This article originally appeared on the blog, Kylvia Wrath, written by Stephanie Lane Sutton, and is reprinted with permission.
After reading Lori Mattix’s account of her relationships with David Bowie, Jimmy Page, and Mick Jagger, there is no doubt in my mind that she and her female peers were abused and exploited by these singer/songwriters, who have been idolized for decades. But one of the more difficult aspects of this scenario for me is the fact that Mattix maintains she was not exploited, that the relationships were consensual. When asked whether or not she felt abused, she firmly denies it. “I have always been special,” she adds. “I feel like I was protected rather than exploited.”
Like too many others, I did not find out about David Bowie’s history of sexual predation until the day he died. As a rule of my advocacy against sexual assault, I believe it is crucial for survivors to be centered. In order to heal, sexual assault victims must have agency over their bodies and their stories. They should be believed. They should be validated. They should be supported in achieving justice in whatever form they desire (which most often does not include legality).
How can I center a survivor who does not subscribe to my definition of assault, and actually feels that their sexual experiences were healing and validating, rather than exploitative?
In the week since Bowie’s passing, I’ve watched this very question play out in print. Countless think pieces and social media rants have centered and dissected Mattix’s story in ways that delegitimize her perspective and incidentally revoke her agency in an effort to hold Bowie accountable. Those of us who are literate in the sphere of social justice have struggled to fit this narrative with what we previously believed about sexual assault. It does not help that many of us idolized Bowie, particularly for his queerness, which has inspired many LGBTQ individuals with a sense of visibility.
Make no mistake: we cannot reduce Mattix’s experience to a difference in culture with the same nostalgia we use to talk about letting our kids run to the corner store to buy milk for a quarter. David Bowie and his peers could have had sexual rampages with women who were not freshmen in high school. The reason they didn’t has to do with the manifestation of power and impunity through surreal amounts of white male privilege in combination with status and wealth. Their success relied on their teenage audience, and therefore the romanticizing of their predatory behavior. Further, the systematic advantages that enabled David Bowie also allow us to know everything about the allegations against Bill Cosby while Stephen Collins fades into obscurity.
My complicated feelings about Mattix & Bowie come from my desire to empower the bodily autonomy of young women while living in a world that constantly exploits their sexuality. When David Bowie engaged in sex with numerous teenage girls, there was an inarguable power imbalance. It’s obvious that Bowie’s stature and privilege enabled him to act this way, and we know that his behavior was protected by cultural norms, because tons of other white male rockstars were doing the exact same thing. But this culture is the stated reason why his Mattix gave consent: “You need to understand that I didn’t think of myself as underage. I was a model. I was in love.”
Teenagers are neither children nor adults, and when they can’t fit into either category, that makes things like “consent” very tricky. Statutory rape laws (and most of the laws designed around sexual assault) do not exist to protect underage victims but to prosecute offenders. Teenagers have the biological means (and “drive” so to speak) to reproduce, but they are also not fully cognitively developed the way adults are. These parameters are not rightfully defined or enforced by law; you don’t immediately become a fully developed human and member of society on your 18th birthday. And yet our moral impulse is to draw a difference between consent and statutory rape based on this law.
At the same time, teenagers are also not usually empowered or protected by our culture or laws; many are trapped in abusive homes because they don’t have the human right to emancipation, work secretly in below regulation conditions outside of labor laws, get murdered by police for being insubordinate, are forced through an education system which is an extension of the prison industrial complex. Many teenage girls give consent to men of Bowie’s age because the men have a car, access to drugs/alcohol, or other types of power that manifest in more every day ways. These relationships feel empowering to teens as they gain access to that power by proxy. But these relationships are an uncomfortably common manifestation of heterosexual intimacy that continue after the statue of limitations. It is what gender roles are designed to systematically perpetuate.
When I look back on my own teenage years — which were difficult, and a time of frequent victimization, as they are for many — I remember feeling violated by adults all the time. And yet sometimes I felt most free when I was also prey. This sentiment is something I’ve heard expressed by nearly every teenage girl I’ve befriended, mentored, or advocated for. This dichotomy is a very real thing that gets rationalized away when we talk about statutory rape: there is a difference between David Bowie and the uncle/teacher/celebrity who drugs and coerces you. And there is a culture of white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy that constructs sexual desires as a power struggle rather than a form of intimacy. That culture is damaging and predatory, but that culture also exists outside of the spectrum we of sexual relationships. There are plenty of relationships that we would consider healthy and consensual that rely on this same power.
Can we hold Bowie accountable while legitimizing Mattix’s words, her story, her feelings? I think we can. It means really taking a hard look at our activism and accountability structures, as well as our morals. We rarely have the right equipment to dismantle rape culture, it is perhaps the time to move away from absolutes that basically function as chants at street protests (“no means no, yes means yes”). Would David Bowie have been able to commit this act of sexual predation if his would-be victim felt equal to him in every sense? Would it still be sexual predation if that equality existed? Can we allow teenage girls to exercise the autonomy they deserve, while still protecting them in a culture designed to privilege the sexual desires of adult white men? What parts of this really have to do with culture, and what parts have to do with systematic exploitation and oppression?
I desire to hold Bowie accountable as a sexual predator, even if it means asking more questions than having answers–even if it means he has escaped that accountability in so many ways through his death. And I desire to empower and heal young women who are disadvantaged from a system of exploitation. Even if they seem contradictory, we must center both these intentions in order to truly dismantle rape culture.[Feature Image: A close-up photograph of a person’s hazel-colored eye. Underneath the eye is gold glitter. ]