On January 10, 2016, David Bowie died and a divide formed on social media. Upon news of his death, websites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post published articles celebrating the musician’s life and Facebook filled with long-winded tributes. However, another, much quieter reaction occurred—one that wasn’t broadcasted nearly as prominently. David Bowie had sex with a 14-year-old girl named Lori Mattix when he was in his mid-20s and the world was memorializing a rapist. The split between these two reactions seemed untraversable: David Bowie was either a deity or a devil. Those who thought the latter urged fans to take down their posts commemorating the singer and to rethink their devotion. However, the conversation is a bit more nuanced than these two arguments would lead you to believe.
In an interview with Thrillist, Lori Mattix gives her account of her encounter with Bowie. Mattix, age 57 at the time of the article, called it “beautiful” and repeatedly identified herself as consenting despite her status as a minor. One has to raise the question, though– is it really possible for a 14-year-old to consent to sex with an adult? David Bowie, with his wealth, fame, and, yes, adult age, had a great deal of power in that relationship and it is easy to argue that the relationship was inherently coercive. Under the law, his actions are defined as statutory rape. Yet Mattix, even today, does not identify as a victim. Does calling Bowie a rapist erase her narrative? It seems rather patronizing to say, “Lori Mattix thinks she wasn’t raped, but she was.” This is something she should be able to decide for herself.
Writing David Bowie’s actions off as acceptable because of Mattix’s testimony is also problematic. Victims of statutory rape might find articles excusing Bowie’s actions extremely triggering or feel that they delegitimize their own narratives. Laws regarding age of consent are in place for a reason. Situations in which an adult has sex with a minor are almost always predatory and there needs to be clear legal proceedings to protect those minors. But accepting Mattix’s narrative doesn’t necessarily dismiss the validity of statutory rape laws, nor does it excuse Bowie’s actions. We should give women the self-determination to decide their own victimhood. If Mattix says she wasn’t raped, then she wasn’t. Without this autonomy, statutory rape laws transform into something paternal and controlling. Yes, what Bowie did was illegal and should be illegal, but Mattix should also have the power to decide if she was taken advantage of, and we should respect that decision.
The question is, how do we treat David Bowie after these accusations? It is impossible to deny his genius. His music has positively impacted a huge number of people. His gender-fluid presentation and androgynous aesthetic helped many LGBTQ+ youth find identity and acceptance in a time before non-binary identities were widely acknowledged. As a Bowie fan, it was hard to see someone I had looked up to for so many years being vilified after death, but more importantly I didn’t want to ignore these accusations. So frequently we deify celebrities to the point that their flaws, wrongdoings, and even crimes are overshadowed. I think it is possible to recognize David Bowie as an icon and an incredible artist while also acknowledging that he was a deeply flawed human being. To try to categorize him as good or evil is overly simplistic and encourages us to ignore the errors of those we admire because their good deeds outweigh the bad.