Some Complex Thoughts On David Bowie And Consent

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I was never a David Bowie fan – but one of the strange pleasures of a great man dying is that you get introduced to him again all over.  My Twitter-feed lit up with all of the wonderful things David Bowie did, from performing at the Berlin Wall to calling MTV out on not playing black artists to pointing out his best music to me…
…and to having sex with a fifteen-year-old girl in what’s undeniably a case of statutory rape.
Now, it’s been widely reported that the girl in question was thirteen when Bowie had sex with her – a claim my friend Bart Calendar, a former rock journalist, has thoroughly debunked.  (Short version: Lori Maddox was American and born in November of 1958 and had sex with Bowie on his second tour in America in September 1974.  The age of thirteen may have been given by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, who is not necessarily a treasure trove of accurate information.)
(EDIT: The dates I gave initially were incorrect, and have been explained in greater depth here.)
If you believe those facts are wrong, I encourage you to go over to Bart’s journal and argue with him; I admit I’m not familiar with Bowie.  But Bart’s been unerringly correct on rock and roll trivia for the decade I’ve known him, so I have no reason to dispute his version of events here.  If you want to discuss that, go argue with the man who could change my mind, not me.
Still, “She was fifteen” isn’t much of a defense.  That’s still three years under the legal age limit where the sex act took place, and in any case a man in his mid-twenties having sex with a teenager is at best kinda skeezy. It’s illegal, and it’s creeptastic.
So given that I’m notably big on consent, you’d think that I’d be calling in SJW airstrikes on Bowie’s legacy right now – as, in fact, many people are doing.  Bowie undeniably violated consent by having sex with someone too young to legally give consent.
Yet years later, in her mid-fifties, as a fully grown woman, she’s still happy with the decision.
And I think of the first time I ever made out with a girl.  I was blackout drunk – the only reason I had vague memories of the act the next day was because she left my neck ringed with hickies.  I know I didn’t initiate, because back then it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that a girl would like me.
That girl did sexual things with me when I was legally and morally unable to give consent.
Yet when I woke to discover those murky hangover dreams I’d had were real, I pumped the fist.  We dated that whole summer.  She took my virginity.  I still think of her fondly.
Now, that starts to seem like a fond argument for date rape – “Why, I had this wonderful experience while I was blackout drunk, so initiating sex with unconscious people is a good thing!” And I’m not gonna let people go down that path.  So let me be very clear here:
Having sex with people who are unable to give consent is bad, and you should never do it.  Much of “having people unable to give consent” is illegal – as was the case with David Bowie and his fifteen-year-old lover.  And when it’s not flat-out illegal, making the move on someone who’s too drunk to move, as I was, is skeezetastic.
The reason for that is because bad outcomes happen frequently when someone breaks someone else’s consent.  Yes, I am happy that I was taken advantage of by my first girlfriend – but there’s a lot of date-raped people, both men and women, who were traumatized by being fucked when they had little choice in the matter.  A lot of fifteen-year-old girls were pressured into unwanted sex by predators who’d honed their act simply because they knew teenagers were easier prey.
Consent matters, and for a good reason.
Yet in the rush to perpetuate the (very good) idea of consent, I think people often come to fetishize consent – coming to believe that breaking consent automatically equals horrific outcomes.  If David Bowie broke consent, then he must be an Evil Man.  If my girlfriend gave me highly visible hickies when I was all but passed out, she must be an Evil Woman.
Yet what we forget is that the ultimate judgment of consent has to be, “Was the person happy with what happened?”  And Lorrie Maddox, who still loves Bowie after all these years, clearly is.  And while I disagree with some of Bart’s post, this statement stood out strongly:
“If we want to create a society where women are given the benefit of the doubt and believe them when they say they are raped, the flip side of that is giving them the benefit of the doubt and believing them when they say they were not raped.”
The fact is, “consent” is merely a best practices, and not a guarantee of good results.  As someone who goes to kink conventions where consent-friendly BDSM is firmly in effect, I have seen very intense scenes where consent was practiced as thoroughly as possible every step of the way and yet the participants still wound up traumatized.  I’ve also seen, like me, people who’ve made sexual decisions while blind drunk that they were super-happy with.
Good consent does not guarantee good outcome.  Bad consent does not guarantee bad outcome.
Which is why ultimately, the gold standard of consent has to be “People were satisfied.”  And life’s frequently messy, and it’s not fun to say “This was executed hazardously, and could have hurt people, but things turned out well,” but…
It happens.
And if someone’s happy with the outcome, years later, when they’ve had literally a lifetime to consider it, we should respect that.
Which isn’t to say these acts of breaking consent shouldn’t be illegal, or roundly criticized. They should be. Sure, maybe someone drove home drunk without killing anyone, but that doesn’t make drunk driving an awesome thing to do.  Drunk driving is illegal not because every drunk driver kills a person, but because their risk of hurting someone goes way up. It’s too dangerous to chance.
And I think that life is, also, too messy to label people Good or Evil.  David Bowie clearly lucked out with this one woman, but who knows what else he did?  Maybe new allegations will surface in the wake of his death.  Maybe we’ll find out he did some pretty scummy things.  Then again, I think every celebrity did scummy things because every human does scummy things, and I think it’s very rare that one evil act obliterates all the good they did in their life, just as I think it’s very rare that one good act obliterates all the evil they did.
(Your mileage may vary. I acknowledge that. I allow for it.)
David Bowie’s not my hero, as mentioned.  But I think in this one widely-touted case, he made a mistake that turned out all right.  And it’s okay to live with that unsettling paradox that he did a bad thing warring with but it turned out all right without having to justify the act as something we should laud.
Every hero has a few sins. And while I suspect David Bowie fucked a lot of underaged girls on his tours, I also suspect most of them were okay with the decision – as opposed to, say, Bill Cosby, whose victims were clearly unhappy with the outcome.
In the end, I think it’s good to promote models of consent.  And it’s good to call out people who violate models of consent.  But if we get so caught up on the model that we actively ignore people saying, “No, wait, this was actually a positive event in my life” after they’ve had literally decades to ponder its effect, then I think we’ve abandoned some essential principle of humanity in the pursuit of an ideal.
Life’s messy.  Sometimes things go okay when they shouldn’t have.
We should be able to sit quietly with those moments without abandoning the pursuit of a better world.
 

8 Comments

  1. Twily
    Jan 13, 2016

    Thank you so much for tackling this, Ferrett. I considered doing so myself, but I’ve never been able to churn out content consistently enough to develop a readership, so, as per usual, I’d have been shouting into a void. I appreciate both the usual rational approach you bring to the content, and the fact that you raise something of an unpopular opinion that I STRONGLY agree with.
    Personal experience says that the age of consent is too damn high. Is 15 maybe too young? Maybe. But at 17, still a year shy of majority, still young enough that my folks evidently could’ve pressed charges had I lived where Maddox did, I dated a man 17 years my senior. I was a year shy of the age of consent in her state, just as she would have been in mine. It was, perhaps, not the BEST of judgments, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want people reclassifying my consenting relations with my ex-partner as rape after the fact. Hell, I got into fights with people I love about it at the time. The only regret I have about that relationship was its messy ending.
    Granted, the context is different as my artist was a much more local celebrity, but on the whole, the age gap was larger and, more importantly, NEITHER OF US (here meaning Maddox or myself) CONSIDER OURSELVES TO HAVE BEEN RAPED. I *have* been raped, and I don’t appreciate the suggestion that someone else gets to conflate the violation of my trust, consent, and person with the willful violation of arbitrarily set laws.
    Mind, this is not to say I don’t believe such laws should be in place at all. Had either Maddox or I been a victim of a predator, I would be glad that those laws exist to ensure the book would be thrown at him. We were willing participants in our exploits. It’s been mentioned REPEATEDLY that she looks back fondly on it, even as an adult woman. Let us define our experiences, please. Even if we weren’t at the time, we’re grown-ass women now. We are quite capable of sorting out our own feelings, and if we’re not, that’s what counseling is for, NOT the internet.

    • lollimom
      Jan 13, 2016

      Thank you. As both a survivor of rape and a woman who as a young woman excitedly chose to have sex with a man on the other side of legal. My parents threatened him with statutory rape(mostly my mother who knew the word rape would incense my father). He was and remains my first love, I wasn’t manipulated or coerced in any fashion. I was 15. He was 19. I took ownership of my body and had sex based on my desires.

  2. lollimom
    Jan 13, 2016

    This has really challenged me as I’m quick to get knee deep in Cosby’s bullshit…but I read her account and remember that in many states at the time 12 was the age of consent. I’m also disturbed by the fact “statutory rape” is not about the victim’s consent or right of refusal; as much as their value as their father’s “chaste property”. This whole argument says she has No right to her own body, and shouldn’t make decisions for herself about it. For 40 years we’ve argued that teen girls some younger than Lorrie Maddox can choose birth control methods, abortion, or childbirth all without their parents knowledge or consent…and still think they cannot CHOOSE to have sex based on their desires. So, they’re competent to choose the means of addressing the result of sex…just not the actual sex itself.
    Lastly, 1973 was a different time…and in no way is “groupie culture” remotely similar to Bill Cosby drugging his victims through lies and deception.

    • Ruadhán
      Jan 14, 2016

      Absolutely.
      I’m not even a woman, and I recognise that “statutory rape” is not about actual consent so much as it’s about treating young people, especially young women, as chattel of their parents. The fact that it’s so selectively enforced, based on gender, speaks volumes to this effect. Hell, there was no such thing as am age of consent for young men until the 80s, in most places, so the message is clear: girls are property, boys are real people.
      And yes, it’s COMPLETELY borked that many of the people decrying Bowie as some kind of Cosby-calibre rapist because Ms Maddox was 15, are often the same people who will argue that a fifteen-year-old should be able to choose birth control methods without needing parental consent. They’re the same people who will advocate listening to and giving the benefit of the doubt to women who say that they WERE raped, but will fetishise blatantly arbitrary laws to tell a woman who is very happy with her experience that she was somehow “raped” because her consent didn’t actually exist until her birthday a few months later. Their message is loud and clear: A woman’s body is het own, except when it belongs to people with a point to make, an agenda to push, or something to gain from removing a woman’s agency from her own life events.
      It really strikes me as one of the most insideous forms of misogyny that the social justice activists are always talking about being ingrained into society, and this form is so insideous that even *they* don’t even realise when it’s happening.

    • Daleth
      Jan 14, 2016

      I’m also disturbed by the fact “statutory rape” is not about the victim’s consent or right of refusal; as much as their value as their father’s “chaste property”. This whole argument says she has No right to her own body, and shouldn’t make decisions for herself about it.
      YES! Exactly!
      An age of consent that makes most American high school students into rapists or rape victims–or often, both at the same time because their partner was underaged too–is ridiculous. And it’s also WRONG for the reason you point out: because it deprives people of agency, it deprives young women (it’s mostly young women whose “statutory rapists” get prosecuted) of the right to make decisions about their own bodies.
      To my mind the only valid uses of statutory rape laws are (1) to prosecute people who have sex with actual children (people who are physically still children, IOW haven’t gone through puberty yet), and (2) to prosecute actual rapes where the victim was through puberty but still underage, and it would be difficult to get a conviction otherwise–for instance, cases where some scumbag got a teenager drunk in order to rape him or her, or coerced/threatened/groomed him or her, etc., but the only evidence was he said/she said. Young people ARE more vulnerable to that than older ones because they don’t have much life experience, so sure, it makes sense for there to be laws to protect them.
      In other words, sure, go ahead and use statutory rape laws to prosecute Roman Polanski, since he lured a 13-year-old girl to his house who thought he might help her become an actress, and then drugged and sodomized her against her will. And go ahead, prosecute people like the guy in Nabakov’s “Lolita,” who married a woman in order to get access to her 12-13yo daughter and then groomed her to accept his abuse. But to prosecute someone like Bowie, who was enthusiastically approached by a 15-year-old who very much wanted to have sex with him and very much enjoyed it?! To me that seems completely disrespectful of her agency.
      Just as a thought experiment, consider this: if Bowie had wanted to marry Lori Mattix, he could have. At most, the state might require Lori to get her mom’s approval of the wedding–and given how supportive her mom was of Lori’s relationship with Jimmy Page, which also happened when she was 15-16, she may well have approved! Now bingo, the sex is perfectly legal. WTF? A 15yo can consent to sex as long as she gets hitched first, but not otherwise?! That’s nuts.
      And what’s even crazier is this: in the 1970s California did not recognize the crime of marital rape. Most states didn’t recognize marital rape until at least the 1990s. In other words if Lori had, at age 15, gotten married, her husband could have ACTUALLY raped her and even sexually tortured her every single day without ever committing a crime. These days we all know that is just WRONG… we all know a guy like that is a rapist, even though the law said he wasn’t. So why don’t we all ALSO know that Bowie was, according to Lori, absolutely not a rapist… even though the law at the time said he was?

  3. Catherine
    Jan 14, 2016

    Just to nitpick: if her birthday was November 1958 and she slept with Bowie in March 1973, she was not yet 15 (she was 14 and 4 months). She would only turn 15 later that year, in November. This is consistent with her starting to date Jimmy Page at age 14 and have that be after she slept with Bowie.

    • TheFerrett
      Jan 14, 2016

      Yeah, Bart admits he dropped the ball on that – giving the wrong dates. I’ve edited, and added a link to Bart’s explanation of the timeline. Short version: She was fifteen. Not that this is significantly better.

  4. emoo
    Jan 14, 2016

    I am really pleased that I’m not the only one with these thoughts. I wrote largely the same comment here. http://emoo.kinja.com/goblin-king-god-of-rock-rapist-1752806903

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