Four months ago, on January 10 of this year, music icon David Robert Jones — better known by his stage name, David Bowie — passed away at the age of 69 from cancer.
On January 11, the website Thrillist republished an interview with former rock groupie Lori Mattix (sometimes anglicized to Maddox or Madox). In that interview, she stated that she lost her virginity to David Bowie in 1973. At the age of fifteen.
Mattix claimed in that interview that it was a positive experience, but that in no way changes the fact that a 26 year old having sex with a 15 year old is statutory rape. He was an adult; she was barely a teenager. Whatever consent she may have given would be seriously, if not fatally, compromised by that simple fact.
In the wake of the global, public mourning of Bowie’s death, Mattix’s story went viral. This in turn launched countless thinkpieces on rape culture, drug culture, the rapidly-evolving sexual mores of the 70s, and the limits of consent in the face of massive power differentials. What it did not launch, however, was a factual examination of Mattix’s claim.
There are, of course, a number of very good reasons Mattix’s story was treated as credible, despite the fact that Thrillist — a self-described “leading men’s digital lifestyle brand, providing all that’s new, unknown or underappreciated in food, drink, entertainment, nightlife, gadgets and gear” — isn’t exactly a serious journalistic enterprise. In a society that so often assumes, without justification, that women are lying about their experiences with sex in general and sexual assault in particular, it is critically important to give women the benefit of the doubt unless and until there is a very good reason to do otherwise.
Moreover, the “baby groupie” scene was undoubtedly real, and there’s no question that, for instance, Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler and the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman repeatedly committed statutory rape with underage groupies. The fact that an underage Mattix had an ongoing relationship with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is also undisputed; it is heavily corroborated and well-documented, and pictures of them together are widely available. Rock stars in the ’70s were notoriously shameless about their underage targets.
But the question is not whether classic rock had a statutory rape problem. That much is not in dispute, and the fact that we now by and large consider it unacceptable shows that, while we have a long way to go, changing the standards by which our culture operates can and does work. We don’t have any obligation to give powerful men impunity with respect to their personal lives on the basis of their artistic contributions; if anything, our cultural idols need to be held to a higher standard of behavior, not a lower one. The question here, though, is whether the claims about Bowie *in particular* withstand a fact-check.
One problem is that despite the fact that Mattix — who, in addition to Bowie and Page, claims to have had affairs with Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood, Mickey Finn, Angela Bowie, Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer, and Jimmy Bain —asserts that she encountered Bowie multiple times over a period spanning ten years, there appear to be neither photos of them together nor any contemporaneous materials corroborating a sexual encounter between them. That seems especially strange given that — in no small part due to his publicly proclaimed bisexuality — Bowie’s sex life was, if anything, subject to more scrutiny and intrigue than the average rocker’s, not less. Bowie would have had to go to far greater lengths than the average rock star to hide affairs with underage girls; meanwhile, same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults was also illegal in California at the time (and remained so until 1975), and he took no small amount of pride in openly flouting those laws.
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