Thursday, 14 January 2016

Bowie's Entitlement and grief

At first, I can't quite believe it.  No.  Please, please, no.

David Bowie is dead.  Facebook is grieving.  Gradually, numbly, I realise it's true.

I heard the first song about sex and relationships that I fully saw myself in when he sang:
"Well, Annie's pretty neat, she always eats her meat
Joe is awful strong, bet your life he's putting us on 
Oh lordy, oh lordy, you know I need some loving
Oh move me, touch me
John, I'm only dancing
She turns me on, but I'm only dancing"
As a teenager, I had crushes on Prince, Billy Bragg and Paul Weller.  Sexual crushes.  I watched my boyfriend's shoulders moving under his shirt and wanted to touch him, every time. But I had no language for my breathlessness when I watched the wicket-keeper in my schoolgirl cricket team run, legs rippling, floating with muscular grace.  No language to describe why I wanted to look at the basketball centre while she sassed her opposing player and split the court with the right pass.

I'd heard of lesbians, and a couple of times I worried at the word, turning it over at night, wondering and wondering if the butterflies I felt while instinctively hiding my sportsgirl crushes from team mates counted?  Ultimately, I didn't see how they could, when I swooned over the boy in class who answered all the calculus questions, or the boy who visited me at work just so we could gaze at each other and smile.

David Bowie was a tipping point.  I played John, I'm Only Dancing thousands of times in my mid and late teens, so often I've daydreamed all the characters into authenticity.  It's my very own bisexual film, where my attractions make sense and might create tricky dilemmas at times, but no more so than any other person navigating the world of sexy humans.

It's no secret people who break sexuality and gender rules and norms revere David Bowie.  He showed us different ways to be, confirmed our feelings and dreams and imaginings.  He was on television and on the radio and people - not just us - thought he was magnificent and beautiful and close to genius at times.  That's really why he mattered I think, he showed us and everyone else that how we were was sparklingly, glitteringly just fucking fine.  We could all be heroes.

I look back now at myself in my mid-teens and see the intense pain, isolation and fear that sexuality held for me, because I just did not fit in. He helped change that, by smashing what fitting in meant.

David Bowie is dead.  I am shell-shocked with grief. 

At first, I can't quite believe it.  No.  Please, please, no.

There's a link to an article describing David Bowie being sexual with early teenage girls when he was in his twenties.  I click and read it quickly, sinking.  Feel sick.  I know it's true, feel the young woman's description of a social context in which rich, powerful, adored and very attractive famous men were being rewarded by sexual access to 13 year olds rings true in all the ways I understand rape culture. 

I accept, completely, that and probably other young women's descriptions of those times. Being seduced by rich, powerful, adored and very attractive famous men when you're 13 might well be alluring.  Being wanted by one of the most lusted after men on the planet?  What does that make you?  It's possible to read Lori Maddox's account of Bowie's behaviour and both hold him accountable and believe her when she says that situation has not left scars for her.

I also expect there may well be other young women (and possibly young men and gender diverse people) who might describe and have experienced similar events quite differently.  We're unlikely to hear from them of course - would you jump into this media circus now to describe sexual assault by David Bowie?

The problem with this situation is his behaviour, not hers.  He was the adult who could have smiled at the gorgeous girls and young women falling at his feet, and paid for a cab to take them home before going to find himself a consenting adult closer to his own age.  I can't imagine it would have been difficult.

When we talk about cultural enablers to sexual violence - rape culture - this is what we mean.  It's so easy to think you are entitled to sex, regardless of what other partners want, that you start to believe it.  You can do sexual things with whoever you want, because everyone around you thinks that's fine.  The social values around Bowie and his buddies told him that rich people can have whatever they want,  white people can have whatever they want, famous people can have whatever they want and men can have whatever they want.  Let's call it Bowie's Entitlement.

I've had crushes on many people with power over me.  Teachers, lecturers, managers, captains.  I've dealt with being propositioned with many people I've had power over.  Participants in programmes, people I've coached, much younger people.   Sometimes I've been attracted to those people too.

But the fundamental assessment - in this encounter, is consent meaningful - has meant I've erred, always, on the side of do no harm.  To be honest, it's not even been a conflict, because of my slavish devotion to meaningful participation in all things sexual by everyone involved.

David Bowie got a free pass for sexual behaviour that even at the time constituted statutory rape because he was rich, white, famous and male.  I'm not sure how helpful it is to just blame him for his failure to be a safe adult in the social context Lori Maddox is describing.  It's changed forever how I will remember him, and for that I grieve.  I'm never going to be able to celebrate him without considering his part in rape culture again.  I wish he had made different choices, had found ways to resist the cultural norms around him telling him he could do whatever the hell he wanted.

But I wish, even more, that those social contexts which make meaningful consent unlikely if not impossible, were under constant scrutiny, and that we all took them apart, together.  And I wish too, that I could say that such things don't happen now because Bowie's Entitlement was dead.


Anonymous said...

How do people make up for bad acts? I watched the "David Bowie - Five Years" documentary before I read a tweet comparing Bowie to Bill Cosby, serial abuser. My initial reaction was shock and denial, and I still wouldn't make that comparison. Underage sex, statutory rape? Sadly yes. Drugging and coercing women into unwanted sex? No.

Reflecting on the documentary, and how Bowie discussed his life as a rock star in the 70s, I could hear overtones of regret, and possibly shame and guilt. Yes, he was on drugs for years and he lived the lifestyle of a rock musician. That included sex, too much sex with strangers. He moved on from that and stopped taking the drugs and moved away from that scene. I'm not sure whether he could have "fixed" what he did.

I've watched other documentaries and read biographies with similar tales of rock lifestyle seduction, especially in LA. Even New Zealand band Shihad found the easy access to drugs, the 24/7 lifestyle, and the lack of music focus draining. They left the USA and got their lives and their music back.

I also reflect on difficulties with the justice system and rape culture. The extremes of "this is illegal and we'll put the offender in jail if someone comes forward and the charge is proven" versus "we'll do nothing" to change behaviour unless a conviction occurs (as with Roastbusters. Seems like the inadequacy of handling rape and reports of wrong sexual behaviour compounds the difficulty of discussing how to ensure respectful healthy sexual relationships and experiences.

Jayne S

Lovegood said...

"I'm not sure how helpful it is to just blame him for his failure to be a safe adult in the social context Lori Maddox is describing."

It's as helpful as it is to blame the Roastbusters, or Roman Polanski, or any other rapist.

Sure, Bowie was part of a culture that enables rape, but so is every rapist.

Lovegood said...

"Yes, he was on drugs for years and he lived the lifestyle of a rock musician. That included sex, too much sex with strangers."

@Jayne: I don't know what 'too much' sex is, but Bowie's regrets always centered around consensual sex. He never admitted to being a rapist, so I can't give him credit for being a contrite rapist. Either he's not aware that what he did was rape or he was aware and wanted to hide it.

Anonymous said...

Noting he was married I wonder if he eventually realized the gulf between sex and love and regretted wasting so much time on sex. My wife says he posted a facebook comment that he found much comfort in realising he abandoned God in the way he acted and God, being faithful, welcomed him back when Bowie sought Him afresh.