Update, 19 January 2016: In response to some criticisms from friends, I regret that some of what I posted here was triggering for quite a few people. I did not think through what it’s like for people who have been abused to see other people publicly rhapsodising over their abuser’s good qualities, as I did in this article, and as many others have done elsewhere. The points that some people (friends, if you’re reading this and want to be credited please let me know) highlighted to me are:
- Lori Lightning’s agency/consent/enjoyment to her encounter is not mutually exclusive with her grooming and coercion
- This woman is probably not the only underage woman Bowie had sex with; in the climate surrounding his death, it would be very difficult for women who are not okay with his treatment of them to come out. He also contributed to a culture where this sort of behaviour was/is broadly acceptable, and while I’ve heard that in later life he decried it in other members of his band, it still doesn’t redeem what he did. There are plenty of other people who decried this who DIDN’T ever have sex with children; give them massive platforms instead.
- Wanda Nichols, an adult woman, accused Bowie of rape in 1987. It must have been enormously hard to go up against a star of his stature; there are no motives for doing so except wanting justice (if you’re going to say money then I think you’re ignorant of how difficult, traumatic and largely unsuccessful it is to publicly make a rape accusation against anyone). Bowie was cleared by the courts (proving my point before) but this means nothing; as lawyer and twitter queen @moscaddie said: “reasonable doubt is a very important concept, FOR JURORS. in the courtroom of twitter, ur office, or ur wee heart & mind, BELIEVE SURVIVORS”
- Bowie’s glaring whiteness protects him from proper condemnation of his behaviour. This article by a gender/queer Latinx person covers this to some degree. Although the article’s discussion of an anti-carceral state is on-point, I don’t think survivors should have to practice compassion if they don’t want to. Survivors don’t owe people like Bowie shit.
This is a long way of saying that I’m sorry for being less vehement than I should’ve been earlier. I will be deleting any comments that imply that what Bowie did was not so bad or that it was the 70s and this sort of thing was de rigeur back then. The only reason it is a minute fraction less de rigeur now is because people stood up and opposed it; we have to keep doing that now.
CW: discussion of child sexuality, childhood physical and sexual abuse
In the wake of David Bowie’s death, there has been a fair amount of internet discussion about the fact that he had sex with groupie Lori Lightning when she was 13 and he was around 26. Much of the internet has quite understandably been quick to frame this as sexual assault, and Bowie as an abuser. Certainly it is statutory rape, and there are a whole host of ways in which it is possible to say that what Bowie did was wrong. But to tell Lori Lightning that her that age at the time means that she didn’t consent, even though everything she says indicates she did, is exactly the sort of gaslighting that abusers do. This demonstrates the problem with messages about how “kids can’t consent”; while it acknowledges that free and informed consent to certain acts from children is highly unlikely, it denies the agency of children in ways that are harmful when it comes to children’s non-sexual life. This kind of message is used to justify things like hitting your child because they don’t know what’s good for them, and gives license to not listen to children because they have not been acknowledged as fully-formed human beings. It also shows that Western culture has no frameworks to deal with child sexuality; where to acknowledge that child sexuality exists is seen as giving carte blanche for adults—particularly men—to do what they like with children.
This is a terrible dichotomy indeed. Terrible in that it is thoroughly unnecessary; it is possible to believe that 13-yr-old people can consent to sex AND say that adults should absolutely not be having sex with them. The power differential between adults and children is too great; not merely isolated to sex, but in how adults are set up to have total control over children’s lives and wellbeing. In some ways this power differential is necessary, as children do not always have the physical or mental capacity to make healthy decisions for themselves. Power can be and is often exercised for good, but there is a persistent risk and reality that adults will not always use their power solely to benefit the children in their care. It is clear that Lightning consented to and enjoyed her encounter, and in her case that’s all there is to it. In some cases the pleasure of fucking is not merely sexual pleasure from the act but from what it signifies; the euphoria of being wanted by a man of Bowie’s talent and stature must have been intoxicating, and nothing she has said publicly indicates that she regrets the encounter. But Bowie took a phenomenal risk with her wellbeing; committing sexual acts with people that age often causes lifelong trauma and PTSD. Consent is not the only metric to assess whether a sexual encounter has been exploitative or not. Sometimes the exploitation in sexual encounters comes from forces outside of the encounter itself; a significant age gap being one example, the inability of many women to enjoy sex because of patriarchal body issues being another. Rebecca Traister writes:
Contemporary feminism’s shortcomings may lie in not its overradicalization but rather its underradicalization. Because, outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Young feminists have adopted an exuberant, raunchy, confident, righteously unapologetic, slut-walking ideology that sees sex — as long as it’s consensual — as an expression of feminist liberation. The result is a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity. Which means a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish — has gone largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.
Having to hold Bowie’s many wonderful qualities in mind with the fact that he was willing to have sex with a 13-yr-old girl speaks to the dissociative nature of being a woman and engaging with music made by men. To love and admire men like this while knowing that they’re willing to risk massively fucking with your wellbeing; often, in cases like Gary Glitter, that they don’t care when they have massively fucked with your wellbeing as long as they don’t have to hear about it. To love Led Zeppelin and Nick Cave like anyone else and to stretch yourself to try fit into the protagonist’s position, yet be aware in the background of your mind how much this music hates you or sees you as nothing. Realising why “have you heard about the Midnight Rambler” was spraypainted across a wall in a dark part of Brooklyn, Wellington; left up for years even while the council removed tagging that looked less white. To know that these men will not find beauty in the strong, complex, challenging, intelligent nature of adult womanhood, but prefer us at an age where we are more likely to be compliant and naïve, more likely to reflect men at twice their natural size rather than demand mutual reflection. This aspect of Bowie’s character, simultaneously predatory and pathetic, is what disgusts me regardless of Lightning’s feelings herself; that at my age he was more interested in ego flattery from 13-yr-old girls than healthy adult relationships with women. A woman quoted by Shulamith Firestone said that “no man can love a girl the way a girl loves a man”. Indeed, we tend to love our men for what they are, not what they do for us; masculinity operates in the reverse.
As a friend pointed out, none of these post-mortem exposés were made of Lemmy, who not only did the same thing as Bowie but bragged about it in his song Jailbait. This is because of the particular nature of Bowie as an icon; he inspired and helped a lot of queer people and misfits carve out a place for themselves in the world. Bowie is the kind of star who saved people’s lives, who let them know that their weirdnesses were okay and that they were not alone. I loved Bowie for his musical complexity; you can listen to his back catalogue for hours and not get bored because it is so varied and interesting. It is perhaps unfair on men like Lemmy that we do not hold them to higher standards, but we think we know how to react to that straightforward sort of misogyny. The discussion over Bowie represents the struggle of finding out bad things about people we love and not knowing quite how to react. As Aoife wrote at freethoughtblogs: “I’m supposed to call him a monster because of this, and stop feeling sad about his death. I can’t do that. I can call him someone who did a monstrous thing, though.” The exercise of power isn’t all or nothing. Living in patriarchy involves moments of absolute horror with a lot of boredom the rest of the time, and is often mixed in with pleasure in strange and perturbing ways. It doesn’t need to be traumatic to be wrong; I can detail the ways in which men hate me without feeling much emotion, but it’s still a boring and annoying thing to deal with. The demand that women feel constantly outraged or upset about patriarchy is a liberalism that sees outrage as praxis in itself; sometimes we need to conserve our energy so that we can throw bricks when the time comes. Besides, we want to love talented, interesting, witty, beautiful men like Bowie; it is profoundly sad when they make it more difficult for us.
This isn’t much of an obituary. But despite Bowie’s flaws, I’m sad that he’s gone; this is the kind of person whose death would feel surprising and wrong even if he had lived to be a hundred, as he had an aura of immortality about him. I am grateful for the ways in which he made my friends’ lives easier, for being able to shout along to Life On Mars with my best friend, for what he did for queers, and for the way he made bad teeth look endearing. In this rather lovely radio clip Scott Walker, a brilliant musician and one of Bowie’s major influences, called him up on his birthday to thank Bowie for everything he’d done and for his “generosity of spirit when it comes to other artists” which he’d been a beneficiary from himself. I’ll close with this clip of the sweet and awkward young Bowie being interviewed by Russel Harty in 1973, who asks “Do you indulge in any form of worship?” to which Bowie pauses and then replies “Life. I love life very much indeed.”