David Bowie: Musical Genius, Gender-Bending Icon, Alleged Perpetrator of Sexual Violence
Trigger warning: rape, childhood sexual abuse
I personally never got into David Bowie, but that’s probably because I never really tried to. But there’s no denying that the man was an icon, a rule breaker, and a musical genius. He was wonderfully weird, openly bisexual, and eschewed gender norms. He opened doors for millions of kids to be queer, to be freaks, to be themselves. His music changed lives and inspired a generation. He was an artist in every sense of the word.
He also is said to have had sex with (read: raped) girls young enough to be in junior high school, and at least one rape allegation against him. He is, like so many of your faves, problematic. It is not uncommon or unheard of for older men with fame and power to use that to exploit young girls hungry for love and acceptance. It’s also not uncommon for people to sweep this reality under the rug because they don’t want to admit that someone they admire is capable of doing these things.
But David Bowie did this, if Lori Maddox is to believed (and i choose to believe her). He “took Lori Maddox’s virginity” — as she puts it— when she was just 14 years old (I have also heard this number be 13 or 15. Either way, nothing changes). Regardless of how she views the encounter (and, to her, it was consensual and she remembers it fondly), the fact of the matter is that legally and emotionally, a 14-year-old girl cannot consent to an adult man, particularly an adult man with rock star status who provides alcohol and drugs. That same night, according to Maddox, he had a threesome with 14-year-old Maddox and 15-year-old Sable Starr. No matter how you spin it — and I want to be clear that these women are entitled to their own personal narratives — even if they could not and did not know better, he should have. Regardless of what the details of the story are, statutory rape is illegal and it was illegal in 1970, too.
He must come down off of this uncritical pedestal. It’s important to see people, including our heroes, as they are and as they were. It’s also true that this is complicated. But we must be capable of holding the whole, messy truth: that he was groundbreaking and influential, and also abused his power and hurt people.
This reality is in no way meant to take away from what his music meant to people, but to hold up victims and not celebrate people who abuse women. You are entitled to mourn someone who meant a lot to you, just like I am entitled to lift up survivors. In doing so, it’s a way for us to tell women who have been hurt by him (and survivors everywhere), who may be struggling today, that we see them and we believe them. Because when you celebrate or excuse rapists, you tell people like me that I don’t matter; you tell all survivors that they don’t matter. You tell survivors that their rapists matter more because of what they contributed to the world, regardless of what they took from them.
If we hope the change the future for women and girls (and anyone else who is targeted by sexual predators), we have to start by being honest about the past. Bowie was a musical genius, yes. But he was also a perpetrator of sexual violence, and both those realities can — and do — coexist.