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The Good, The Bad, The Bowie

By: | January 12, 2016

How much is David Bowie to blame for having sex with a minor? And are the days following his death an appropriate time to host the conversation?

Michelle Keep
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David Bowie. Photo by Adam Bielawski.

“What does David think of the groupie scene?”

“Oh, he loves it—he has a million girls hanging around him all the time. He likes groupies because they have what it takes to get him, the looser, the better!”

Lori Mattix had just just come from David Bowie’s room when Annie Tipton interviewed her for Star Magazine. Mattix (also known as Laurie Maddox) was 15 years old at the time—though some reports cite her age as 13 or 14—and in 1973 the age of consent in California was 18.

But in many ways, celebrities—especially white male celebrities—were above the law.

In all the accounts I’ve read from groupies, there is always the same sense of reverence. Of excitement, of fame by association. It was a rush, a crazy period in their life filled with sex, drugs and rock and roll. 

Sable Starr was the queen of the groupie scene since she was 13, and will forever be immortalized in Iggy Pop’s song, Look Away. She was in high school at the time and skipped classes to hang out on Sunset Strip at night.

Mattix was introduced to the groupie scene turned Bowie down the first time she met him, stating she wasn’t ready to lose her virginity. Five months later she changed her mind and lost her virginity to the man. That same night, Bowie also had a threesome with her and a very high Sable Starr.

With Bowie’s death, many fans are questioning the appropriateness of the timing for people to be reminded of such things, and if it’s truly the right time to discuss whether Bowie was an abuser of children.

Mattix herself, interviewed only a few months ago, has nothing but good things to say about her relationship with Bowie, including their sexual encounters.

“That time of my life was so much fun. It was a period in which everything seemed possible,” she told Thrillist. “There was no AIDS and the potential consequences seemed to be light. Nobody was afraid of winding up on YouTube or TMZ.”

Because Lori does not classify what happened as rape, I won’t classify it as rape, as it’s important to listen to people and accept their own experiences as they believe it happened.

Age of consent laws are a muddied affair, embroiled with patriarchal undertones and the prolongment of adolescence. They’re intended to protect the most vulnerable people in our society, yet cannot account for individuality, especially in areas where there are mandatory minimum sentences.

 It’s important, as a feminist, not to tell another person how they should feel about their own experience based on my projections of how I would feel in her place.

Frequently they’ve been used as a tool by unhappy parents to punish boyfriends who have had consensual sex with their girlfriends, the sex offender registry has been used against underaged people, teens who send nude photos of themselves may be found guilty of production or distribution of child pornography, and there’s even the potential to be found guilty of rape by fraud if an underaged person lies about their age in order to have sex with someone who would be tried as a statutory rapist.

In 2011, a law was passed in Canada stating that a person cannot consent while incapacitated, even if they’ve previously given consent for that scenario. So, if a woman gives prior consent to her partner to wake her up with sex, that consent is null and void the second she is actually asleep.

These laws were all developed to protect people. They were passed to protect young teens who are still developing mentally from sexual exploitation, to prevent the transmission of child pornography, to allow for prosecution in cases where someone consents to sex under false pretenses (for instance a person who thought they were having sex with their partner, but it was actually their partner’s twin), and to ensure that people aren’t being assaulted while they sleep or are otherwise unconscious.

But in all of them, they strip out the individual cases, and the individual situations that lead to them. I don’t want to do that with Lori Mattix.

By her own accounts, she was happy and excited to be a part of Bowie’s circle. The laws that were meant to protect her, by her own words, did not protect her. In fact, they made her life a little harder, by making it so that Jimmy Page kept her under lock-and-key so that he wasn’t imprisoned for child sexual abuse.

David said, “Oh, you’re very cute. Freddy, isn’t she cute?” I said, “Are we gonna f–k tonight?” I just came out and said it. And David started laughing and I said, “Really.” He goes, “I’d like to, but I don’t like Queenie. But I like Laurie.” I said, “Well, we’ll get rid of Queenie and we’ll meet you at the Rainbow later.” So he said okay. So me and Laurie went back to the Hyatt House and we’re just screaming, “We’re gonna f–k David Bowie!” We were so excited.

— Sable Starr, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

Some people act like it’s quite easy to tell when someone is underage, but I don’t believe it is, especially outside of one’s socioeconomic class. The differences between a 13-year-old girl whose parents are negligent and has had to rely on herself for many years will act very differently than a 13-year-old who has had a stable, upper class upbringing.

Not to mention that, just like our physical bodies, we all mentally and socially develop at different rates. There is no magic button where, upon our birthday, it’s pressed and we’re suddenly imbued with knowledge and experience we’ve never had. When I was 18 and 19, I was quite immature and childish compared to some of the 13 and 14-year-olds I knew. 

Someone who has experienced trauma, or a traumatic loss might be forced to grow up faster, as with those who had to work from a young age to provide for their family.

There are many valid reasons why someone might assume a child to be older than they are, both in regards to our cultural narrative and individual differences.

However, these rock stars knew the age of these girls. They were dubbed baby groupies. They were still in school. They were still developing mentally, despite the fact that they were sexually aggressive.

Our lives don’t develop in a vacuum. Men are taught to lust for younger women. Women are told that their looks quickly start deteriorating by their mid-20s, through overt and subtle tones.

It is, in fact, a sad truth about human life that beyond our salad days, very few of us are interesting to look at in the buff. Added to that sadness is the very unfair truth that a woman’s salad days are shorter than a man’s—really, in this precise context, only from about 15 to 20. The Nautilus and the treadmill can add a half decade or so, but by 36 the bloom is definitely off the rose.

 John Derbyshire for the National Review

But the truth of the matter is that you can’t discount society and the role it plays in both painting a 15-year-old as the most desirous point of a woman’s life, and being complacent or even encouraging of men having sex with underage girls provided that they were successful, powerful and attractive themselves.

Part of me believes that society only intends for statutory rape laws to apply to the regular person — the one who others might not understand why a girl would have sex with. The 30-year-old working a less prestigious job having sex with a 15-year-old would be met with scorn and disgust. We would want to protect the girl, even if she said it was consensual.

However, on some level, we can understand why Lori Mattix would have sex with David Bowie. He was famous, successful, enticing. He did things that most people can only fantasize about, and that brush with greatness is enough of a reason why we can feel complacent in what he did.

Laurie and Sable didn’t give a f–k. They weren’t competitive. They didn’t have to be. Every rock star that came to L.A. wanted to meet them, it wasn’t the other way around. It was like, “We’ve got to meet this Sable Starr and Laurie Maddox, and we got to meet Rodney Bingenheimer and Kim Fowley.” There was a certain crowd you had to meet when you were in L.A.

— Bebe Buell, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

He had sex with her because he could. Because among rock stars, the groupies were the real celebrities. Everyone wanted to see her when they went on tour. They wanted a brush with their own bit of greatness.

She had sex with him because she wanted to. She turned him down, he accepted her refusal, and later she sought him out. She consented to sex, if not legally then otherwise, and has only fond reflections upon it.

 These types of laws legally rob individuals of their ability to consent, as well as their agency over their own body, because we, as a society, have decided that it’s more important to protect victims than it is to uphold the rights of the individuals who wish to consent.

It is easy to look at this scenario and see that there was no crime. Two people came into one another’s lives, enriched it, and then parted ways amicably. They both got something out of the relationship. In another culture, one stripped of patriarchy and capitalism and the power structures that give men like Bowie so much, this might not be exploitative at all, even.

Indeed there are many cultures where coming of age ceremonies involved being taught how to have sex, such as in Ancient Rome. There was even an article I read called ‘Panda Three-Ways’ in which a more experienced couple teaches a virgin about sex and sexual pleasure (please note that this is the first use of the phrase and there’s no established proof that this is a common thing).

When a woman losing her virginity is so stigmatized, I can’t help but feel like the laws designed to protect under-aged children are simply the patriarchy, aiming to control female sexuality under the guise of protecting us.

Statutory rape denies those under the age of consent agency over their own body, and while it was designed to protect children I question how good of a job it does. After all, rape is still illegal regardless of the age of the perpetrator or victim, and judges should take into account the power exchange between the individuals as well as their age (mental or otherwise). Incest, likewise, seeks to protect victims of rape and sexual assault by making it illegal for anyone with a blood relationship to have a sexual relationship (punishable by up to 14 years), regardless of consent.

These types of laws legally rob individuals of their ability to consent, as well as their agency over their own body, because we, as a society, have decided that it’s more important to protect victims than it is to uphold the rights of the individuals who wish to consent.

So, do I believe that Lori Mattix consented? Inasmuch as she could — and I do not believe that she should be compared to other groupies like Julia Holcombe, over whom Steven Tyler was given guardianship after starting a sexual relationship with her at 14. Though Holcombe has publicly forgiven him, and acknowledges her role in instigating the relationship, she’s upset as to how Tyler refers to their affair, especially in regards to her abortion:

She was a skinny young malchick, much younger than me, like fourteen when I met her in Seattle backstage after a show. She was there with a bunch of her girlfriends and they were being bisexual to get my attention and I was aroused to no end. because nothing turns me on like being in a room with two women. All guys think about it, but few have done it. It’s the most beautiful thing, immersed in yoni, like being between Mother’s breasts again.

I brought her back to Boston because I was so in love with her. She was so young, so skinny, really beautiful; she had more legs than a bucket of chicken. She was mysterious and as sexual as I was. She just wanted to hang around all day and do it and then talk about it afterward. It was like incredible–and so delicious.

— Steven Tyler, Walk This Way

Lori Mattix gets to guide the conversation about her relationship with Bowie, and I think that it’s important, as a feminist, not to tell another person how they should feel about their own experience based on my projections of how I would feel in her place.

But in the end, I don’t want to live in a world where it’s acceptable for celebrities to sleep with minors and get away with it. The culture in the ‘70s and ‘80s allowed for such things, muddied by perversion and fuelled by ego.

Anybody looking back honestly on that period might agree that, with promiscuity so unrestrained and lines of conduct so lax, the difference between horribly predatory and exploitative criminal acts such as Savile’s [a child sexual abuser] and our own behaviour was blurred, confused, muddled. We had lost sight of the essential distinction between everybody having a good time together and some people having their abominable idea of a good time at the expense of individuals who couldn’t exercise free, adult choice in the matter.

— Neil Lyndon for the Telegraph. (Trigger warning for disturbing content).

Our laws were made to stop exploitation which is rampant, especially across power lines. When one person has more power — social, political, financial — than another, we must be especially cautious of the potential for exploitation.

 It’s up to all of us to ensure that appropriate outrage leads to an absolute end to this era of sexual exploitation among the rich and powerful.

Rich and famous men have historically been able to get away with breaking the law in a myriad of ways that the poor couldn’t dream of, and they brazenly tout that the rules do not apply to them.

David Bowie lived in the special society we allowed the rich and famous to live in, one where they could push all the boundaries of acceptability, and not only be rewarded for it, but have people walk away with positive memories about it. He didn’t need to groom Lori Mattix — society did that for him.

Celebrity worship is alive and well and will undoubtedly colour the events, including the potential for regrets, of free-wheeling days where laws didn’t apply.

Thankfully times are changing. It’s up to all of us to ensure that appropriate outrage leads to an absolute end to this era of sexual exploitation among the rich and powerful.

So upon his death, I accept David Bowie for what he was: a man that was deeply talented, who helped to open the floodgates of gender neutrality and male bisexuality, who left an everlasting imprint upon millions of lives, and who also took advantage of a young girl he knew was legally unable to consent, and who thankfully walked away without scars.

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