It’s rare that I am given the opportunity to use the word “figuratively” correctly, but figuratively everyone is talking about David Bowie right now. I did it, I made my little social media post, and felt a moment of heartbreak. A not insignificant number of people, however, are talking about a woman named Lori Mattix. Lori Mattix claims to have lost her virginity to Bowie, at the age of 15. The claim does not appear to be contentious, it is accepted as truth. I have no desire to investigate the claim — nor would I know how to, were I so inclined.
I do want to investigate our conception of bodily autonomy, because people are calling the event described by Lori Mattix “rape.” In one sense they are right, the event does seem to be a case of statutory rape. Insofar as the law, sure. But I’m not particularly interested in the law either, especially with this, it is a non-starter. More importantly Mattix (now an adult woman) emphatically rejects the classification.
Mattix consistently maintains that the event was totally consensual, and that even now she reflects on it warmly. Who has the right to take that from her? I certainly do not. Something happens when an agent takes action; they assert that they have the properties necessary to take that action. Protests spring up, “but she couldn’t have consented, she was a child!”
So, we have two conflicting assertions:
1.) Mattix claiming she had the ability to consent, and that she did consent.
2.) The state (and some individuals) claiming that Mattix did not have the ability to consent, and therefore could not have possibly consented.
Lets set those two things aside for a second, and talk about rape. It’s not easy to talk about, it is a hugely complex and painful subject for many. Appreciating that: there are still some things we can say about it. Probably the physical act is not the truly terrible thing. Mere sex does not constitute rape, the physical act itself is not what makes an event a rape. So, while we generally think that rape requires some form of sex, that is not *all* it is. The second property is much more important; the complete subjugation of another’s will. Or, to state it differently, the removal or disregard of one’s right and ability to consent. We generally recognize this as the abject and horrific thing that it is. From slavery, to violence, to rape we understand that it is fundamentally wrong to disregard an individual’s right to decide what they do with their own body.
Bearing that in mind, consider again the two conflicting assertions. On one hand, we have an individual claiming to have a right to decide what to do with her own body. On the other hand we have an amalgamation of entities wholly disregarding that individual’s ability (and therefore right) to decide what they do with their body.
Denying Mattix’s right to do with her body as she pleases (and rejecting her ability to do so based on arbitrary statutes) is in no morally relevant way distinct from the second – and most vicious – property of rape itself. Claiming she was raped, while she wholeheartedly denies this, is disregarding her agency, her bodily autonomy, and her will for herself.
One thing we can not do is let the “ick” factor determine our morality. This is a lesson we as a species relentlessly forget. We have called for bans on food products because we think they are icky, we even have religious prohibitions regarding food stuffs. We call things we don’t like “filthy,” as though that is a sound moral condemnation. Our Boy Scouts include in their oath a command to stay “morally clean.” Marriage was denied to countless individuals for an immeasurable amount of time because those in power found the idea of sex between the individuals in question to be icky. Icky, is not a moral status. Icky is not a good grounding for legal code. Icky is not a valid rejection of bodily autonomy. We have to be better than that.
We also at times believe ourselves to be a nation of mind readers. This idea fascinates me. Humans have the odd inclination to, from a very remote position, make strong declarations about the metal states of total strangers. Here the damage is twofold. When, or if, you find yourself saying, “but Mattix couldn’t have consented, she didn’t fully understand what she was consenting to,” you are proposing to have intimate knowledge of someone else’s mental state (roughly 40 years ago). And you are using that absurd claim of knowledge to justify a revocation of her most basic rights.
This is morally monstrous, unlike many similar justifications for subjugation, this paradoxical violation does the very thing it claims to seek to prevent. And it does so in its victim’s name. How fundamentally ridiculous is it that we have coercive laws against coercion? It is absolutely horrifying to know that those who seek to alienate you from your choices, your body, and your will claim that they are doing it for your own good. I imagine a haughty rapist saying, “she liked it, I did it for her own good,” when I think of those who deny this woman’s right to consent; I don’t believe anyone can tell me why I shouldn’t.
David Bowie was an amazing musician, I don’t know anything about him as a moral agent, but I believe he was also an incredibly brave man. The worst he can be accused of in this regard is having more respect for bodily autonomy and individual agency than those who happen to be in power right now. From one outsider, to another: we define ourselves, we create ourselves, we make our choices. No one has a right to take that from someone else, certainly not in their own name.
This article was originally written as a Facebook post by Mallorie Nasrallah, a grad student who doesn’t have the time to blog, but takes every opportunity she can to speak out about Body Autonomy and other issues. In the past her writing has transcended it’s social media genesis after going viral and being picked up by CNN in a wonderfully crafted piece about a woman’s choice to maintain self-ownership of her body and live child-free, often to the shifty sideways sneers of society.