Remembering Bowie: The Man, The Legend, The Sexual Abuser

David Bowie helped thousands of weirdos and freaks learn to love their authentic selves. He was a musical genius and cultural icon. He was also a man accused of rape and statutory rape, and whose sexual crimes were brushed beneath the mantle of his fame.

Bowie, like all of us, was complicated and nuanced. Bowie, unlike all of us, was accused of committing sex crimes. As the world mourns his death today, there’s been nothing nuanced about it. It’s all Bowie, all the time, with only the tiniest stones allowed to ripple the smooth surface of his legacy.

When I read the news this morning, I asked my editor at another feminist publication how she felt about exploring the nuance — the other side of Bowie that has been lacking from the media coverage. She told me to wait awhile and let the mourners mourn. His fans are often members of marginalized communities, and they may be triggered by his death.

It’s not triggering, I suppose, for the millions of rape and sexual victims to watch Bowie be venerated as an icon when we know he was an abuser, too. It’s best if we sit quietly until the world is ready to hear our voices, even though the rape allegations against him first surfaced in 1987. We are used to rape culture, and we are expected to know our place.

I was 14 years old when I learned that my grandfather had sexually abused my mother and most of her sisters. Until that day, I adored my grandfather. He never harmed me, but I still knew that what he did was wrong. I didn’t care how old he was or how long ago he did it; he was an abuser and I wanted nothing to do with him.

At first, my mother was proud of me. I was one of the only cousins who spoke out; the rest of them didn’t want to get involved. But as time wore on, and my grandfather neared death, my mother lost the stomach for the truth. She told me to let it go, to sit quietly beside him at Christmas dinners, and to mourn him when he died. He was an old man by then, and it was easier for everyone when I shut up and allowed them to remember the good.

The good was just as real as the bad, but somehow the bad was never allowed the room to be real. No one wanted to accept that their father or grandfather was a sexual abuser, or even that such horrific things had happened in our family. Those kinds of things are supposed to happen to other families, or to be inflicted by strangers in white vans bearing promises of puppies and candy. The truth was spoken and believed, but it slowly disappeared under the weight of denial. It was a long time ago, after all.

The truth is that my grandfather and Bowie were both complicated and nuanced. They had friends and family who adored them, and Bowie managed to inspire a generation of outsiders to be and even love themselves. Both men may have been victims themselves, but both men became victimizers too — and there is no room for victimizers among our cultural icons. The world may have been different in 1967 and 1987, but rape and sexual assault weren’t okay then and they aren’t okay today.

Bowie may have transformed pop culture, but his work cannot stand apart from its creator. It may feel worse to reject his music than it does to mourn his death, but no amount of talent transcends rape and sexual assault. He does not get a pass because his lyrics and persona made you feel good.

As Bowie reminds us, abusers do not look or act a certain way. They aren’t pure evil. They aren’t monsters. They are men and women, and everything in between, and sometimes they are the ones we love. When we tell ourselves that we need to overlook rape and sexual assault, just this once — because it was a long time ago and he did so much good and meant so much to so many — we become part and parcel of the rape culture we otherwise decry. The marginalized communities who embraced Bowie’s music are better than that, and we owe them and ourselves more than that.

Applaud Bowie’s music, if you must, but allow the man the treatment he deserves.


“The Rapist David Bowie”
A sonnet by Margaret Corvid

Dirty his name? The dirt was always there,
just carried under nails of struggling girls,
in rucksacks, tossed in cupboards, hidden, curled
in elbows, tucked between their hats and hair.

The dirt was always there, beneath the shine,
between the lines we thought we understood,
in laurel leaves we garland round the good,
in all his songs, in he who smashed the lines

of gender, art. He built a ship to space,

carried his love and dirt up to the moon.
I will not mourn. The tears will happen, soon,
but not for him. His magic, goblin face

is scarred with stolen hope: the fear of youth.
Gather his dirt; inter him with our truth.


For an additional reflection on Bowie and his legacy, click here.

Lead image: flickr/Juan Pablo Mejia

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