Like many people with souls, I was greatly saddened by the news of David Bowie’s death. For a few days I posted his songs on my Facebook, made him the soundtrack to my daily tasks and re-watched some of the movies and videos that either starred him or were about him.
Labyrinth was among them, of course. As for many girls in my generation, the Goblin King was integral to my sexual awakening. I still think Jareth is one of the most attractive characters of all time. He was just so confident, so sexy, so oozily masculine in a way that copious amounts of eye makeup, dancing, and tight clothing only intensified.
When you think about it, it’s pretty pervy, though. Bowie was in his forties or so, Jennifer Connelly’s character is what, 16? And I might try and say that I wasn’t hot for him until I was 13, or some other more respectable pubescent age, but I’d be lying. That deep, rolling voice affected me before I had a name for it.
A few days after the man passed, a smattering of headlines, generally from feminist mags and blogs, reminded everyone that Bowie himself – not his alter ego, not his character in my favorite muppet movie, not a fantasy with magical eyebrows – David Bowie had sex with at least one sixteen-year-old girl when he was much, much older than that.
These fem bloggers called out fans for ignoring or rationalizing these actions just because Bowie is a beautiful, genius celebrity. And I’m sure many of them did, because I certainly wanted to – it was the music culture of the time, these were groupies who were literally begging for it, what’s the big difference between a sixteen-year-old and an eighteen-year-old really, I lost my virginity when I was sixteen, was it really that different because my partner was seventeen, this shouldn’t affect how we feel about his art.
But I can’t really swallow any of that. I can’t really swallow that John Lennon, who is one of my favorite musicians of all time, notoriously beat women. And I’m definitely not one to jump on the “Roman Polanski is just misunderstood” bandwagon full of shit. These are crimes and these guys should have paid for them no matter who they are. And what they did is sickening.
Bask in it. Feel it. You don’t have to hate a whole person because they did something despicable, but it’s despicable not to acknowledge what they did just because you want to like them. We need to keep hating the things – the rape, the abuse, the assaults – and holding people accountable. Otherwise it’s never, ever going to get better.
But just as someone doing a despicable thing should not define them, neither should the people who have despicable things happen to them be defined.
The fem bloggers call them “victims.” And that’s really what I want to write about. This “victim” label.
Now, I understand why we have it. As a “victim” of sexual abuse and rape – more on that later – I know how easy it is for us to blame ourselves. I did for a very long time. I know the “victim” rhetoric is meant to remind us that we shouldn’t be feeling all the guilt over what happened. The guilt was with our abusers and our rapists, not us. That doesn’t stop us from feeling it, but that “victim” word helps a little.
But it can also hurt a lot. Because it follows you.
After reading those Bowie headlines, which were honestly news to me, I followed it down the rabbit hole, admittedly hoping Bowie’s statutory rape of his groupie was unproven or an empty allegation. In doing so, I came across an interview with the now-grown woman who had been the “victim” of his crimes.
Boy did she not sound like a victim. She described, in graphic detail sometimes, everything that happened with her and Bowie. She explained that he was “like a God,” that it was an “amazing” experience to lose her virginity to him. She argued that she had no regrets about any of her sexual exploits with the musicians of the time.
I will take a moment to emphasize that regardless of her feelings, David Bowie was still and adult man having sex with a teenager, and what he did was both criminal and, yes, despicable. It is in no way lessened because she happened to come out of it okay. But I got to thinking about it, and I imagine the most damaging thing that came from this is everyone’s persistence in labelling her a “victim.”
Imagine being told your whole life – hounded in the case of being involved with a high profile celebrity – that you were a victim. What happened to you was wrong and messed up, and you will always be part of our victim cause and our victim statistic when we talk about the terrible crimes against women in general. You have been hurt. You will always suffer for it.
And if you don’t, we don’t believe it happened to you.
Now, back to my experience. When I was sixteen I dated a guy who was a lot like The Purple Man on Jessica Jones. When that show came out, I was fascinated by how right they got that character. The way he manipulated her, the way he acted about it and turned things around on her; the way he made friends with everyone else in the world while he slowly chipped away at her sanity.
The Purple Man is very convincing. And part of the guilt you feel after is knowing that at least sometimes, you’d wanted him to keep you. For a myriad of complex and sickening reasons that would take too long to lay out.
My Purple Man raped me and took my virginity. And the sad thing is, that is hardly the worst thing he did. For months, he tormented me with mind games and sexual abuse. Even when I finally got up the nerve to break up with him, we still went to the same high school. He still toyed with me daily. And I hated myself for being an easy target. Hated.
One example so the picture is clear (it would take a novel to describe the whole fucked up relationship): I was in a truck with him and his eleven-year-old brother. I said something about being hungry, he said something about having something I could eat, and the next thing I know, he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me across his lap. He then jammed the steering column between my breasts, trapping me.
I struggled to get up as he laughed at me and groped me in front of his little brother, showing him how funny it was to torture me. I had black and blue bruises on my chest from that incident that I had difficulty hiding in costumes I wore for a musical I was in at the time. He told me I probably got them from falling on the stairs the week before in rehearsal. That’s what I told everyone.
He went to college the next year and I rarely heard from him, but when I did, sometimes I fell right back into the routine of being his lapdog. Even though I had long admitted that he had raped and abused me. It wasn’t until I began seeing a therapist, late in my senior year of high school, that I began to heal.
My freshman year of college, I made lots of friends. I had a boyfriend. I was back on track, getting better, dealing with the fallout privately. I hadn’t heard from him in over a year. And then one day he just appeared in the coffee shop I went to regularly – sliding into the booth across from me. Smiling the way he did. And all of the friends I made who were around, one by one, came up to him and exchanged pleasantries.
Entirely unbeknownst to me, and in a town and college he didn’t even live in or go to, he had systematically discovered everywhere I went and every person I talked to and befriended them. I tried to tell a couple of the closer ones what he was really like, what he had really done – and they didn’t believe me. I lost them.
Then he showed up with puppy dog eyes asking why I would tell anyone he raped me. Of course that never happened. I was just confused.
Fortunately, my therapy and the distance had been good. I wasn’t falling for it that time, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t keep trying. For another year he stalked and tormented me. Messed with my car, wrote lewd messages on the dry erase board outside my dorm room, spread rumors about me. I moved into an apartment with three strangers just to get away from all of it.
And then one day he just disappeared.
For awhile I looked over my shoulder. Years. I expected him to appear out of nowhere and come after me again. I was a victim. I was terrified of he who had power over me – who had wrecked so much of my life – while I let him.
There wasn’t Facebook for a lot of that, and then there was and he didn’t have an account. I ran a background check at one point. He was in jail for “videotaping someone without their consent” in Scottsdale, Arizona – which had blown my mind since he was usually way too careful to get caught doing something like that. And then apparently he wasn’t allowed to leave the state for a number of years. I kept tabs, I checked often.
And then at some point, I lost track.
I went to grad school, fell in love, got married, had children. I moved on. I don’t really ever think about him anymore unless something like Jessica Jones reminds me. What he did was a part of me for sure. It never un-happens. But it feels different now. I like that I am stronger, that I am not the kind of person someone like him would target anymore. I like that I was able to find a healthy and happy relationship with my husband because I had come to know myself and find independence – even if I had to learn the hard way. I like that I have perspective to offer my kids that I had never had growing up.
But I never talk about it. The name at the top of this article? That’s not mine. Because I don’t want anyone reminding me that I’m a “victim.” I don’t want anyone looking at me with pity. I don’t want anyone thinking of me as the weak person who was victimized. It undermines everything I have built since then. It gives him power over me again to call myself that – or to let other people call me that.
I am not a victim. I am a survivor.
And even then, that one word does not define me because that one thing that happened to me is not the whole of my existence. I had a childhood before that, I have a future ahead of me, a million things have already happened and will happen – that one doesn’t get to be the most important.
I return to Bowie:
Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth.