Does listening to Bowie support rape culture?

When I heard the news that David Bowie passed away last week, I posted this status to my Facebook:

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Throughout the morning, I shared updates of what Bowie album I was currently listening to, posted my favorite classic Bowie photos, and enjoyed seeing the same from others in my circle…until the news hit in mid-afternoon that David Bowie was actually a rapist and a pedophile. Having never heard this before, I quickly did a Google search and saw no evidence readily available. I dug deeper and found that these claims were in reference to Bowie’s association with Lori Mattix (Maddox), a mainstay of the early 70’s Los Angeles rock groupie scene, on whom Kate Hudson’s character in Almost Famous was based.

In 2010, Mattix revisited her time as a groupie in the VH1 documentary, “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” In the video (time 11:20), Mattix tells of losing her virginity to Bowie at age 14. She recounts the story with boisterous laughter, describing it as “so fabulous.” “He was very gentle with me, knowing it was my first time. He massaged me and put me in the bath and relaxed me.”

My first thought was, “Well that sounds a hell of lot better than my first time where I was drugged and barely conscious and bleeding all over place…after I said no.” I was 17 when I was raped.

But then, I started getting comments and messages about “supporting a pedophile.” I started seeing posts about how listening to Bowie’s music and mourning his passing is promoting rape culture because it doesn’t matter what the “victim” says, a 14-year-old can’t give consent, and she was raped.

I began to feel so ashamed for ever liking David Bowie in the first place, for listening to his music now, and for still respecting him as an artist—even though I’d never heard anything about his sexual escapades before this. I didn’t make any more Bowie-related posts after that, and I stopped listening to my play-through of Bowie’s discography all the way back at Hunky Dory. But the posts about supporting a “rapist, pedophile, neo-Nazi” kept coming. A slew of survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse (groups with which I identify) disclosed feeling triggered by all of the Bowie posts and feeling silenced by those honoring a man who took advantage of teenage girls. But I felt more and more conflicted throughout the day.

For one, nothing would change the impact Bowie’s music had on my life. Music is a huge part of my identity, a way that I learned to express myself and relate to others, and I can’t simply erase all those years I spent listening to his records. I guess I could choose to not listen to them again from here on out, but what would that change? Lori Mattix herself stated, in response to the morality of rock stars having sex with underage girls, “But you need to understand that I didn’t think of myself as underage. I was a model. I was in love. That time of my life was so much fun. It was a period in which everything seemed possible.”

Some people suggest that “it doesn’t matter if a young girl is saying yes, it’s the job of adult men to say no,” which I absolutely agree with, but this isn’t as clear-cut as anyone would like it to be. The age of consent differs from state to state, and what if a girl tells a man she’s older than she is? I’m not trying to blame the victim here, but I was a young girl once too, and most of us lied about our age so people would think we were older. Lori Mattix herself admitted to having a fake ID. Some people claim that Mattix is in denial, has Stockholm Syndrome, was brainwashed, or is in a state of dissociation from her trauma. I’m a neuroscientist who researches the effects of trauma on the brain. I understand all of this. But at the same time, should we really be forcing our own narrative onto this now 57-year-old woman? Only she has the right to define her own experience, and so far, she’s done so in her own way. Calling Bowie a rapist, when Mattix herself defines the experience as positive, is just another way of forcing ourselves on her.

Note: I’m not condoning Bowie’s relationship with Mattix in any way. Regardless of the age difference, there is always a power differential between celebrities and their fans that can cloud the ability to give and receive consent. This is an important conversation I’ll save for a later time, but the point for now is that Mattix has spoken about this and we should respect her.

Lori Mattix was among the many people sharing condolences, memories, music, and pictures of Bowie.

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If anybody was to name my rapist(s) on social media, with me as the victim, describing the experience for me, I would feel so violated. I know this because that has happened to me. Nearly two years after I was raped, I read somebody else’s skewed interpretation of what happened. One that absolutely did not reflect my experience at all, and it was out there for the whole world to see. Those types of things—the gossip, the blame, the shame—that was even worse for me than the rape itself. I wrote a book about my experiences, mostly to help others, but also as a way for me to reclaim my own narrative of my life. But in the way that I see people responding to Lori Mattix, I’m realizing that it doesn’t matter what your story is, people will always be quick to tell you what really happened to you.

But what about the people who really do feel triggered and silenced by the world supporting people who they believe to be sexual predators? I do feel sorry they’re feeling that way, and I know that our culture has a terrible track record of victim-blaming, minimizing, ignoring, and normalizing sexual violence. Dylan Farrow’s open letter about her abuse as a 7-year-old at the hands of her then step-father Woody Allen comes to mind. In it, she states:

Each time I saw my abuser’s face – on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television – I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart.

For so long, Woody Allen’s acceptance silenced me. It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away. But the survivors of sexual abuse who have reached out to me – to support me and to share their fears of coming forward, of being called a liar, of being told their memories aren’t their memories – have given me a reason to not be silent, if only so others know that they don’t have to be silent either.

Today, I consider myself lucky. I am happily married. I have the support of my amazing brothers and sisters. I have a mother who found within herself a well of fortitude that saved us from the chaos a predator brought into our home. But others are still scared, vulnerable, and struggling for the courage to tell the truth. The message that Hollywood sends matters for them.

Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse.

So imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter. Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?

Now here is a story of a victim asking for support in bringing her abuser to justice, and one that has largely gone ignored. Why do we ignore the person asking for help, but push the person who says she’s fine to admit she was raped? Two things stand out to me in Ms. Farrow’s beautiful and brave letter: 1) the oppression she felt at the world’s acceptance of Woody Allen went away when she connected with other survivors who supported her, and 2) the fact that Hollywood still honors Woody Allen sends a message that abused children will not be believed, they will not be supported, and that this is acceptable behavior.

What we need to be successful in the fight against being silenced is to support one another, and to work to create a society in which anyone can feel safe speaking for themselves—not by taking it upon ourselves to speak for other people. A lot of good work has been done here, as evidenced by the fact that Dylan Farrow found support in other survivors and her letter was published in the New York Times. But it seems that there is another part that we’re missing–how to respond, as a society, to sexual predators. There is a place for making cultural statements like boycotting a certain individual because of predatory behavior. I understand that the propagation of sexual violence is very culturally driven and shunning individuals for bad behavior can be a way to move society’s perception of these issues forward; however, I don’t believe censorship is the way to do this. Maybe Woody Allen should no longer be eligible for award nominations. Maybe Hollywood should revoke his key to the city. Maybe he shouldn’t receive any royalties from his films. Ultimately, he should probably be in jail. But I don’t think Woody Allen’s movies should go on a Banned Movies List. If, knowing what you know about Woody Allen, you can’t stomach watching his movies any more, so be it. But shaming other consumers who appreciate the art of filmmaking isn’t going to help (Whether or not one can or should separate a person from their art is another question I may address later.). In contrast to others, I don’t think we should create a culture in which people are so ashamed that they might have potentially listened to the music of a pedophile or watched the TV show of a rapist, that they’re afraid to talk to anybody about anything. This may sound self-righteous, but I think the freedom to consume and make art is a basic human right that shouldn’t be denied of anyone, not even “bad” people.

But ultimately, this issue is bigger than Hollywood. This issue goes back to when kids like Dylan Farrow are “made to recount my story over and over again, to doctor after doctor, pushed to see if I’d admit I was lying.” This issue goes back to when parents don’t believe what’s going on with their kids. Dylan Farrow: “My mother sat me down and told me that I wouldn’t be in trouble if I was lying.” Lori Mattix: “[Mother] knew that I was dating the biggest rock star in the world. She used to say, “My daughter is like Priscilla [Presley].” This goes back to society’s acceptance of 24-year-old Elvis courting 14-year old Priscilla. This goes back to the underage groupie scene being paraded in magazines like Star and interviewed by news anchors like Tom Synder.

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I don’t think we need to be shaming one another for appreciating parts of our culture that we were raised to believe was okay, especially when those things themselves don’t promote bad behavior. Maybe we didn’t know better then, but we can do better now. If we’re going to call for the censorship of anything, maybe it should be of violent porn that degrades and objectifies women, because research has indicated that people who watch that kind of porn are more likely to act that way in real life. However, I don’t know of any research that has indicated that banning this kind of porn will have any effect on the incidence of sex crimes, so again, censorship is probably not the answer. What has been shown to have a great effect on the reduction of rape, sexual assault, and relationship violence is education. That’s where we need to start. We need to start by rejecting archaic ideals that women are liars, that children make up tales of abuse for attention, that sexual purity is a measure of individual worth, that consent is negotiable. We need to teach teenagers how to explore their sexuality in a healthy way so they don’t need to go looking for answers from sexual encounters with older adults, and more importantly, so they don’t grow up into adults who look for sexual encounters with children. We need to stop placing celebrities and politicians and athletes on an untouchable pedestal, and we need to stop treating human beings like they are objects to which some people are entitled. This is a society-wide problem. Nobody is simply born a sexual predator.

We need to move forward, not try to erase what has already happened. So for me, I will continue to listen to David Bowie until somebody that he has sexually violated asks me not to—and in the meantime, I will continue to work on creating a culture that will ensure that any victims feel comfortable speaking their truth if they’re so inclined to do so, and even if that truth includes conflicting feelings of whether to watch the Cosby Show or whether to listen to David Bowie. Because these things aren’t as black-and-white as simply turning off the TV, and it’s in each other that we’ll find our voice and the right direction forward.

Apryl Pooley is a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, researching the effects of trauma on the brain and author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir

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