David Bowie died on January 10, 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of Blackstar, his 25th album. The news came meteorically; we were dazed and flattened, looking at the world through debris and glitter that suddenly it seemed we’d borrowed from him. Lady Gaga paid extended, exhaustive tribute to him at the Grammys on Monday night; in the week following his death, there was a second line for him in New Orleans, a shrine outside his apartment in Tribeca, a series of farewells from his musical echelon, a million Instagrams, a segment on SNL. Bowie was that rare thing, a revolutionary who was also near-universally beloved. He gave off an uncanny combination of generosity and brilliance, in which he seemed to give everything to and ask nothing of the people who idolized him—except for, I guess, the bodies of the young teenage girls he fucked.
Word choice is hard here. Should we say “raped” automatically if a grown man has sex with a teenager? Does it matter at all if the 15-year-old, now much older, describes their encounter as one of the best nights of her life? What is our word for a “yes” given on a plane that’s almost vertically unequal? Does contemporary morality dictate that we trust a young woman when she says she consented freely, or believe that she couldn’t have, no matter what she says?
These questions became prominent on the day of Bowie’s death, which was—as with all celebrity deaths now—a day in which people all over the internet tried to marry a dead celebrity to something which is important to them, which is easy enough to ignore when that something is a brand of novelty koozies (“Jezebel, today we celebrate individuality”) or Twitter stances about how grief is best packaged for public consumption (“badly,” seems to be what people say), but impossible to ignore when the thing is present-day decency and David Bowie violated it, likely night after night.
The story widely recirculated after Bowie’s death was that he’d had sex with a 13-year-old, specifically the famous “child groupie” Lori Maddox (who was, by her account, 15 at the time of the encounter, and told Thrillist her story last fall). As the piece recirculated, people emailed us, saying that it was our political obligation to write that David Bowie had been a rapist, even a pedophile, too.
The facts are not debatable. Bowie was accused of rape in 1987 by a 30-year-old woman named Wanda Nichols (though never indicted, due to a lack of evidence; through a spokesperson, he called the accusation “ridiculous”), and he participated in a groupie scene that normalized and valorized statutory rape. The usual first line of defense in these arguments is “separating the art from the artist,” which is in many cases a necessary coping mechanism for women to be able to enjoy anything produced before men began to be held accountable for their behavior—but in this case, it doesn’t apply. Bowie’s artistic life was tied up in an ethos of seeing, validating and inducing intimacy with anyone in front of him; the fact that this ethos turned sexual in the case of painfully young teenagers is inseparable from his art.
On the day of his death, we considered posting his first reply to a fan letter:
In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it. “Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you” said my manager. My birthday is January 8th and I guess I’m 5’10”. There is a Fan Club here in England, but if things go well in the States then we’ll have one there I suppose. It’s a little early to even think about it.
Written in 1967, the letter was sweet and generous and easy, closing with: “Thank you for being so kind as to write to me and do please write again and let me know some more about yourself. Yours sincerely, David Bowie.” It’s incredible, and also, he wrote it to a 14-year-old girl.
Lori Maddox, according to her as-told-to Thrillist piece, was also 14 when she met Bowie. “He wanted to take me to a hotel room,” she wrote.
I was still a virgin and terrified. He had hair the color of carrots, no eyebrows, and the whitest skin imaginable. I grabbed on to [DJ and club co-owner] Rodney Bingenheimer and said I was with him. So we all just hung out and talked. I had probably kissed boys by that point, but I wasn’t ready for David Bowie.
Next time Bowie was in town, though, maybe five months later, I got a call at home from his bodyguard, a huge black guy named Stuey.
Maddox had implicitly declined the encounter at age 14, and notes no pushback in her account. At age 15, she was less afraid.
We got to the Beverly Hilton and all went up to Bowie’s enormous suite...He was beautiful and clever and poised. I was incredibly turned on. Bowie excused himself and left us in this big living room with white shag carpeting and floor-to-ceiling windows. Stuey brought out Champagne and hash. We were getting stoned when, all of a sudden, the bedroom door opens and there is Bowie in this fucking beautiful red and orange and yellow kimono.
He focused his famously two-colored eyes on me and said, “Lori, darling, can you come with me?” Sable looked like she wanted to murder me. He walked me through his bedroom and into the bathroom, where he dropped his kimono. He got into the tub, already filled with water, and asked me to wash him. Of course I did. Then he escorted me into the bedroom, gently took off my clothes, and de-virginized me.
Two hours later, I went to check on Sable. She was all fucked up in the living room, walking around, fogging up windows and writing, “I want to fuck David.” I told him what she was doing and that I felt so bad. Bowie said, “Well, darling, bring her in.” That night I lost my virginity and had my first threesome.
Maddox, enthusiastic and starry-eyed a full 43 years later, does not recount her encounter as rape; legally, however, it would have been in the state of California, and a strong subset of today’s moral vocabulary dictates that it was, qualitatively, regardless of what Maddox says, an act of coercion—that he was an abuser and a predator no matter what.
There’s a sense right now of a watershed: because of new language, newly open channels, and new consensus on what constitutes abuse, once-beloved men are being exposed on what feels like a weekly basis for having taken sexual advantage of less powerful women. These incidents are brought to light as exceptions, but they’re beginning to feel like the norm—particularly for industries in which women are expected to be both easygoing and sexual to variously exaggerated degrees: comedy, music, acting, porn.
And the “separate the art from the artist” argument has been permanently changed by Bill Cosby, who will be remembered as a serial rapist, as he deserves. For Bowie, the same idea has started to foment—that this encounter with Maddox (and the others it implies) should be, as with Cosby, his major legacy. “RIP a child rapist,” said a tipster. On Twitter, a search for “David Bowie rapist” pulls up hundreds of people expressing combinations of anger, smugness, contrarianism, righteousness, and sincere conviction that the Grammys should not be celebrating him, that Tavi Gevinson should not be writing about him, the “rapist” description is primary and exactly right.
There are two underlying assumptions here that I question: first, that we either have to write off David Bowie in deference to the women, or write off the women in deference to David Bowie—that we can’t value one without devaluing the other. The second is that it’s a critical dodge to even bring up the fact that we’re talking about the 1970s. Erin Keane makes this point at Salon:
And wasn’t it, as she says, “a different world”? Oh, the ‘70s. Things were different then. But they were not, really, no matter how many times we all collectively wish that to be true. If you can say with a straight face “men don’t have sex with young girls anymore” — well, good luck to you with that. What changes is this, only — which girls, which men, how and where it is allowed.
But “which girls, which men, how and where it is allowed”—those changes do matter. If they don’t, neither does any of the political and cultural movement that distances now from then. Outside a courtroom, it is impossible to overvalue the role of context (which includes but certainly is not limited to age) in a sexual encounter; acknowledging the landscape of a few decades ago doesn’t vanish the blame but enlarge it. It is important, not incidental, that Bowie was part of the norm.
On the day of Bowie’s death, Kate Harding started a thread of discussion on her public Facebook page. The perpetually wise Rebecca Solnit wrote in. “Speaking as someone who actually lived through the 1970s as a teenage girl in the Bay Area,” she wrote, “I want to interject that mores were really really REALLY different.”
She went on (and we asked if we could excerpt this):
The dregs of the sexual revolution were what remained, and it was really sort of a counterrevolution (guys arguing that since sex was beautiful and everyone should have lots everything goes and they could go at anyone; young women and girls with no way to say no and no one to help them stay out of harmful dudes’ way). The culture was sort of snickeringly approving of the pursuit of underage girls (and the illegal argument doesn’t carry that much weight; smoking pot is also illegal; it’s about the immorality of power imbalance and rape culture). It was completely normalized. Like child marriage in some times and places. Which doesn’t make it okay, but means that, unlike a man engaged in the pursuit of a minor today, there was virtually no discourse about why this might be wrong. It’s also the context for what’s widely regarded as the anti-sex feminism of the 1980s: those women were finally formulating a post-sexual-revolution ideology of sex as another arena of power and power as liable to be abused; we owe them so much.
Solnit has written about this time and place before. From an essay collected in 2014's The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness:
For San Francisco in particular and for California generally, 1978 was a notably terrible year, the year in which the fiddler had to be paid for all the tunes to which the counterculture had danced. The sexual revolution had deteriorated into a sort of free-market free-trade ideology in which all should have access to sex and none should deny access. I grew up north of San Francisco in an atmosphere where once you were twelve or so hippie dudes in their thirties wanted to give you drugs and neck rubs that were clearly only the beginning, and it was immensely hard to say no to them. There were no grounds. Sex was good; everyone should have it all the time; anything could be construed as consent; and almost nothing meant no, including “no.”
“It was the culture,” she wrote. “Rock stars were open about their liaisons with underage groupies.” It doesn’t excuse these men to note that there was an overwhelming, meaningful, non-dismissible sense in this decade that sex with young female teenagers was if not explicitly desirable then certainly OK.
Louis Malle released “Pretty Baby” in 1978, in which an 11-year-old and sometimes unclothed Brooke Shields played a child prostitute; in Manhattan, released the following year, director Woody Allen paired his middle-aged character with a 17-year old; color photographer David Hamilton’s prettily prurient photographs of half-undressed pubescent girls were everywhere...at the end of the decade Playboy attempted to release nude photographs of a painted, vamping Shields at the age of 10 in a book titled Sugar and Spice.
[...] In 1977, Roman Polanski’s implicit excuse for raping a 13-year-old girl he had plied with champagne and quaaludes was that everyone was doing it. Polanski had sequestered his victim at Jack Nicholson’s Bel Air house on the grounds that he was going to take pictures of her for French Vogue. Polanski’s victim pretended she had asthma to try to get out of his clutches. It didn’t work. Afterward, he delivered the dazed, glassy-eyed child to her home, he upbraided her big sister for being unkind to the family dog. Some defended him on the grounds that the girl looked 14.
Reading Solnit on this, you can understand how Lori Maddox could have possibly developed not just a sincere desire to fuck adult men but the channels to do it basically in public; why an entire scene encouraged her, photographed her, gave her drugs that made all of it feel better, loved her for it, celebrated her for it, for years. You can understand that the way she consented to the loss of her virginity could have been the way women have consented throughout history—under implicit duress and formative coercion, and yet as wholeheartedly as we could understand.
There are no precise enough words or satisfying enough conclusions to fully account for her story, or any like it. It’s easy to see what Bowie represents here: a sexual norm that has always appallingly favored men, and the abuse that stems from and surpasses even that. It is easy to denounce the part Bowie played in this, even with any number of purportedly mitigating factors: the political context, Maddox’s story, the fact that he lived with generosity and openness, the less generous fact that his synapses were perpetually blitzed with cocaine. It is less easy to turn over what Maddox evinces in this narrative, from the late 1970s to her account of it now—which is that women have developed the vastly unfair, nonetheless remarkable, and still essential ability to find pleasure and freedom in a system that oppresses them.
The persistence of that reality—that we learn to have sex not in a utopia but within and around whatever norms we are presented with—is why it matters that things were different in the ’70s. It is possible to say that there don’t ever need to be any other Lori Maddoxes without saying that there never were. It is possible for me to read all the rape stories in my inbox and still know with certainty that something enormous is different—and, that acknowledging that is the only way to credit the second-wave women who forced that change with rhetorical fervor that girls now would find insane. It’s because of them that we have both the words to identify power and, now, the freedom to do so more ambivalently. It’s their stringency that spared me from having to know how I would have played it if I’d grown up at a time when there was no vocabulary to separate a party girl from a body for the taking, when grown men said fair game at the age of 13.
It is Maddox who interests me, in the end, not Bowie. But if there’s an argument for labeling Bowie a rapist that gets me, it’s how much I owe to the inflexible spirit that calls for it. Look, what a miracle; we are talking about this, when out of all the interviews Bowie gave in his life, he seems to never have been asked on the record about Maddox or any of the other “baby groupies,” or to have said a thing about Wanda Nichols after the case was dismissed.
Image via AP/Wikimedia Commons