Mark Foley, Scarlett Johannssonn, and Pedophilia

Matthew Yglesias points out that, since Scarlett Johannssonn was very pretty at the age of 16, we should not use the term “pedophilia” when referring to Mark Foley’s hitting on boys of a similar age. I actually haven’t done that, so no correction needed.

Still, it does bring up an interesting debate that resurfaces from time to time. There was, for example, a big cross-blog discussion involving Dan Drezner, Atrios, Yglesias, and myself over three years ago on the topic, “Why is it that some celebrities under the age of eighteen can be universally acknowledged as sexy, whereas if that adjective is assigned to other underage but physically mature stars, people start leveling accusations of perversion and lechery?”

Anna Kournikova was a sex symbol very young and yet no one seemed to object to it. Indeed, it was controversial only in that some contended it was improper for her to get so much attention–and money–for her looks while much better but homelier tennis players suffered. Alyssa Milano, Drew Barrymore, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and the Olsen Twins entered the discussion as well. There are probably at least a dozen others that could be easily named.

Further, as I’ve noted many times over the years, it was not that long ago that girls were married and having children in early adolescence. Clearly, our cultural norms have radically changed in that regard, as people remain “children” longer, postponing jobs, marriage, children and other badges of adulthood for several additional years while attending school much longer.

On the other hand, the reaction to the Foley scandal has caught the Zeitgeist in a way that goes well beyond an ordinary sexual harrassment matter. The gay angle has clearly played some part in that, although I’m pretty sure people would still be appalled if a Congressman were coming onto 16-year-old girls who were working for him. His actions seem viscerally wrong in a way that, say, a grown NHL player hitting on Anna Kournikova did not.


Gone Hollywood

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Congress, LGBTQ Issues, Popular Culture, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    Well, that sucks, my typically insightful comment was deleted in process. You now have an IQ gauge? Once more:

    The difference is between the thought & the deed. I may think the 16YO Scarlett J. is hot and ready, but I don’t act on it by coming on to her.

    The Bible of course says we sin in thought, word, and deed, and I’m sure that maxim underlies some of our revulsion in the Foley case; but even most Christians actually work with a much stronger thought/act dichotomy, sez I.

    Had Foley been caught wistfully admiring the hot-but-alas-untouchable pages, well, he’s be in trouble as a gay Republican, but other than that, we wouldn’t see anything like the present firestorm — which I think is partly fed by parents’ insecurity about just what their kids are doing on the damn Internet all the time.

  2. Anderson says:

    Btw, is this really such a clever time for Bush to be publicly defending Hastert?

    A growing number of Republicans and conservative advocates fear the Foley scandal will cause many of the party’s most conservative supporters to stay home on election day. And an increasing number of them are laying the blame at the feet of Mr. Hastert, who has said he could not recall learning of the online messages before news of them broke last week, even though some of his Republican colleagues insist they told him.

    The president defended Mr. Hastert. “I know Denny Hastert,” Mr. Bush said. “I meet with him a lot. He is a father, teacher, coach, who cares about the children of this country.”

    He said he supported Hastert’s call for an investigation by law enforcement into the Foley case.

    Not a good call, I think. We’ll see.

  3. Rob M says:

    I am fairly sure that if I, as a high school teacher was trying to have sex with a 16 year old student, the term pedophilia would be used. Also “sex offender” and the word felony would pop up somewhere.

    How is this different?

  4. just me says:

    I object to the use of pedophilia, but something that isn’t pedophilia can still be wrong and still be a crime and still be unethical.

    I also think there is a difference between thinking somebody underage is sexy or good looking, and acting on that belief.

    I do think one thing that makes this case seem smarmy and wrong is not only the age of the youth involved, but the fact that Foley is a congressman, and the Page was sent there by his parents who trusted the congress to keep him safe-even if there was no possible crime involved, I think most people would see this as wrong.

  5. Joe says:

    Consider this irony. Just last week, proceedings began on a court case in Connecticut to remove legal restrictions that make teacher-student sex illegal in the Nutmeg state. In Connecticut, the age of consent is sixteen. Therefore, if Mark Foley had been hitting on pages in Connecticut, then he would have been perfectly within his rights to do so, as he is not their student. Is it lecherous? Strange how in some areas we are expanding the rights of adults to prey on younger people.

  6. Anderson says:

    I am fairly sure that if I, as a high school teacher was trying to have sex with a 16 year old student, the term pedophilia would be used.

    Sure it would; we’re arguing that the use would be incorrect.

    It probably says something good about our society that we *don’t* have a rich variety of finely-distinguished words for lusting after various younger age groups.

    And I still think it’s the Internet part that has lots of parents creeped out.

  7. madmatt says:

    It is the rank hypocrisy of a “protector of children” abusing his elected office. Somebody probably should of looked at sergei federov and kornikova when it was happening, but that mostley went on overseas.

  8. Cernig says:


    It all comes down to values.

    If an NHL player hits on an 18 year its entirely unproblemmatic.

    If a Congressman or teacher (or President) hits on someone of any age over which they have any form of authority then its an abuse of trust and an abuse of power.

    Covering up that abuse of power and trust is itself an abuse of power and trust.

    And we tend to be down on folks who abuse our power and trust.

    Add in the massive age difference, minor status of the person “hit upon” and most importantly that this was very definitely a cynical attempt at exploitation of that minor and right there you have why it “seems wrong”.

    “cos it damn well IS.

    Regards, C

  9. legion says:

    Well, as Bay Buchanan and Tony Perkins are saying, it’s bad because of t3h ghey… If the Pages in question were 16 y.o. girls, you can bet Foley would be getting ‘high-fives’ from his fellow GOPers in the halls of the House.

  10. It would be surprising if there are no procedures in place, legal or otherwise, to deal effectively with any action or inaction by anyone involved with the Mark Foley story.
    Let those who are bound by law to respond do their jobs. Also do not let those who face mid term elections and other political realities avoid the issues by distractions like Mark Foley’s bad choices.
    See Politicians Off Topic

  11. Tim says:

    Long off-topic rant in violation of site policies deleted.

  12. Steve Verdon says:


    Sometimes you are contemptible.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Nothing in the following comment should be construed as a defense of Congressman Foley or a defense of paedophilia, generally.

    Paedophilia is only properly applied when the object of the unnatural attraction is a pre-pubescent child.

    I think there’s a greater societal problem in the in the sexual fixation on young teens. This isn’t a new thing. Linda Darnell, the sexy starlet of the 1930’s and 1940’s appeared in The Mark of Zorro when she was 16. She was still attending mandatory studio high school classes while she was starring as a sexpot in the steamy Forever Amber.

    Lana Turner was only 16 when she got her first sexpot role; so was Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor.

    You need only open a magazine these days to be deluged with salacious images of very young teens: many of the models these days are 16 are younger. I, personally, find the idea repellent but I’ve always been more attracted to older women.

    Hollywood’s image creation isn’t limited to young girls, either. Darryl Hickman was only 15 when he appeared in Leave It to Heaven in 1945. I think his role is deliberately sexualized. There are scads of other examples.

    BTW the age of consent in Washington, DC is 16.

  14. Anderson says:

    I daresay Legion exaggerates, but “contemptible”?

  15. just me says:

    I was also thinking of Brooke Shields as another teenage sexpot. She did some pretty sexual photos and advertisements before she was even 13 if I remember right.

    Although, I also remember some people raking her mother over the coals for some of the stuff, but I recall the very sexy Calvin Klein commercials she did before she was 18.

  16. legion says:

    Indeed, Anderson. As Yglesias and Dave Schuler point out, heterosexual attraction to (and in many cases, pursuit of) teenaged girls is widely accepted in society, and has been for decades (at least). If Steve is referring to my references on homosexuality, he’d be better off paying closer attention to the people I mentioned. Or anyone in the GOP, really. Now that Foley is publically, undeniably gay, DC insiders just can’t wait to pop up and say “yeah, we knew he was gay years ago”. As though that alone explains his unforgivable conduct.

    You want contemptible, Steve? Look in the mirror the next time you write something defending these filthbags.

  17. Jim Henley says:

    Foley catches the imagination and inspires disgust because of the power imbalance issue – the same thing that was the REAL problem with Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, though, say this for Miss M, she didn’t need a fake ID to get a beer.

  18. Bob Symmes says:

    (With apologies to Conan Doyle):

    Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s ability, but I saw by the inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused.

    ”You consider that to be important?” he asked.

    ”Exceedingly so.”

    ”Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

    ”To the curious incident of the Republican Leadership in the past two years.”
    ”The Republican Leadership did nothing in the past two years.”

    ”That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

    The question to me is not necessarily the gender of either of the participants, nor is the issue the propriety of Mr. Foley’s actions. The fact that this was soft-core Internet sex between two males is irrelevant; and it is clear that this was, if not illegal, clearly improper and an abuse of power.

    The issue is actually the lack of attention given by the House Republican Leadership, given the fact that (a) there are no secrets in Washington, and (b) this Congressman was so flagrant that the pages themselves were forced to self-police. As the old saying goes, ”Their silence is deafening.”