected several times. In fact, it seems that he is better known as a hero in the gay community. The conservatives who bring up the Studds incident are pointing out that Studds was still well regarded even though what Studds did was worse, yet he did not resign (as Foley had done) and was re-elected several times (as Foley will not be). They believe that this shows how Democrats are treated differently than Republicans.
I have to agree on the face of it with what the conservatives are saying. Studds and Foley seem to have been treated differently, though I was not able to find any press from the time of the Studds incident to show me what happened to him back in 1983. Also, on the face of it, what Studds did was worse- he had a sexual relationship with a page, while Foley only had sexually suggestive internet conversations with a page. (Whether he would have walked the walk if given a chance is up to debate.) On the other hand, consent and mutual involvement is another matter, as the page in the Studds incident was, at least by his own statements, a willing participant in what happened while the page Foley was conversing with seemed, at best, ambivalent about what was happening. (While he continued to chat with Foley, he also forwarded e-mails Foley sent him to a superior of the pages, calling it “Sick, sick, sick.”) If two congressmen, on Republican and one Democrat, were caught tomorrow doing the same exact thing, both on the committee for Missing and Exploited Children, I would hope that both of them would resign and that both would be judged just as harshly. If they were not, I would jump on anyone treating one less harshly, whether the congressman given the pass was a Republican or a Democrat.
What gives me pause however is that these incidents happened at two very different times. In the 70s, many people still married young. My own mother married in 1975 (or so) at 17 years old. Unless you were wealthy and went to college, when you graduated high school, if you graduated high school, at 17 or 18 years old, you went to work and were an adult. Also, The Graduate, was released six years before the Studds event happened, making it seems en vogue for older married women to do what some of their husbands had been doing for decades, have affairs with younger people. (Though in the movie, the younger person was a recent college grad, not high school grad.) Also, the affair was not publicly revealed until 10 years after the fact, plenty of time for the page to get over the thrill of being desired by an older mentor and start to realize that they may have been taken advantage of by an authority figure. (Though it is also plenty of time for them to reap the benefits for being on the good side of a powerful figure, giving them more incentive to possibly lie to keep those benefits.) There also seems to be little paper trail pertaining to this affair, or at least little that became public, that could dispute Studds and the page’s claim that the affair was consensual, or to give tantalizing or disgusting details to the press.
On the other hand, 16/17 year olds are not judged as they used to be. After high school, many teenagers are expected to go to college. Even if they have full-time jobs right after high school, most teenagers are expected to get either further education or further training in a field before starting “real adult life.” Few 17 year olds are getting married these days. They might have a child, but few will get married until later in life. Among teenagers that do go off to college immediately after graduating high school, many of them remain close to their parents, relying on them for not only financial support, but also emotional support. I’ve read several articles in Newsweek alone in the past year about how parents of college students talk to their children every day, calling to wake them up for class, contacting professors that their children are having problems with. Several colleges are offering parent orientation with tips on how to maintain contact with their children while also pushing them to be responsible for their own life and problems. This is vastly different from the 70s when many college students broke off from their parents, visiting on holidays and over the summers, calling sporadically, dealing with their problems on their own, using college as a stepping stone into adulthood instead of a furthering of their adolescence. While older people (both men and women) may have affairs with younger people, they usually face harsher consequences, more public admonishments, and fewer of these affairs are kept private and swept under the rug. While we might make light of these affairs in personal and private conversations, the public morality is strongly against them, backed a general feeling that these young people are always taken advantage of by the older participant, that these young people are always hurt in the long run by these affairs, and that the older participant should have better judgment than to get involved in these affairs. This is also a time in which the internet provides both the means for older people to maintain contact with younger people and the means to expose the relationship and the details of the relationship. Nearly every Friday night, NBC runs footage of another sting operation where men are arrested for soliciting someone they think is a teenager (usually 13 or 14 years old) over the internet and showing up for sex. These men are then confronted by the NBC reporter about why they are there, who they intended to meet, how old that person was, and what they had planned to do. Then, they are arrested. One of the nation’s leading conservative hosts, Bill O’Reilly, is a major backer of laws for mandatory minimums in cases involving child molestation, coming down on states that do not pass this law. Also, the congressman involved in this controversy is a member of the committee dealing with missing and exploited children, the co-sponsor of bills that make soliciting a minor for sex over the internet illegal.
In DC, the age of sexual consent is 16 years old. Assuming that this law was the same in the 1970s, Gerry Stubbs did nothing illegal. If Foley had slept with this page in DC, he also would not have done anything illegal. However, Foley did not sleep with him. He discussed sex and seems to have made attempts to solicit someone under 18 for sex over the internet. That is covered by a completely different set of laws. I will be the first to admit that I am NOT well versed in these laws. But if these laws say that it is illegal for someone over 18 to solicit someone under 18 for sex, then what Foley did would seem to be illegal, even if it would be legal for him to have sex with said minor.
Of course, while legal consent is determined fairly strictly by the law according to age, full mutual consent is something different. Especially in feminist circles, full consent usually relies on both (or all, if there are more than 2 people are involved) parties to be on equal footings with no major power differential. Even if nothing illegal happened, both Studds and Foley are swimming in murky ethical water. Can someone so much younger than you, who you have authority over, who may be dazzled by your wealth, power, and prestige, and who could benefit greatly their whole life by staying on your good side truly step away from all those things to rational and independently give consent? Or will the older authority figure always be taking advantage of the younger one? To be wholly ethical, I believe the authority figure should always turn down romantic relationships with younger people they have authority over, no matter how much the younger person seems to be a willing, consenting participant, even if only until that person is no longer under their authority. They should always follow both the rule and spirit of the law. Unfortunately, few people always act ethically, especially where romance and sex are involved.
I have to admit that I have rarely acted ethically in romantic and sexual matters. There were even more times when I WANTED to act unethically, especially with older authority figures, but was never given the chance. I have been lucky in the fact that most of the older authority figures I was interested in were either completely uninterested in me (most likely) or wiser and more in control of themselves, never allowing us to become entangled in a romantic or sexual relationship. On the few occasions I found myself pursued by older authority figures, or at least felt they would not have turned down a romantic or sexual relationship, I was only once faced with someone that I had any interest in. While his interest in me was at first very flattering, I quickly began to feel less than comfortable during our interactions. Despite knowing how inappropriate our interactions were, I did not feel comfortable telling him to stop, especially since I was flattered by someone like him being sexually interested in someone like me. My line of thinking at the time was, If I was flattered by his interest, it must not be so wrong and my discomfort must be caused by something else, perhaps my own immaturity and nervousness. Years later, after getting to know him better, his history, his opinions, and hearing several accounts of his similar behavior towards other females under his authority, I see that I was not special for catching his attention. Anything with breasts and a vagina caught his attention and he pursued anyone he thought might have low enough self-esteem to be receptive. This is why I plan on acting as ethically as possible, in spite of any romantic or sexual feelings I may have, if I am ever in a position of authority over anyone, especially someone significantly younger than myself. I’d much rather someone look back on me as the older mentor they wanted but never got than the person they wanted to be their mentor until that person creepily came on to me.
On his program today, Rush Limbaugh said that Democrats accept bad behavior from members of their party because, unlike their Republican counterparts, Democrats believe that everyone has serious flaws that preclude them from acting in a moral way and that we should just strive to help and understand them. Republicans, while they may believe that humans are all flawed, expect everyone to act morally and do not coddle people when they have acted in immoral ways, especially serious immoral ways. Basically, only Republicans can be accused of hypocrisy because only Republicans have values that they stand up for that they may violate. Which, on the other hand, means that he thinks that Democrats cannot be accused of hypocrisy because they don’t have values, or at least not ones that they stand up and talk about. I’m sure T would agree fairly whole-heartedly with that. Limbaugh asserted that the only reason Democrats were really angry was because he was a hypocrite and that there may have been a Republican cover-up, but NOT about what Foley really did.
While, as I stated above, if two congressmen did the same thing at the same time while on the same committee but were on different sides of the aisle, I believe they should both be looked at and treated the same way, but, while the Studds’ controversy and the Foley controversy appear similar on the face, there are many ways in which they are different and either case could be looked at more harshly in the other, depending on how one looks at it. But, both as a liberal myself and from the liberal blogs I read, it seems to me that most liberals are truly mad about what Foley did. They do not think that it is acceptable to an older person in a position of authority to attempt to engage in a sexual relationship with an underage subordinate. They think this guy is a pervert and it is amazing that the guy who helped write the law on internet predators is caught violating it. His position on that committee makes him even more repugnant in their eyes. The only thing that seems to have enticed them into calling him a hypocrite is his statement about how disgusting it was for Bill Clinton to engage in a sexual relationship with an intern. In addition to this, they are upset that there may have been a cover-up by the members of Congress who knew about these e-mails and instant messages. I do not think I’ve read a single post saying that what Foley seems to have done is acceptable in any way shape or form.
Conclusion: The Studds and Foley controversies have many similarities and many differences. Both men acted unethically and immorally, even if what they did was not illegal. Anyone who knew of their actions should have stood up and said something to protect these boys who were both minors and subordinate to these men. I don’t know if Foley is being treated differently than Studds JUST because he is a Republican. I’d like to believe it is because of the different times these actions occurred in. Please feel free to comment with your take on this story.