One of the real challenges in following the liberal protests of disgust at the Mark Foley scandal is their ever-changing yardstick of morality. Take Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, whose nationally syndicated dose of feminism seems to wander based on whose ox is gored. Goodman sounds like every other Democrat in suddenly discovering the sheer power of a sex scandal, something she must have decried in the Clinton years:
This scandal is what has registered on the political Richter scale. This is what voters are asking their representatives about. The late political scientist James David Barber once said that nobody understands the word "deficit,'' but everyone understands the word "adultery.'' Maybe nobody knows what to think about solving the problem of Iraq, but they know what to think about the Florida congressman instant-messaging a teenage page: "how's my favorite young stud doing?''
A 52-year-old co-chair of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus turns up on ABC News sounding like one of the creeps who populate sweeps week on "To Catch a Predator.'' A politician who testified in Congress that sex offenders "prey on our children like animals'' is revealed chatting about a teen getting "horny.'' A sponsor of laws against Internet exploitation is reincarnated as every parent's nightmare: the lewd older man talking to their boy until he signs off to finish his English homework.
In case she sounds too conservative for a feminist, fear not: Goodman does turn back to a more libertine stance when she expresses disgust that conservative moralists would find fault for the Foley scandal in a tolerant liberal sexual culture:
I remember when Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania blamed the Catholic priest pedophilia scandal on the blueness of Boston, "a seat of academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America.'' You can no more label homosexuals as predators than you can label milkmen as murderers of Amish school girls. But you can try.
The Republicans have been all too successful at seizing the language and politics of values. There isn't a parent is this country who doesn't wince at and worry about the sexualization of children all over the culture, from clothing racks to the Internet. But the right has attached this free-floating anxiety to everything on their agenda from abstinence-only education to the dismissal of a Texas teacher for taking her kids to a museum that had nude statues.
This column read like a lot of liberal Foley commentary: opportunistic and insincere. Back in February, this same Ellen Goodman sang from a different songbook when the subject was girls, not boys, and the glorious rite of womanhood that is teen sex in the back of an automobile. She argued for the healthiness of teenage sex in fighting "bandstanding pro-lifer" attorney general Phill Kline in Kansas, who wanted sex with children under 16 reported in accordance with state law:
I assume that Kline's real purpose in mandating reports is to scare teens away from birth control and abortion clinics. If Kansas actually believed that all under-16 sex was harmful, why would it allow 13-year-olds to marry? But the most sensible remark came from the exasperated Judge J. Thomas Marten who insistently asked the state: ''Where is the clear, credible evidence that underage sex is always injurious?"
This is what passes for a radical question these days. In defense against a culture that is sexually provocative, the dominant messages are sexually overprotective: They run the gamut from ''just say no" to ''just say not now." The focus today is on unhealthy sexual activity. It's become virtually taboo to even ask: What is healthy sexual activity for a teenager?
In Kansas, instead of homing in on real sexual abuse of children, they are redefining all underage sex as abuse. As for the notion that girls are invariably victims of sex, unable to consent to ''lewd fondling": Do we want to return to those wonderful yesteryears when women were supposed to be sexually inert until their wedding night when they magically became eager sexual partners?
Phill Kline has produced the ''Reefer Madness" of teenage sexuality. I can only hope that the judge overturns the idea that health workers and educators have to report petting as if it were pedophilia.
In the meantime, worried parents need to explore what we wish, as well as what we fear for our children. We need guides as we navigate the tricky shoals of adolescent sexuality between panic and protection. Let's begin with the simple edict: We're not in Kansas anymore.
The Abstinence Clearinghouse had a nice rebuttal back then:
Thanks to those who would sell our children’s futures for a few cheap thrills today, we’re living in a much different world than our grandparents would’ve ever dreamed possible. Pornography on cell phones, internet live-action pedophiliac encounters, teacher/student dating, outercourse in the White House between the President and an intern, violent and sexually graphic video games. The increasing molestation of children today is without question, yet Ms. Goodman decided to spend her precious column space attacking those who are trying to help.
In Kansas, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 16 to engage in sexual activity. Attorney General of KS, Phill Kline attempted to enforce the law, requiring health care workers to report underage sexual activity to parents and guardians. This was the beginning of an uproar of national dimensions. Polished spokespeople for special interest groups began shouting, "How DARE adults know what children are doing behind closed doors! After all, you may feed them, clothe them, house them, pay for their education, pay for their health care, pay even for the very car they date in, but you have no right to know what your child is doing!"
Ms. Goodman, as intelligent and talented as she is, doesn’t get it. Parents want to know what their kids are doing. Parents need to know what their kids are doing. After all, parents are responsible for what their children are doing.
The situation in Kansas has nitty-gritty details that can be debated. However, the main point is this: There are those who feel parents should parent and there are those who think parents should pay for everything a child wants or needs, but the child should raise itself. Why have parents? Why not have private expense accounts financed through anonymous donations from which children can purchase alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and contraception without question? Oh yes, and hotel rooms. Don’t forget those.
Ms. Goodman has missed the mark on this one. Although she’s an Easterner, I’m sure she’s noticed that children raised with respect and accountability end up saying, "There’s no place like home."