The Internet lit up with tributes when David Bowie passed away Sunday. Fans -- and really, who wasn't a fan? -- posted favourite tracks, iconic photos of Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, think pieces about his influence on music, fashion and the LGBT community and personal reflections: "As a weird kid, Bowie helped me accept myself."
But if you listen closely, amidst the loud celebration are whispers about Bowie's sexual history. Some rebellious souls have pointed out that, ahem, this cultural icon also devirginized a 15-year-old girl named Lori Mattix in the early 1970s. If that doesn't seem like a big deal to you, under the law, it's statutory rape. (In California, where Bowie was living at the time, the age of consent was and still is 18.)
You probably didn't know about this incident. Neither did I.
It may seem in bad taste to raise this contentious bit of Bowie's sexual past so shortly after his passing. In fact, a Facebook friend who initially brought up the underage sex replaced that post with "Sorry everyone," after the blowback he received. But while we celebrate Bowie's brilliance, we should also acknowledge the ways in which he and many other male celebrities abuse their power. When we treat public figures like gods, we enable the dangerous dynamic in which famous men prey on women and girls.
Bowie is part of a long line of male stars who have used their fame to take advantage of vulnerable women. Among the many celebrities who have allegedly slept with girls under the age of consent are Elvis Presley (Priscilla Beaulieu, 14), Marvin Gaye (Denise Gordy, 15), Iggy Pop (Sable Starr, 13) and Chuck Berry (Janice Escalanti, 14). R. Kelly, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have all been accused or convicted of sexually assaulting minors, which differs from statutory rape in that it involves force. And of course, celebrities' sexual crimes are not limited to teenagers. The cases of Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, who both allegedly used their high profiles to sexually abuse women, are currently before the legal system.
Obviously, Bowie is not in the same league as Bill Cosby, if only because Mattix, known as one of the famous "baby groupies," doesn't seem remotely unhappy about her experiences with Bowie. They were both part of the '70s rock star scene on L.A's Sunset Strip, where blowjobs and quaaludes were given out like handshakes. Mattix looks back fondly on the experience, calling it "beautiful" in a recent interview with Thrillist. She looks back less fondly on her relationship with Jimmy Page, who allegedly kidnapped and locked her up in a hotel room.
But it's still important to acknowledge that what Bowie did was illegal. Consent laws are in place because, unlike Mattix, too many underage girls end up traumatized by the sexual experiences they have with older men. Many of those who "consented" as teens realize later that they were exploited and controlled by their older lovers. It's incredibly hard for any victim of sexual assault to come forward, but when your perpetrator is a beloved public figure, your story becomes even more unbelievable.
We know rapists don't fit one mould, yet we're incredulous when a person's crimes don't match our image of them. This phenomenon is particularly heightened with celebrities. How could America's dad, Canada's most progressive radio host and a revolutionary filmmaker all allegedly commit sexual assault? Real talk: You can write a catchy pop song and still like underage sex. But too often we mistake a person's talent for who they are as people. Celebrities know this and take advantage of the protection that comes with being a beloved public figure. As a result, their victims suffer in silence.
To acknowledge that Bowie slept with an underage woman is to admit that he is human. Yes, his talent was exceptional. No, he was not a monster. But we should never glorify celebrities to the point that we refuse to accept that they are capable of ugly acts. Otherwise, we send a message to the alleged victims of Roman Polanski, R. Kelly and Jian Ghomeshi that entertainment is more valuable than justice.
*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.