Oh! You Pretty Things: Spotlight on David Bowie and Catholic Sex Scandals

What did the spotlight miss about Bowie? (David Bowie performs at Tweeter Center, August 8, 2002, Photo by Adam Bielawsk; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 3.0)

What did the spotlight miss about Bowie? (David Bowie performs at Tweeter Center, August 8, 2002, Photo by Photobra, Adam Bielawski; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 3.0)

NOTA BENE: I don’t say anything here that would have caused shame to Bowie. Therefore neither he, nor his 70’s rock star buddies, ever attempted to deny their consensual exploits with teenage boys and girls. On the other hand, the Catholic Church, especially figures like Cardinal Law who haven’t been prosecuted, has plenty to be ashamed of despite systematic improvements in its policy.

Isn’t it a space oddity that David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, landed on the same day as the latest round of Catholic sex scandals took off?

This coincidence, seen in the right light, appears as predestined as the plots of Kundera or Kieslowski. It also reveals something about the last acceptable prejudice and how little (what remains of) Western society really cares about the victims of sex abuse.

Let’s start with the Catholics, because in the public imagination they seem to have cornered the market on sex scandals. Catholic are under pressure because their guilt seems so obvious and culpable it could be represented in an elegant mathematical formula such as this one:

perverts + celibate priests + bad bishops + dumb laity = pedophile ~ Catholic

I’ve argued elsewhere that there is a necessary visibility to Catholicism that will not allow its past sins to disintegrate into (Ziggy) stardust. It also frequently leads to hasty generalizations like the equation above. But maybe this is for the good?

This visibility means that, at least according to Crux, that there is a silver lining to what it calls VatiLeaks 2.0 even if Georg Ratzinger, brother of the pope emeritus, was close to them, but not directly involved:

Aren't the words of the title synonymous?

“Priest” and “pedophile” aren’t synonyms?

Disclosing what broke down is a promising beginning, but much remains to be done, including justice for victims and the all-important matter of accountability, both for the crimes and the cover-up.

Yet Catholics can at least take comfort that in these two cases, and a growing number of others, the Church has not been forced kicking and screaming to face the facts. It asked the hard questions itself and went looking for answers, as the first step toward trying to do better.

The Catholics are still not getting a free pass despite improvements. I really think that’s the way things should be. I am thankful for Catholic visibility and accountability. Catholics can run for a while, even a long while, but they can’t hide.

Things are different with David Bowie.

As I write this the press and his fans are busy shoving the rock star’s sexual indiscretions under the rug right before our eyes.

No, it’s not the pedestrian claim made by the Columbia Journalism Review that Bowie was the first major rockstar who was openly gay:

One aspect of Bowie’s life was left out of much of the tributary coverage, however. You could read Jon Pareles’ obituary in The New York Times Monday morning and not learn that Bowie was the first major rock star to say he was gay. You could read Edna Gunderson in USA Today and not hear about it, either. The obituary on CNN left it unsaid, as did the Wall Street Journal. Even hipper online outlets like Slate ignored that element of Bowie’s life in their obituaries.

No, that’s not it. His alleged homosexuality is not the big story, since even the CJR piece disappointingly recalls how Bowie later in life claimed he was a “closet heterosexual” who craved attention so he made up stories about his non-hetero sex life. His addiction to attention never seems to have dried up and so he even turned his death into a publicity stunt for selling the Blackstar album.  The cynics among you might say Bowie is as tasteless in death as he was in life.

There’s something else that should completely ch-ch-change your assessment of Bowie: his sexual abuse of minors.

Yes, if you were to google David Bowie you could read The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and the Columbia Journalism Review and not find out that Bowie raped teenage girls:

Mattix told Thrillist the night continued with a threesome involving Mattix and another 15-year-old “baby groupie” Sable Starr.

“Two hours later, I went to check on Sable. She was all fucked up in the living room, walking around, fogging up windows and writing, ‘I want to fuck David,'” Mattix said. “I told him what she was doing and that I felt so bad. Bowie said, ‘Well, darling, bring her in.’ That night I lost my virginity and had my first threesome.”

To this day, Mattix claims that her decision to lose her virginity to the pop icon was “consensual,” Mattix told Thrillist. While Mattix is entitled to believe this, the age of consent would have made the alleged sexual encounter illegal.

This Music.Mic story about one of our “heroes” was rendered so invisible by the algorithms that I only found out about it thanks to the Gonzo research-assistant talents of Samuel Rocha. Isn’t that strange?

After having these biographical details filled out would you be caught dancing in the streets to the tune of the following lyrics from the song “Oh! You Pretty Things” off the album Hunky Dory?

Wake up you sleepy head
Put on some clothes, shake up your bed
Put another log on the fire for me
I’ve made some breakfast and coffee
Look out my window and what do I see
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me
All the nightmares came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay . . .

. . . Oh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Oh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Let me make it plain
You gotta make way for the Homo Superior

The direction of the spotlight determines what we can see.

The direction of the spotlight determines what we can see.

You cannot unsee the adolescent rape in these lyrics and you cannot unhear it every time you try to listen to the song unless you’re blind and deaf.

But, to be fair, as child advocate Dr. Rebecca Hains reminds us, Bowie is not the only major music star who had pretty things looking out his window and reaching their hands to . . . well . . . you get the picture:

The idea that Bowie is a rapist (albeit a statutory one) places him within a broader behind-the-scenes pattern that is not uncommon enough among male stars. Bill Cosby. Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. Mike Tyson. R. Kelly. Michael Jackson. John Lennon. The list of famous men who have raped or battered women or children seems endless. Though these cases vary in significant ways, they all reflect the same underlying problems: criminally predatory behavior and entitlement in men’s celebrity culture.

There clearly must be some double standards [some rape of minors is more minor than others] if the lawyers of these men got them off relatively scot-free. As a sidebar I’d like to note that it does seem that the cases involving the non-white members of that list, like the cases involving the Catholic Church, were more visible and the reparations they had to (or continue to) pay are more punitive.

This is where, in my estimates, the film Spotlight faltered somewhat. The character who plays the new editor of the Boston Globe in the film constantly pushes the  homegrown Spotlight team to integrate their disparate discoveries, to look for the bigger picture behind it all. After the film finished I intently watched to see whether the film had that effect on its audience. But Spotlight did not inspire wider critical reflection on sexual abuse of children in the press and elite academic audience of the screening. All I heard was, “Isn’t it good they nailed those [Catholic] bastards?” I can only vainly hope general audiences took the arcane message of the film to heart. But I also wonder if there was one, whether I only invented it myself.

Therefore, permit me to conclude by putting both the David Bowie and Catholic sex-with-minors scandals in a wider spotlight:

  1. The systematic cover-up of sexual abuse is not an anomaly. You’ve just witnessed one such cover-up, by not witnessing it, with David Bowie. You might be an accomplice.
  2. What’s more, Bowie will get a free pass. The women he exploited felt so blessed to have sex with him that it would have never crossed their minds to even press charges. “Baby groupies” were a well-known and accepted part of 70’s rock culture.
  3. If you actually bother to scratch the surface, then you will find out that the family is where the overwhemling majority of child sexual abuse occurs. This is general, but repressed, knowledge.
  4. School boards regularly shuffle sex-offender teachers to other districts.
  5. What’s more, if you dig even deeper, you will find out that abuse of minors by clergy occurs at a lower rate than among the general populace.
  6. Finally, according to Protestant sources, sex abuse of minors is both more frequent, and less visible, among Protestant clergy.

If it inevitably gets lost on some readers going through a piece this long: I’d like to reiterate that I’m glad the Catholic coverups were uncovered and I look forward to harsher penalties against all involved. I grateful for Catholic visibility, because with it comes responsibility.

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For more on a closely related topic see, Catholic and Evangelical Sex Scandals Are Structurally Different.

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About Artur Rosman

Artur Rosman was born in Warsaw, but is secretly Krakovian.
He is husband, father of three, professor, public speaker, book translator, and a onetime television personality on Polish TV. He recently completed and defended a dissertation on the Catholic imagination of Czeslaw Milosz at the University of Washington. He was the Channel Manager of Patheos-Catholic.