When the news broke in October that since-forced-to-resign Republican Rep. Mark Foley had been sending sexually explicit e-mails to 17-year-old male congressional pages, the reaction from our friends the Democrats consisted of outrage and calls not just for Foley’s head but those of the entire congressional leadership. Vide Daily Kos

“I was just shocked by what I found. I am especially upset by the dismissive attitudes I found on the web from those who know about Congressman Foley’s bad behavior in Washington.”

I agreed with Kos. I was shocked, too, and I was dismayed by efforts by some conservatives to excuse Foley’s conduct by pointing out that Gerry Studds, the late openly gay Democratic congressman, had traveled to Europe with a 17-year-old page and received nothing more severe than a censure from his fellow Dems. Sorry, but Foley was a bad apple, and what he did (along with what Studds did) was shameful, a violation of his professional obligation to job subordinates and also the trust that parents of minor teen-agers place in Congress when they send their children to Washington to serve.

But now it appears that the outrage of liberals over sexual overtures to minor teen-agers is highly selective. When a conservative does it, it’s unspeakably shocking. When a liberal does it, it’s, um, OK. It’s–and I quote–a matter of “precocious adolescents,…the adults who desire them, and…the relationships that result when these two volatile elements combine.”

That’s Philip Kennicott, Washington Post arts critic and Bush administration arch-foe, writing about “The History Boys,” the arty anti-Margaret Thatcher  (but of course) silm from Britain, made from a play by Alan Bennett) about the oh-so-lovable but serially groping prep-school history teacher who comes a cropper Thatcher becomes prime iminister and the school starts expecting him to teach some history rather than the art of fondling students while they are riding captive on the back of your motorcyle. Believe it or not, Mr. Let Me Feel Your Chips is supposed to be the hero of this film rather than a candidate for abrupt dismissal and a lengthy prison term.

But hey–anything in the service of dissing Margaret Thatcher is just fine with Philip Kennicott:

“The scandal and the play both focus attention on that fraught period of late adolescence, when teenagers are sexually aware, often sexually active, but not yet fully enfranchised members of society.

“The scandal and the play also force consideration of a question perhaps more troubling in American society than British society: How to deal with precocious adolescents, with adults who desire them, and with the relationships that result when these two volatile elements combine?

“Bennett stacks the deck mostly but not entirely in the favor of [history teacher] Hector, who is charismatic, witty and erudite. Hector’s also taking liberties — reaching back for the occasional grope while driving a boy on his motorcycle — that the boys have come to accept as one of their teacher’s eccentricities. The boys don’t particularly enjoy it and they casually banter about what they consider Hector’s pathetic personal life. But they also love him, and not only do they dutifully submit to the groping, in the end, they defend Hector when outside (and more puritanical) forces threaten his cozy relationship with them….

“That acceptance of a gray area about sexuality involving late adolescents is all but impossible in this country, where the sexual predator has become an absolute category, a universal figure for evil and nightly fodder for pursuit and punishment on programs such as “Law and Order: SVU.” The collective response from society — concerned that sexual abuse is being ignored — is a vigilance so strict that there is no room for exceptions of any sort, even if the abused are all-but adults and don’t feel particularly victimized.”

And there’s this:

“Bennett, in an interview in an English newspaper, said (of the sexual encounters between Hector and his students): ‘I think I’ve been criticized for not taking this seriously enough. I’m afraid I don’t take that very seriously if they’re 17 or 18.'”

In other words, liberals think the sexual manhandling of teen-agers by adults in positions of power over them is just fine, as long as the boys are  “sexually precocious” (whatever that means)–and if you happen not to agree, why you’re just a puritanical American who can’t handle the nuances of man-boy love! There’s an exception, of course, if the perp happens to be a Republican–and remember that Foley, disgusting as his behavior was, did nothing more than drool over the internet at his young finds.

Kennicott, by the way, is outraged at the wildly popular “To Catch a Predator,” not only because it uses adults posing as children to catch online molesters (we’re supposed to sit back and wait for these creeps to bother our children before we do anything about them) but also because it doesn’t buy into that that Euro-sophisticated approach to adult-teen sex that we puritanical Americans just don’t get:

“The American drama of sexual abuse, played out almost weekly in hysterical terms on ‘To Catch a Predator,’ has very little room for the larger continuum of the sexual interactions between adults and youth suggested by Bennett’s play. NBC’s popular but scabrous program, in which adults impersonate highly sexualized children in order to entrap other adults into sexual encounters, eliminates any actual children or youth from the equation.”

The “larger contiuum of the sexual interactions between adults and youth.” The Washington Post–a family newspaper.