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David Bowie, Lori Lightning and the flawed humanity of idols

David Bowie, Lori Lightning and the flawed humanity of idols

by Anne Russell | @elvisfchrist
January 12, 2016

CW: discussion of child sexuality, child physical and sexual abuse.

When a beloved cultural icon dies, the white Western norm of not speaking ill of the dead comes to the fore in extreme ways. David Bowie’s death from cancer on January 10, age 69, somehow felt like a more serious loss than some stars, like having lost access to something bigger than himself. Bowie is the kind of person whose death would feel surprising and wrong even if he had lived to be a hundred, who had an aura of immortality about him. But popular culture seems to feel obligated to mourn its dead as saints, and decries any discussion of their flaws and bad deeds as deeply disrespectful. The resistance to this idea often pushes the discussion back to an equally untenable pole, implying that we should not grieve for people who have done bad things, that we should regard them as a terrible person. Both of these poles represent the two ways to dehumanise someone: to demonise them and to worship them.

In the wake of Bowie’s death, there has been a fair amount of internet discussion about the fact that he had sex with groupie Lori Lightning when she was 13 and he was around 26. Much of the internet has quite understandably been quick to frame this as sexual assault, and Bowie as an abuser. Certainly it is statutory rape, and there are a whole host of ways in which it is possible to say that what Bowie did was wrong. But to tell Lori Lightning that her that age at the time means that she didn’t consent, even though everything she says indicates she did, is exactly the sort of gaslighting that abusers do. This demonstrates the problem with messages about how “kids can’t consent”; while it acknowledges that free and informed consent to certain acts from children is highly unlikely, it denies the agency of children in ways that are harmful when it comes to children’s non-sexual life. This kind of message is used to justify things like hitting your child because they don’t know what’s good for them, and gives license to not listen to children because they have not been acknowledged as fully-formed human beings. It also shows that Western culture has no frameworks to deal with child sexuality; where to acknowledge that child sexuality exists is seen as giving carte blanche for adults—particularly men—to do what they like with children.

This is a terrible dichotomy indeed. Terrible in that it is thoroughly unnecessary; it is possible to believe that 13-yr-old people can consent to sex AND say that adults should absolutely not be having sex with them. The power differential between adults and children is too great; it is not merely isolated to sex, but in how adults are set up to have total control over children’s lives and wellbeing. In some ways this power differential is necessary, as children do not always have the physical or mental capacity to make healthy decisions for themselves. Power can be and often is exercised for good, but there is a persistent risk and reality that adults will not always use their power solely to benefit the children in their care.

Judging by everything she has said publicly, it is clear that Lightning consented to and enjoyed her encounter without regrets, and in her case that’s all there is to it. In some cases the pleasure of fucking someone is not merely sexual pleasure from the act itself but from what it signifies; the euphoria of being wanted by a man of Bowie’s talent and stature must have been intoxicating. A groupie of the time wrote in the comments of a story that “speaking for myself, if these guys would have been willing to hang out with me, like they did with men, I would have been just as happy. The sex was the only way they were willing to connect with me.” But by stepping up their social engagement to sexual, Bowie took a phenomenal risk with Lightning’s wellbeing; committing sexual acts with people that young often causes lifelong trauma and PTSD. Moreover, consent cannot be the only metric to assess whether a sexual encounter has been exploitative or not. Sometimes the exploitation in sexual encounters comes from forces outside of the encounter itself; a significant age gap being one example, the inability of many women to enjoy sex because of patriarchal body issues being another. Rebecca Traister writes:

Contemporary feminism’s shortcomings may lie in not its over¬radicalization but rather its under¬radicalization. Because, outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Young feminists have adopted an exuberant, raunchy, confident, righteously unapologetic, slut-walking ideology that sees sex — as long as it’s consensual — as an expression of feminist liberation. The result is a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity. Which means a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish — has gone largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.

Holding Bowie’s many wonderful qualities in mind with the fact that he was willing to have sex with a 13-yr-old girl speaks to the dissociative nature of being a woman and engaging with music made by men. To love and admire men like this while knowing that they’re willing to risk massively fucking with your wellbeing; often that they don’t care when they have massively fucked with your wellbeing as long as they don’t have to hear about it. To love Led Zeppelin and Nick Cave like anyone else and to stretch yourself to try fit into the protagonist’s position, yet be aware in the background of your mind how much this music hates you or sees you as nothing. Realising why “have you heard about the Midnight Rambler” was spraypainted across a wall in a dark part of Brooklyn, Wellington; left up for years even while the council removed tagging that looked less white. To know that these men we love will refuse to find beauty in the strong, complex, challenging, intelligent nature of adult womanhood, and prefer us at an age where we are more likely to be compliant and naïve, more likely to act as mirrors to reflect men at twice their natural size rather than demand mutual and proportionate reflection. This aspect of Bowie’s behaviour at the time, simultaneously predatory and pathetic, is what disgusts me regardless of Lightning’s feelings herself; that at my age he wanted in ego flattery from 13-yr-old girls rather than sticking exclusively to healthy adult relationships with women. A woman quoted by Shulamith Firestone in her book The Dialectic of Sex said that “no man can love a girl the way a girl loves a man”. Indeed, we tend to love our men for what they are, not what they do for us; masculinity operates in the reverse.

The discussion over Bowie represents the struggle of finding out bad things about people we love and respect and not knowing quite how to react. This struggle is particularly difficult because of the particular nature of Bowie as an icon; as well as being a great musician, he inspired and helped a lot of queer people and misfits carve out a place for themselves in the world. Bowie is the kind of star who saved people’s lives, who let them know that their weirdnesses were okay and that they were not alone. I loved Bowie for his musical complexity; you can listen to his back catalogue for hours and not get bored because how varied and interesting it is. Besides, it is possible that Bowie later regretted his actions at that age; even people who exhibit predatory characteristics can and do change under the right conditions. As Aoife wrote at freethoughtblogs: “I’m supposed to call him a monster because of this, and stop feeling sad about his death. I can’t do that. I can call him someone who did a monstrous thing, though.”

The exercise of patriarchal and adult power isn’t all or nothing. Living in patriarchy involves moments of absolute horror with a lot of boredom the rest of the time, and is often mixed in with pleasure in strange and perturbing ways. It doesn’t need to be traumatic to be wrong; I can detail the ways in which men hate me without feeling much emotion, but it’s still a boring and annoying thing to deal with. The demand that women feel constantly outraged or upset about patriarchy is a liberalism that sees outrage as praxis in itself; sometimes we need to conserve our energy so that we can throw bricks when the time comes. Besides, we want to love talented, interesting, witty, beautiful men like Bowie; it is profoundly sad when aspects of their character make it more difficult for us to do so.

In some ways this isn’t much of an obituary. But despite Bowie’s flaws, I’m sad that he’s gone, and have been playing his records repeatedly like everyone else. I am grateful for the ways in which he made my friends’ lives easier, for being able to shout along to Life On Mars? with my best friend, for what he did for queers, and for the way he made my bad teeth look endearing. In this rather lovely radio clip Scott Walker, a brilliant musician and one of Bowie’s major influences, called him up on his birthday to thank Bowie for everything he’d done and for his “generosity of spirit when it comes to other artists” which he’d been a beneficiary from himself. But I choose to love Bowie as the flawed person he was; to try to respect a cultural icon I had never met as a human being rather than an idol. I’ll close with this clip of the sweet and awkward young Bowie being interviewed by Russell Harty in 1973, who asks “Do you indulge in any form of worship?” to which Bowie pauses and then earnestly replies “Life. I love life very much indeed.”

ENDS

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