3 min

Don’t get trapped by the words

Language in Foley resignation is being used to target gays

While the recent American congressional scandal erupting around Republican Congressman Mark Foley is newsworthy, many of the mainstream media have “coded” their reporting of this to heighten a sense of moral outrage.

The proper use of language, and the correct use of terminologies, is crucial to understanding any issue — and both are often distorted in a way that hurts queers.

In much of the coverage around Foley, the term “paedophile” has been frequently used, often in conjunction with “gay” and “homosexual.” The word is heavily loaded, carrying considerable emotional punch. However, in this instance it is also highly inaccurate and unnecessarily damaging.

That the Congressman misused his authority and engaged in inappropriate conduct is not at issue. Clearly, given his position, engaging in sexy e-mails and Instant Messaging with teenage boys, who are answerable to him in his capacity as a member of Congress, is stepping over the line.

However creepy, inappropriate or unethical his behaviour, one thing must be clear: Mark Foley is not, based on the evidence to date, a paedophile. That he might be a hebephile is possible. Mark Foley clearly is sexually attracted to teenage boys, in this case 16- and 17-year old teenage boys. These are not “children.”

Considerable discussion has arisen on various queer discussion lists about this issue, largely because of suggestions, or outright statements, about Foley being gay, closeted, and Republican — a party not known for its queer-affirmative policies.

I find it disturbing that some of the activists participating in these online discussions cannot, or will not, differentiate between paedophilia and a mature man’s interest in teenage boys.

Let me be clear: paedophilia is about adults having sex with children. What constitutes a “child?” Surely, it is anyone who is pre-pubescent. Most of us would say that it is immoral to have sex with a child, because we believe a child cannot give informed consent. For sure, it is illegal and a criminal offence.

Foley did not proposition, engage in sexual talk or correspondence, or have sex with children; ergo he is not a paedophile.

Paedophiles, as we know, cross all sexual orientations and genders. Paedophilia is not usually connected to gender (although it can be), but is about the “child-ness” of the child. Paedophiles lose interest in the child as soon as the individual enters puberty.

Given the sexual ethos of our culture, many individuals have a sexual interest in teenagers. Erotic images of the naughty schoolgirl abound, as do erotic images of the hot young jock or skater-boi. Fashion models are esteemed as much for their juvenilized looks as they are for how they wear the fashions. An eroticizing of youth, and not just youth but adolescence, permeates our culture.

Is it little wonder, then, that many healthy individuals are sexually attracted to adolescents. Part of the attraction, I would assume, is remembering our own fevered, sexually charged adolescence and the missed sexual opportunities. (Ahhh, if we only knew then what we know now….) Being sexually involved with teenagers is, in many ways, a way of recapturing that time. Whatever the psychology behind such activity, it is not paedophilia and it is not, depending on the age of the adolescent, illegal.

In the discussions on a queer political list I subscribe to, a couple of individuals kept insisting that Foley was, in fact, a paedophile. They kept insisting that 16- and 17-year-olds were “children” because they were minors. One even stated that individuals she worked with who had been sexually abused as teens referred to their abusers as “paedophiles” even though the abuse occurred post-puberty.

When others attempted to point out how she was in error, even quoting Wikipedia sources for her, and suggested she had a responsibility to disavow her clients of false notions, she took offence, accused the list of being elitist and classist, and unsubscribed.

The basic premise, that Foley behaved abysmally and inappropriately and that his actions constituted an abuse of power, was not in dispute. The wire upon which some were being tripped was language and failing to comprehend that language, its use and misuse, informs not only what we think, but how we think.

As one regular contributor noted, “If a person does not understand the difference between a transsexual, a transvestite and a drag queen, how is this person to make sense of legislation to include gender identity in federal and provincial human rights acts? How we speak and write reflects the way we think. I would also argue that changing the way we speak and write begins to affect the way we think.”

This is not an original idea, of course. George Orwell spoke of how language informs thought and how we process those thoughts. Without the correct words, the concept cannot be formed — the thought never happens. If the thought never happens, no action does either. Alternatively, if we are using incorrect language, incorrect thought is created and from that comes incorrect, and often dangerous, action.

If closeted gay men who, inappropriately or not, form interests in much younger men and such closeted gay men are labelled as paedophiles, with all the revulsion and backlash that term creates, the result is devastating. Innocent, albeit perhaps foolish, men are persecuted in the media, vilified and often ruined. It is a witch-hunt mentality and dangerous.