CW: sexual assault, fake male feminists
I’m thinking a lot lately about age and consent. Social media threads are alight with stories about Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and now, 48 hours after the news of his of his death, David Bowie. Until a friend brought it to my attention, I had no idea Bowie had slept with underage Lori Maddox or had been accused of rape by another woman (although technically cleared he could have been guilty – certainly false rape report stats are on her side). I was initially shocked, but soon afterward accepted that this hard and ugly truth was part of the history of someone I admired. Certainly it’s not the first time a male rock star noted for their role in furthering gender equality is found to be someone who abuses their partners (those are the fake male feminists I mentioned). Kurt Cobain and John Lennon come to mind – two more of my favorites, and two other cases of immense feelings of betrayal and disappointment on my part. I’ve suffered abuse from former partners. I’ve experienced sexual assault and have stood by friends and loved ones who’ve been assaulted. I’m connected with many sexual assault response groups professionally. The sting of learning that people who’ve been so instrumental to the very formation of who I am is beyond troubling. It makes me feel like a bad feminist or rape apologist to continue listening to them. But the truth for me is that In Utero is forever part of whatever kind of “soul” I might have. The importance John Lennon’s music has played in my life because of my dad is never going to change. And, like many genderqueer and trans people the world over, David Bowie presented my young heart with possibilities, and gave me permission to be weird, scary, and provocative.
I don’t condone Bowie’s choices. I don’t absolve him of any wrongdoing. In the case of Lori Maddox, however, I do object to thrusting the title of rape victim onto her if that is not how she would describe her experience herself. To be clear; those whose internalized shame or trauma prevents them from realizing they have been raped are not who I’m talking about. Refusing to acknowledge you’ve been raped because it’s too big or too terrifying is not what I’m talking about – that is a normal part of the recovery and healing process. I mean those who did consent and were not raped. I’m talking specifically about our culturally relative concepts of the age of consent, and what bodily autonomy means for young people.
In the U.S. in the 1950’s the median age for marriage for women was 20, and in 2010 it was 26. Teen pregnancy occurred at higher rates than they do today. In many parts of the world, marriage occurs much younger than it does in the United States and is normalized as a practice. While this doesn’t excuse abuse or sexual assault (as in the case of the woman who took Bowie to trial for rape, or Woody Allen’s very young and non-consenting daughter) I can’t help but wonder how Lori and her groupie friends are taking the news of Bowie’s death. Would she have counted the interactions between the two of them as non-consensual? Her other interactions with older men aren’t evidence that clears Bowie by any stretch, and if anything points to a very obvious power imbalance endemic to the 1970’s rock scene. Countless male celebrities have exploited their fame in order to sleep with much younger girls. It’s also no secret that Western culture is obsessed with youth and excels at sexualizing young girls, marking all that is “feminine” largely juvenile and vice versa. In this excellent article that has made the rounds lately, Alicen Grey points out that:
In pedophile culture, the top Pornhub category is “Teen.” “Barely legal” “girls” in schoolgirl outfits play out everything from “virgin manipulations,” daddy-daughter incest fantasies, teacher-student make believe… you name it, there’s porn for it, and it’s been whacked-off to millions and millions and millions of times. It’s fair to wonder whether the only thing keeping some of these viewers from watching straight-up child porn is age of consent laws.
In my regular perusal of porn sites, there’s definitely no scarcity of the above themes available for view. It’s clearly worthwhile to interrogate these social facts and to acknowledge their very real consequences for women in our society.
Yet I have to put the woman in question here in the forefront of her own story. Though she was much younger, is our rush to condemn their pairing preventing us from asking if Lori did, in fact exercise agency? To see her many years later discussing her experiences with such fond regard gives me pause. To bar her from the possibility of consent robs her of the possibility of having a certain kind of autonomy. It was her body, and from what she has said, it was her choice. I’m reminded a bit of those who condemn sex workers and sex work in general as inherently and incontrovertibly unethical without consulting sex workers themselves.
I write all of this while fully admitting that the notion of their sexual relationship is more than a little uncomfortable to me. The idea of a 13 year old and a 26 year old having sex feels viscerally wrong and outrageous – especially now that I’m 30. Nevertheless, I’ve spoken with many a feminist colleague about age of consent and sexuality, and many of them have challenged my parameters on the subject. Gayle Rubin wrote decades ago about our tendency to dismiss and punish certain forms of sexuality because they violate cultural norms. Statutory rape, for instance, is lumped in with prostitution, homosexuality, BDSM, and other acts that were considered egregious at one point in time. I’ve long believed we’re terrified to teach sex education to teenagers because we’re terrified by the idea of young people being sexually active. But what if they genuinely want to be? Is it truly up to us to tell young people what to do (or not do) with their bodies? The flip side to this, of course, is that there are predators only too willing to take advantage of young people in all kinds of insidious ways. Yet again, I have friends who have always pursued much older partners, even when they were in their teens. I know still others who advocate for the rights of younger people to be able to legally participate in sex work so that they can make their own choices about the kind of work they can do. These viewpoints don’t sit well with me all of the time, and I wonder how much of that is my own cultural bias getting in the way.
In the interest of complete honesty, I have to say I’ve been interested in older partners for much of my dating and sexual life as well – even back to when I was 14 years old. (Again, being older now makes thinking of 14 year old pursuing me as nothing short of horrific. I’m sure younger me would think I’ve gotten square.) Those of us who are into age play in consensual BDSM scenarios as adults know the fun that can be had when two people act out a scene which is seen as largely taboo in our culture; though some even object to the acts themselves being played out in completely imaginary scenarios such as in adult webcam broadcasts. In light of all of this, I still find myself disappointed in Bowie. Maybe it’s because I wanted there to be one person, one cultural icon that I could appreciate without having to learn of a dark and disgraceful past. Maybe that person is a complete fantasy.
Yet I don’t feel the need to burn anyone at the stake, either. Aida Manduley points out that simply admitting that our faves are problematic isn’t enough. To paraphrase, we need to hold ourselves and others accountable for misdeeds – whether or not we like them. At the same time, she also cautions against blind vengeance:
A carceral, punishment-based justice system where we value an eye for an eye will not save us. It may feel good in the moment and scratch that “revenge” itch, but it will not save us. Booting “bad people” off the island will leave us with an empty island. What will save us is compassion, understanding, accountability, transformation, and restoration of justice.
So what can we take away from all of these seemingly incongruous pieces? I have more questions than answers. Is there no such thing as a truly positive role model? How can we support young people from being abused and exploited while also not stifling them and shaming their sexuality? What can we do to support those who acknowledge that they were assaulted and are simply being dismissed and forgotten by time. I’m still learning to sit with the disappointment of this bad news, another in a slew of similar stories, while recognizing the merit of that which has value in my life. I also feel very deeply for those who have been victimized and knowing that no matter what else, their stories deserve to be heard.
photo credit: iwasdreamingofthepast