David Bowie – remembering a legend, forgetting an abuser?

I’ll not hide the fact that I am a fan of David Bowie’s music, and always have been. Impute whatever biases you will from that, but also try to objectively reflect on my remarks below, on the fact that he had sex with a 15-year-old girl sometime in the early 70s.

The mainstream media isn’t picking up on this story, yet, and maybe they won’t do so until people have finished with the immediate reminiscing and grieving. Some folk – like my Facebook friend MP – have raised legitimate concerns regarding consistency here. Do we treat a full-on rock legend as critically as we do lesser celebrities, when it come to exposing and criticising such behaviour?

More to the point, what is the appropriate response to these revelations? The issue with much sexual contact between people of vastly different ages is abuse of power – the asymmetry in their capacity to consent, the beguiling nature of fame or experience and the like.

But as much as we can say that it’s obvious that the adult is the one who should know better, and who should refrain from exploiting someone who is obviously (relatively) vulnerable, I’m not at all convinced that moral judgement is easy in cases like this.

By today’s standards, he (Bowie) would know he’s doing something wrong. By the standards that should have been applicable and known in the 70’s, he was also doing wrong. But those weren’t the standards that everyone lived by and considered normal.

In other words, it’s not that the moral standard has changed, but that people now have a better understanding of what they should and shouldn’t do or condone.

The interview linked above describes Jimmy Page asking for – and apparently getting consent from – this girl’s mother to have a relationship with her daughter. It also offers no suggestion that Lori Mattix, the groupie in question, feels at all traumatised by the events.

To repeat or reiterate, this is a sexual assault as we understand it now. And even in the libertine days of the 70s, we might think that it would usually be the case that a 15-yr-old can’t offer informed consent to a superstar like Bowie.

But is it never the case? As I explain at greater length in a post from 2013, ages of consent are convenient fictions – principled, yet also arbitrary in that they choose an age (whether for sex, drinking, driving or whatever) where we think we’re striking the correct balance between protection and paternalism.

In a case like this, where the “victim” is saying that she isn’t a victim, and where our current moral standards were not widely known or applied, is it really a double-standard to not think Bowie a sexual predator?

I don’t think it is a double standard, but rather an acknowledgment that the standard of the time was incorrect (as might many of today’s standards be). More to the point, perhaps, I think it’s a poor standard to hold people to account to moral principles that have only become clear more recently than when their transgressions occurred.

Finally, and unfortunately only for those of you with academic or other access to journals, it’s also worth noting a far more pervasive double-standard, which is in how we are far more concerned with abuse of power in sexual relations than we are with any other.

As David Benatar argues in his “Two views on sexual ethics”, we’re woefully inconsistent in how quickly we agree that sex is something people (especially children and teens, of course) need to be protected from, by contrast to various other forms of coercion (Mary, you must go to church, piano lessons, etc.)

I don’t mean to sound glib about this at all, and you unfortunately do need to read the paper to engage with this view. What many readers will be thinking is that sex is different, and that’s exactly what Benatar discusses.

Is it different of necessity, or is it simply different because we treat it differently? If the latter, is that justified? And more to the point, in the case of Mattix, does the fact that she seems to have consented, and seems to have no regrets, not count for anything?

I heard about Bowie’s death early on Monday morning, and had coincidentally very much enjoyed my first listen of the most recent album the night before. But despite all the tributes and songs people have been sharing, I keep coming back to this recording, and I’ll leave you with that.


By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.