Around midnight last night, I heard David Bowie had died. My upstairs neighbor texted me about coming up for a mourning drink together, but I was already in bed. What a month we’ve had for losing creators. Complicated creators whose legacies are both brilliant and uneasy.
This morning, I’m learning more about Bowie than I ever expected to know. I never sought out his history or image or stories. I’m one of legions who didn’t have a very deep relationship with Bowie’s music, and yet his artistry touched my life. People are allotting to Bowie as a gender pioneer some credit that is actually due to so many more, like generations of drag queens who have struggled to eke out a living while breaking gender territory wider than Bowie ever did. But it’s also true that the boldness of his vision contributed to all of us having more space for creativity, weirdness, gender fluidity, and brash experimentation. The power of the imagination is probably the greatest gift of humanity. And right down to his last song Lazarus, Bowie had a magic touch for making earwormy songs in a genre that doesn’t usually hold my attention. From the first mixtape a friend made me featuring Space Oddity, to my about-to-become-my-boyfriend’s band covering Ziggy Stardust at the Battle of the Bands in our highschool auditorium (boosting my crush to the next level), to that karaoke experience of being onstage realizing this was the looooong version of Rebel Rebel, to slapping Heroes in the last breakup mix I made… yes, I might not be a superfan, but I do love me some David Bowie (especially as the Goblin King). I’m so grateful for the lifeline he represented for many young freaks, weirdos, queers and gender pirates. I’m sad he died and it feels so sudden and weird, and f* you cancer.
Then this morning I learned that Bowie had committed statutory rape, if not sexual assault. I’d never heard any of this before. I read the account from Lori Mattix, who describes Bowie “devirginizing” her in his hotel room when she was 14 and he was in his mid-20s. I read facebook statuses from friends grappling with how we react when we hear that a much-loved musician was a sexual predator.
How do we react when we hear that someone we love or think is special has harmed people? How do our reaction to celebrities shape the culture in our intimate communities? And how do we determine appropriate sexual mores across power differences?
David Bowie’s passing, and the resurfacing of these stories, is a moment to discuss relinquishing the politics of disposability and purity.
Over the years, I’ve been involved in a number of community responses to sexual assault that has occurred between members of the community. I’ve made decisions about how to navigate where people have felt pressured to hold silence to protect the reputation of prominent male leaders in social justice work (and also how to navigate where people make decisions about public shaming that I did not agree with). I’ve organized support for survivors, and I’ve worked with perpetrators. And in doing so, I’ve learned that it’s generally a false binary that doesn’t serve our longer-term goals to separate people into “survivors” and “perpetrators” as mutually exclusive categories. Those terms may work to describe peoples’ experiences in a particular situation. But it does not serve us to play out a good/bad dichotomy, shaped whether or not we acknowledge it by the underlying Christian ideologies infused into dominant culture. We are not all good, clean innocent people except for bad apple rapists (who were either ‘born bad’ or ‘went bad’ when they did this thing). And it does not usually serve a longterm goal of healthier communities to exile and punish people who have hurt someone.
Exile doesn’t repair harms done, heal what went wrong that allowed that person to inflict harm, and it doesn’t keep safe from repeat offenses anyone outside that immediate circling of the wagons. But even in circles of people who are actively involved in social justice work including challenges to the cancerous growth of policing and prisons, the exile-and-punish reflex is too often the only move people make. And an honest, deep look in the mirror reminds us that we all make mistakes, we all have the potential to seriously harm people, and many of us will create at least some significant hurts. Eventually there will be nobody left in the village, if our only response is to run people out of town.
Chasing damage around mends nothing.
I’m not arguing for a false equivalency that all harms are on the same scale. Nor am I equivocating that 25 year-old Bowie having sex with a 14 year old girl fan is acceptable because, well, we all hurt each other. But David Bowie’s death is bringing up a clear example of where two syndromes intersect: First, we like to put on a pedestal artists, leaders or icons who are major cultural figures, and then when they fuck up we think we must either plug our ears and ignore it (generally at the expense of whoever they hurt), or we need to shove them off that pedestal and reject their contributions. You’re a saint or a sinner. That shifts the focus onto defining someone’s essential nature, and away from the centrality of taking responsibility for your action.
As someone whose community could not handle it when I was sexually assaulted by an ex many years ago, I can empathize with the frustration of people who have tried unsuccessfully to hold accountable people they know. I lost friends, I was told I must be lying, and I had very little support at that time including from female friends who were too scared to believe that if this had really happened to me, it certainly could happen to them (for some of them, their hindsight has been 20/20, but at the time, their skepticism and inability to offer minimal support hurt like blazes). If they believed me, what would that mean about how they should interact with my ex? If they believed me, how could they continue loving and appreciating him? What did it mean about who he really was, and then what did that mean about who they might be or what might happen to them or what they might commit?
Most of them panicked, in different ways. We were young.There was too much to lose, too much discomfort and confusion. If our mutual friends had been able to imagine holding my ex accountable with love and firmness, maybe they could have imagined a path that could have both acknowledged the harm I experienced, made space to push me on where I’d contributed to a toxic relationship dynamic, and also given him the support to really turn and face his fear of what he had done. I can’t imagine how my last 20 years might have been different if the apology he barely managed had been followed by any attempt at all to repair. Long ago I stopped wishing for that for myself, and got my own healing independently. But I want this so much for others.
In retrospect, I have some gentleness and sympathy for my community at that time not having models we could look to, or even a basic understanding that there are ways– approaches, structures, practices– that we could have addressed the harm that had been done. Humans have been experimenting with restorative justice probably for about as long as we’ve been fucking each other over. But my community didn’t, although a few people really came through for me, which helped me save my life.
In my 30s, I tried to call in with love and concern a friend who I love very much for destructive patterns of sexual/romantic behavior. Years before, he had been called to accountability for sexual assault. His experience with honestly trying to fulfill what was asked of him to be accountable for his actions included becoming a target for pent-up rage and frustration at every man who has been unwilling to be accountable for causing sexual harm. Down the road, he was unable or unwilling to show up again when I challenged him on (spoiler alert: he bailed, and eventually we also lost our friendship. Additionally, the proclaimed feminist men who I asked for support all had their reasons why they didn’t think they they would be the best person to have these uncomfortable conversations with our mutual friend). I’ve seen too many versions of this.
When we call someone to account for their harmful behavior, we don’t need to handle them like they’re fragile. But we do need to treat them like they are human and needed. Within communities, we have to get more skilful at how to center the needs of the person who has been harmed without erasing the humanity or need for connection and healing of the person who did the harming. We’ve got to get better at treating people as if none of us are disposable, since that is so much of the internalized poison we’re trying to root out.
So when a famous musician is outed as a sexual predator, what do we do? It’s a different question when that person is in our circles, or if we’re simply responding from a distance to a celebrity. There are lines to be drawn, but I don’t have always clear formula about how and where, although some examples feel simple. I don’t believe in a safe berth for white supremacist bands to play shows, and deeply appreciate the community challenge mounted recently to Death in June’s show at the Elbo Room in San Francisco. I think sexual predators in particular, with patterns of repeat behavior, need to be publicly challenged when they are using a position of social power like being a much-loved musician to get access and influence over people they target. I’ve never questioned why people might change the station when R. Kelly comes on, or Chris Brown (did I already know about their histories of violence because it was more real-time relative to my age and generation, and/or because of the long history of reporting true and false sexual transgressions by Black men while holding silence for white men?) And now that I know the stories, I wouldn’t question people who don’t want to listen to Bowie. We all have gut level decisions about what we don’t want expose ourselves to based on associations with violence.
But the bigger question under all of this is the question of accountability. Mostly, we can set our personal filters to not listen to music made by artists who are fascists, racists, sexual predators, or whatever lines we choose to draw (sadly, if I got hardcore about screening out sexism, I wouldn’t have much music to listen to). We can embrace Bowie’s visionary qualities, love his records, credit his stage personas with having given us reason to live as young queers or gender nonconforming people, as so many brilliant people are noting today– while also assessing that there is no excuse for some of his behaviors. This could be a place to practice holding complexity. I have no judgement of people for whom that doesn’t work, and they find themselves completely turned off to him as an artist based on his behaviors and choices. For me, this moment of finding out about David Bowie’s history is an experience of holding contradictions in my shaking hands: my reaction to hearing gross stories about him, while also feeling sorrow at the hole created by his death.
Whatever those personal choices we make about exposing ourselves to the culture produced by individuals with violence in their track record, I’m more interested in the personal choices we make dealing with people we know. I do not believe we will solve the casual acceptance of sexual predation, let alone epidemics of child sexual assault and abuse, or the overwhelming amount of violence based on sex and gender, with the dominant approach of rooting out predators to lock them up or punish them publicly. That doesn’t address where people are getting these behaviors, why they make those choices, or how to culture change so we are no longer brought up to either prey or shut up and be preyed upon.
People are not disposable. To me that means do not follow the logic of prisons, which says you have done a bad thing, become a bad person, must be taken away from the good people and caged. It means I don’t dispose of people who I love when I find they’ve committed sexual violence. As a survivor, this has meant more heartbreak, because make no mistake, it has sometimes torn my heart into pieces when I’ve chosen to continue holding someone close when I want to shove them away out of outrage, betrayal, frustration and fear. I have at times in my life chosen to be armored rather than vulnerable. That is a respectable and sometimes necessary choice. In those moments, there need to be other people in a community who can come to the front to take a turn working with those of us who are causing harm and need help understanding, acknowledging, making repair.
‘People are not disposable’ also means that we need to better love and protect each other. That means a whole package of how to better support people who have experienced sexual violence, and to take that epidemic seriously, but that’s another piece (or book, or life’s work) entirely. Regarding Bowie, nondisposability includes people in their mid-20s (whether or not they also have social cachet that ups the ante) need to refrain from putting the moves on 14 year olds. Lori Mattix describes her sexual encounters with Bowie as “so beautiful,” and says she doesn’t regret it. We can ascribe intelligence and agency to adolescents, and also hold the adults involved as responsible. I’ve been on different sides of this type of situation. I’ve done a lot of dating older people, including a year-long relationship with a 22/23 year old when I was 15/16. I think at the time I wanted to believe that I was exceptionally mature– that I was special. I do still think that most aspects of our relationship were much healthier than our age difference might imply. We built more emotional than sexual intimacy, and tried to be intentionally careful about the age difference. But in retrospect I’ll understand I wasn’t actually so exceptional or precocious. Was I a “victim”? No. Did I make the wrong choice? I don’t think so.
So, while I don’t jump to automatic judgment about age differences, in the specific situation Lori Mattix describes I can’t see Bowie as anything other than a predator indulging himself with a willing, barely high school aged girl. What’s even more disturbing to me is learning more about the widespread celebration of the culture that included “baby groupies.” I’m hearing a lot about how “it was a different time,” different mores, different things were acceptable. I’m sure it was. Lots of things have been deemed culturally acceptable at different times, and that doesn’t let people off the hook for participating or supporting harm. I learned last night about Bowie’s flirtation with Nazi imagery (which it seems like he renounced and then went on to actively advocate against institutional racism in the music industry). I hope we’re clear that many ideologies and practices may enjoy periods of popular acclaim without ever having been morally appropriate.
I also did some hanging out with rock stars as a teenager. A few times I kissed some of them. I also drew the line (and had to enforce it) there, because I was not interested in the sexual encounters that Lori Mattix was. It was a very minor part of my experience as a someone who was avidly involved in music in many ways. Even at the time, I felt the uneasy undertone that there was something weird about them even trying to kiss me, let alone get grabby. Even when I needed to assert my independence, my agency, and wanted to feel like I was older than I was, I felt the way I feel now- that is inappropriate on the part of the older men involved. And the aspects of broader culture that would make someone like William Tucker, who was precisely twice my age when I was 15 at a show he played in Philadelphia, think that grabbing teenage girls’ faces on stage was somehow not only acceptable but would add rather than subtract from his social cachet.
When I hear that many peoples’ reaction right now is to slut-shame Mattix and the other self-proclaimed “baby groupies,” I need to check myself that I have also done that.
I am arguing that it’s a dodge to focus this on the girls. Regardless of what Lori Mattix felt like she wanted in 1971 when she was 14, I’m judging Bowie and these other rocker dudes, not her. (FWIW, it was only ever male musicians who put the moves on me and every other former teenage girl I know)
There are many parallel dynamics in activist movements. Too often, it’s been older male leaders with a particular way they carry themselves in the world which is often labeled “charismatic” (I’ve seen a lot of other kinds of leadership styles I’d describe as charismatic, but there is a certain version of it that we all have seen get attached to particular men). And too often, the end results are younger female-socialized activists being overtly or indirectly edged out of movement work when their sexual relationship with this older man changes or ends. I’m so sick of watching this I could puke. And even with the sometimes less costly situations of the men who keep dating the same age women as they grow older. While I fully believe in the possible awesomeness, agency, maturity to fully consent (in ways a 14 year old is not developmentally ready to do), and compelling qualities of many female-socialized people in their mid-20s, I question what is going on internally for men who prefer to date at half their own age.
P.S.: I asked my source on 13 year old girls whether she thinks it’s ever possible for sex to be ok between a 13 year old girl and a man in his 20s. Her answer is a flat no. She says, being that age herself, she thinks the different between what those two people know and understand is too big a gap and the adult should know better. She didn’t describe the power dynamics of roles in the same way, which I’m still chewing on. Maybe she’ll want to chime in here in the comments section.
The gray area here isn’t whether or not it was appropriate given that Lori Mattix said she consented. It was Bowie’s responsibility not to call her into his bedroom. The grayest areas, in my experience, are about accountability when not everyone involved thinks the situation was a problem, but some of the participants were significantly negatively impacted.
I’m not suggesting there is a magic algebra for accountability, in which all variables can be assigned some universal value and then it can be solved for what to do. But I do know that if we can’t get better at handling intimate violence, sexual assault, and child abuse in our own communities, families and social justice movements, that we are not ready for transformation on a societal level. And we desperately need that transformation. Which means we have no choice but to practice holding this complexity, and acting from that place.
We are trying to do for ourselves wherever possible, rather than calling cops or courts (whose most reliable role is to escalate the level of danger in any situation involving people of color, undocumented people, and/or queer or trans people). We are trying to learn to build real community safety and are still getting stuck on this most fundamental place, where we want to sort out the bad people from the good, the perpetrators from the survivors, those who get to stay and those who have to leave. We’ve got to up our game because when communities come together, bump into each other, there’s a lot more conflicting desires and violence. There’s going to be guns, people trying to run each other out with ideas of who belongs and who is a liability, and the kind of territoriality than lives in our lizard brains when there’s not enough room at the waterhole for everyone. So in the meantime, we got to learn to deal with ourselves and each other when we do some rank business. And yes, don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sad not just that David Bowie is suddenly dead, but that of all the legacies he left, the one I’m up all night writing about is statutory rape.
Some transformative justice resources I love:
And an article by Aida Manduley I really appreciated on this subject: David Bowie: Time to Mourn or Call out? A
The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time. -David Bowie