It’s only rape if it’s rape

Last weekend David Bowie died, and amid the non-stop media tributes (which have been compared to the relentless coverage of Lady Diana’s death in 1997, although they can’t have really approached that — normal TV programming was stopped for most of that Sunday), there were a few dissenters who called Bowie a ‘rapist’ because he slept with a teenage groupie (or more than one) in LA some time in the 1970s. There is an unusually balanced view from Julie Burchill in the Spectator, who called Bowie’s behaviour ‘creepy’ but criticised feminists for their tendency to “strip women they do not agree with of agency, and seek to paint them as confused poltroons suffering from good old ‘false consciousness’”. A number of feminist blogs have no such qualms, however, with Louise Pennington (referred to in Burchill’s article) writing anoymously on a site called “Everyday Victim Blaming” about her own experience of sexual abuse as a (much younger) child and drawing dubious links between Bowie’s behaviour and that of Bill Cosby and Jimmy Savile. She has published two separate articles on her own blog also ([1], [2]). There have been a number of other articles expressing a similar viewpoint ([1], [2], [3], [4]), as well as a more balanced piece by Mic Wright here.

A cover for a video tape of "Absolute Beginners", showing Bowie, Patsy Kensit and another male actor from the same filmI was never a huge Bowie fan; I was a child in the 80s, not the 70s, and most of the music I heard by him in the 80s was pretty boring (Absolute Beginners, the title track from the flop 1986 film he starred in, excepted) and his later output was even less inspiring to me (the NME in the mid-90s, when I used to read it, called his more recent albums at that time “careericidal” and suggested that many people regarded him as a “cretinous windbag”). Others found him inspirational, called him a hero and said that his songs were their companion at difficult times in their lives, particularly because of his take on sexuality and gender. For me, he was a generic 80s pop star; there are no memories to tarnish. But there is a good reason why the matter hardly came up in the tributes on the radio, which is that for most people, this issue does not overshadow his work.

It’s not an excuse, of course, that other sexual abusers were worse. But others were much worse, even those (like Jimmy Page) who involved themselves with the LA “Baby Groupies”. One could say that Bowie dipped his feet in those waters while others were up to their necks, persistently abusing both adults and children throughout their careers. However, the biggest difference is that the girl he had sex with, Lori Maddix, agreed to do it and expresses no regrets about it as an adult. Feminists often talk about how girls and women can be ‘groomed’ to accept sex with men who are much older than them and are clearly (to them) exploiting them, but it’s difficult to see how a middle-aged woman can still be ‘groomed’ forty years after the event. It’s not Lori Maddix who is calling Bowie a rapist; it’s others.

To call this ‘rape’, whatever the law says, is absurd, because rape clearly refers to sex which is forced or where the victim was not capable of agreeing (because of unconsciousness, intoxication or severe intellectual disability, for example). A law that says someone cannot consent does not mean they cannot in reality. Merely breaking a law, even a well-meaning one, is not the same as sexually assaulting anyone. Even calling it sexual abuse is dubious, because this term can refer to sexual assaults, including rape, but also refers to sex which may be submitted to because the victim is intimidated by their abuser’s power — they may be able to threaten to make their lives difficult, or they may be pretending to be friendly when others (in an institutional setting, for example) are openly (sometimes physically) hostile. It is not agreed to enthusiastically out of desire. It refers to situations where one party has power over the other to begin with.

I believe Louise Pennington about her own experiences, but her comparison of Bowie’s behaviour with those of Savile and Cosby does not carry any weight. Savile’s and Cosby’s victims came forward; they knew they had been raped or assaulted and said so, apparently without needing someone like Louise Pennington to tell them this is what they had experienced; Maddix said she had not been. Maddix sought out Bowie; Savile sought out his victims, some of whom were in an extremely vulnerable situation such as being incapacitated following spinal injury or surgery (or both), and some of whom were in other hospitals or special boarding schools. As is now known, authorities were reluctant to move against Savile because the money he raised was vital to the running of their institutions — in large part because government policy made them dependent on such benefactors. None of this was the case with Bowie.

Radical feminists, in my experience, aren’t capable of discussing these issues rationally, as I have made clear on two previous occasions. In the second of those links, we see a feminist of the same circle as Pennington call a 15-year-old boy a rapist for having sex with a 13-year-old girl (who, as I pointed out, may well have been in the year below him or even the same year at school; the age difference was nearer one full year than two). They expect the rest of us to believe them when they tell us that women do not lie about rape, but they proceed to call things ‘rape’ that are not, and to call women ‘victims’ who are not, and who do not claim to be. In truth, they believe women only when they stick to the script. As derided as expressions like “real rape” and “rape rape” are, no dictionary definition of rape includes “a sexual encounter that someone enjoys until someone who thinks they know better tells them it was rape”.

If David Bowie had really been a serial abuser of women and girls, it’s highly likely that a large number of victims would have come forward in the last ten years or so. He has really not been the all-conquering superstar the tributes last week suggested; as noted in the Observer today, his early shows were played in concert halls and arenas, not stadia, and when his mother criticised his lifestyle, it was the NME that reported it, not the tabloids; the past 20 years or so, he’s been a forgotten has-been and if his music has been played (except shortly after album launches), it’s been his music from the 60s to the early 80s. He is too dead to atone for these actions now, but even when he was alive, his ‘victim’ said she had a great time and had no regrets. I am not saying people should approve of his behaviour, but it was not the pattern of his life and he did not make a career out of it. There would not be this degree of adulatory coverage of his career if that were the case. If Bowie had actually raped someone (adult or child), I would agree that he did not deserve any of this coverage, but as his ‘victim’ did not hold it against him, the public cannot be expected to either.

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  • Tim Bowes

    The articles are talking about “statutory rape”, which doesn’t share the generic definition of rape you have referred to. It refers specifically to cases involving those under the age of consent who by definitions cannot legally give consent.