“Any suggestion that Mark Foley is a pedophile is false,” the former congressman’s lawyer, David Roth, said Tuesday at a news conference in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was right, but not for the reasons he probably had in mind.
Foley’s creepy electronic communications with 16- and 17-year-olds about masturbatory techniques, penis length, and other sexually explicit topics clearly crossed a moral line, and possibly a legal one, too. But they weren’t pedophilia in the clinical sense of the term. Mental-health professionals generally draw a sharp distinction between an attraction to prepubescent children—pedophilia—and sexual interest in older teenagers like the pages and former pages to whom Foley was sending e-mails and IMs.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, pedophilia involves “intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger).” The disorder is one of a number of conditions known as paraphilias, which the APA defines as sexual obsessions or fixations “that generally involve non-human subjects, children, or other non-consenting adults, or the suffering or humiliation of oneself or one’s partner.” Examples of other well-known paraphilias include bestiality, necrophilia, exhibitionism, sadomasochism, and voyeurism. Some therapies that focus on changing cognitive and behavioral patterns are believed to help sufferers of paraphilias control themselves, if they are motivated to do so. But fully overcoming their predilections is a more difficult challenge.
Based on what has been revealed so far, former Rep. Foley seems to suffer from a different condition: ephebophilia, which is defined as a sexual attraction to post-pubescent adolescents and older teenagers. The DSM IV doesn’t include ephebophilia as a diagnostic category. Sexual contact with children is explicitly illegal in all jurisdictions in the United States. But such contact between older teenagers and adults presents a murkier legal picture. The laws on age of consent vary from state to state, and prosecutors have wide latitude to determine whether to charge an individual with a sexual offense.
Many jurisdictions, among them the District of Columbia, have established 16 as the legal age of consent; in other states, that marker is 17 or 18. But D.C.’s age of consent won’t necessarily get Rep. Foley off the hook. For one thing, some of his activities might have taken place in other jurisdictions with different laws, such as Florida, where the age of consent is 18. Moreover, a patchwork of state and federal statutes—including legislation that the congressman helped pass as co-chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children—outline circumstances that can lead to tougher sentencing for an underlying sex crime or amount to punishable offenses in themselves, even if no sex occurred. Depending upon the specific law, such exacerbating circumstances might include enticing youth into sexual behavior via the Internet, engaging in graphic discussions of sexual acts with minors, abusing a position of authority in pursuit of sexual gratification, and plying adolescents with alcohol or drugs. In the Foley case, prosecutors are scrambling to interview pages and reviewing electronic communications to determine what, if any, crimes the former congressman committed and where he might have committed them.