It Was Acceptable In The 70s: Why I won’t excuse the actions of the past.

This is part of a series responding to issues that came up in comments on my post, David Bowie was wonderful. He was also an abuser. How do we handle that?In this post, I’m going to explore the idea that as the 70s were a different time, we can’t judge what people did back then by today’s standards. Here are some of the things that commenters had to say:

Luna:

You just can’t judge actions of the past on today’s standards. Lori Lightning and Sable Starr said they had the time of their lives  … The media lapped them up, being this young and adored by older men was normalised and they adored older men which too was normalised. The ”baby groupies” as they were known as had a mission to get with as many rock stars as possible ... Yeah, they were very young. Today, this would never happen, and that’s a good thing.

Kif:

[T]hey were different times – the Summer of Love had happened 5 years previously, and young people world-wide were caught up in the aftermath of the late 60s struggles for sexual liberation & emancipation. It is unfair to judge the morality of 1973 by today’s standards.

Amy:

[I]n the late 60s and 70s you had 17 year olds being sent to war so you know what? the times were different and kids were expected to grow up a lot faster than the sheltered protected kids we have today

Justin:

People realise that it was a different time right? That people were doing things with 16 year olds and it was considered okay. I don’t think we should go back and judge people of a different time doing something that was normal in a different time. David Bowie would have never done anything with anyone against their will and even judging him is wrong.

And Paul:

You can’t judge the past by modern standards – something that, unfortunately, it takes Years and experience to learn. 40 years from now, someone might read your judgemental, sophomoric opinions and wonder why people in the 2010’s were so eager to blame, scandalize, and general be puckered up tighter than an asshole.

That last comment aside (oh, Paul..), I think that these are interesting points. Is morality constructed? Yes, all the time. Are some things normal at one time and unacceptable in another? Yes, of course. Does this mean that we can only judge actions at the same time as they are committed? I don’t think so. And here’s why:

The 1970s Were Just Like That. They were also like this.

I know a lot of women about the same age as Lori Maddox. Unlike Lori, though, they didn’t grow up in LA. They grew up here in Ireland. While Lori was sleeping with rock stars, girls in Ireland were being locked up. They’d be taken from their families- or sometimes sent there by relatives to save their families from shame and ostracism. Their crimes? Becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Going on dates with boys. Looking too pretty. Their punishment? Indefinite imprisonment. Forced labour for the profit of the Catholic Church. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Some got out- through a combination of ingenuity and happenstance. Many others didn’t.

The Magdalene laundries weren’t technically run by the state. However, the state did send girls to be locked up there. And escapees were frequently rounded up by police.

Getting sent to the Magdalene laundry wasn’t the only thing that women in 1970s Ireland had to worry about. You’d dodge that bullet once you got married, true. Good luck planning your family though- it was illegal to buy or import contraceptives until 1980 (and even then, it took till 1993 until they were freely available). And don’t even try avoiding sex. Marital rape wasn’t criminalised in the Republic until 1990.

All of these things were socially acceptable in 1970s Ireland, at the same time as rock stars were fucking underage girls in LA.

I don’t accept any of them. I judge a society that turned a blind eye- at best- to forced labour and the indefinite imprisonment of thousands of girls and women. Harshly. As harshly as I judge a society that refuses to bring the perpetrators of this modern-day slavery to justice.

Of course, in one way it’s ridiculous to compare one adult man having sex with a willing minor to what was happening in Ireland at the time. Unless your assertion is that the former is okay, because we can’t judge people if their actions were accepted at the time. That leads directly to accepting the latter, as well as anything people did in the past as long as it was widespread. That kind of relativism is incredibly dangerous.


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23 thoughts on “It Was Acceptable In The 70s: Why I won’t excuse the actions of the past.

  1. 1

    It’s extremely ironic to focus on Bowie in this. He grew up in a country and era when all male homosexual acts were illegal and lesbian acts, while not technically against the law, were taboo. When he became flamboyantly famous, the age of consent for male homosexuals in England and Wales was 21 (it’s now 16) and in Scotland and Northern Ireland male homosexuality was still illegal. So if Bowie slept with a 20-year-old guy in London, which is very likely, or even a 25-year-old in Edinburgh, he was breaking the law.

    I do think it’s “ridiculous to compare [this] one adult man having sex with a willing minor to what was happening in Ireland at the time” not because what he did was acceptable but because it was understandable and not, judging by the rest of his life as far as we know it, indicative of a life-long trend as an abuser. Bowie’s public attitude to the arbitrary rules that already made him a criminal was extremely helpful in the long run. He shouldn’t have had sex with a 15-year-old; but I find it easy to forgive him, and I wish this hadn’t been brought up (not originally by you) in a time of mourning for someone who both produced some great art and had a remarkable, positive influence on the public acceptance of sexual variety.

    1. 1.1

      Petesh: I understand the issues around ages of consent, particularly for queer people, at the time. I’m working on a post about that at the moment, so I’d like to get my thoughts together in that. I hope you’ll bear with me on that point.

      However, this isn’t about Bowie, a hypothetical 20 year old man and homophobic laws. This is about Bowie and a girl who was at least three or four years under the age of consent.

      In relation to this, though:

      it was understandable and not, judging by the rest of his life as far as we know it, indicative of a life-long trend as an abuser

      I find myself asking: How many minors does an adult have to have sex with before we say that that person should face consequences?

      1. In England & Wales, the age of consent was and is 16, and respectable Quakers were among those suggesting in the early 70s that 14 made more sense. Bowie wasn’t in London, he was in California where the age of consent was and is 18 (according to wikipedia many people did not realize this, but I’m not going to rely on that), so I’m not quite sure where your “at least” comes from. She was under the legal age of consent, and he could have been busted. He could also have been busted for cocaine. And probably for furnishing alcohol to a minor. But I very much doubt that he thought he was doing anything wrong — illegal, perhaps, but wrong? I agree with you that he was, but as I said after all this time, and considering all the circumstances, I find it easy to forgive him.

        Your “how many minors” question is framed to be unnecessarily provocative, in my view. The answer is, to me, it depends: One would be plenty if there is any coercion; also, if there is evidence of a pattern of intent, especially if the offense is recent and there is a reasonable expectation that further offenses may occur. The number goes up, I suppose, with distance of time and evidence that the offense was consensual. I dont think numbers is it, though. We have to have numbers (e.g., 1, 16, 18, 21) to construct a legal system but I’ve always been about justice more than law.

      2. “I find myself asking: How many minors does an adult have to have sex with before we say that that person should face consequences?”

        More than David Bowie and less than Jimmy Page 😉

  2. 2

    I am going off on a bit of a tangent but it’s semi-relevant and might give you ideas.

    A few years ago I was discussing systems of morality with a friend who is/was a sort of consequentialist (the patient is now recovering!) and as we dug around in the question of whether objective morality can be constructed based on ‘greatest good for greatest number’ kinds of things, I launched a flank attack with the argument that for something to be moral it has to be time-invariant. In other words I would expect a constructive moral system to result in the idea that slavery is always wrong, whether it’s in 2016, 1900, or 9. Because, otherwise, you don’t actually have a moral system, you’ve just got convenience and you’re ratifying the status quo.

    And that’s the tie-in to this question: If we recognize that it’s wrong for adults to be having sex with children, we ought to have a pretty good idea of what an “adult” is and what a “child” is and you can’t say something is right or wrong based on those things unless you know what those things are. This is an important problem! We don’t want to be castigating catholic priests for doing what flamboyant rock stars do. Back to that question of invariance: if we claim to have a moral system, adults fucking 14 year-olds ought to be returned as “wrong” regardless of any of the genders involved, the professions involved, and whether they are popular or not.

    1. 2.1

      I smiled at this because I’m a fellow computer geek and I totally get the “time-invariant” notion.

      The problem I have with “if we claim to have a moral system, adults fucking 14 year-olds ought to be returned as “wrong” regardless” is (1) 14 used to be the age of consent in many places (heck, kids got married off at that age) so claiming that it’s “wrong” is automatically a moral relativism; and (2) life is greyscale, not binary – Lori Mattix/Maddox claimed to be essentially emancipated at that age and her Mom even blessed her union with Jimmy Page.

      (Catholic priests still need to be castigated because I highly doubt the altar boys were “groupies” who were dedicated to seeking out sex with priests. Plus power dynamic. They were actually abused.)

  3. 3

    “In this post, I’m going to explore the idea that as the 70s were a different time,”

    Ah, but they were!

    “we can’t judge what people did back then by today’s standards.”

    Oh, yes, we can! Same as we can look back on things we did as kids that we thought were “cool” at the time and say, “damn, that was stupid.” It’s all a matter of what we’ve learned both from the initial experience and in the years after. Society was fucked up in the 70’s, people did fucked up things, and I think society has, in some ways, learned from that. (In other ways, not so much with the learning. *cough*warondrugs*cough*)

  4. 4

    Did the question of teenagers having sex with older men even come up back then? The impression I got at the time was teenagers having sex at all was a bad thing in general, deserving of treatment like was mentioned about Ireland.

  5. 5

    “I doubt that he thought he was doing anything wrong” is irrelevant: plenty of people do horrible things (like imprisoning teenagers for being pregnant) while being sure they aren’t doing anything wrong.

  6. 6

    What I’d like to ask those who say that the 70s were a different time is whether their reaction would be the same if the protagonists were a young accountant fucking his client’s daughter? A school teacher with an older sister of one of his students? In the 70s.

    Because I feel like people say the 70s were a different time, but what they mean is it’s different because it’s Bowie.

    1. 6.2

      “What I’d like to ask those who say that the 70s were a different time is whether their reaction would be the same if the protagonists were a young accountant fucking his client’s daughter?”

      Because that situation is *exactly* like emancipated groupies actively seeking out sex with Rock Stars with their mothers’ consent. Oh, wait …

      “Because I feel like people say the 70s were a different time, but what they mean is it’s different because it’s Bowie.”

      No, we say it because we actually lived through it and know what the times were like. I knew about Lori and Jimmy Page but I had no idea Bowie had ever met her back then until now – so no, you’re wrong.

  7. GG
    7

    petesh brings up a good point that’s worth considering in depth. If we allow ourselves to judge a period 50 years in the past on the basis of contemporary mores we must acknowledge that our actions will, in turn, be judged 50 years in the future. However, this leads to several complications:
    + We don’t know what the mores of 50+ years will be, so we can’t act on them. “Ought implies can”; there can be no moral obligation to take a particular course of action when we don’t know what that course of action is.
    + We’ll be judged by people 25 years in the future, and 50, and 100, and the judgements of these people may conflict. If I have a choice between actions A and B, and a person 25 years in the future says “do A” while a person 50 years in the future says “do B”, what should I do?

    The second item, I think, provides a definitive answer to the general issue. I assert that a valid moral system must provide guidance for right action in the present. If we allow that our actions should take into account the evaluations of future persons, we’re in the position where we no longer have a guide to right action, because we cannot determine which future persons we should “listen to”. It follows from there that, if we accept that a valid moral system must provide a guide for right action, we can only judge ourselves based on the mores of a single time period.

    Which time period do we choose? We can’t choose the future, because we don’t yet know what mores the future will have adopted. Which leaves us with the past or the present; I choose the present, because I think current mores are “less wrong”.

    So, bringing this back to Bowie. What should he have done? He could have conformed his behavior to our mores, or to the mores of 2066, or to the mores of his own time. If my reasoning above is correct, to ask him to conform to our mores is to ask for the impossible, because he didn’t know what those mores would be. Instead, it seems reasonable to ask him to abide by the mores of his own time period, and then judge him by how he adhered to those mores.

    1. 7.1

      An interesting approach, but it gets even more complicated: To whose mores was he adhering (or not)? In parts of his world at the time (by which I mean basically Britain and the US), consensual legal sex by teenagers was shameful. In parts, legal marriage could take place at 12. In my circles (I was born two years after Bowie), sex with kids was horrifying, but the definition of kid was a bit loose: none of my friends, as far as I know, had sex with anyone under 16 (many of us were virgins at 18 or even older), but I did know some 16-year-olds who were definitely kids and considered off-limits, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some 15-year-olds passed as older. Does it matter that what Bowie did was acceptable in his mind and circle? Does it matter that the real prudes disapproved of all sexual activity outside straight marriage?

      I’m genuinely wrestling with this, partly because it is Bowie, the rule-changer, but also because this is the extreme case, in my view, of possible retrospective sanctions. Forgetting now the timing of the discussion, which first got me exercised, I think we can generally agree that (1) he committed statutory rape; (2) that we only know of consensual (though illegal) activity; (3) that he later became an upstanding, if still bohemian, adult.

      Jimmy Savile was a slimy shit and I have no problem metaphorically digging up his grave and pissing on his corpse; indeed, I think it’s salutary and the fact that cops and bosses are getting a little of the attention is excellent, if only pour encourager les autres. Pretty much anyone else I can think of whom we might retrospectively condemn or punish lies between those two. My line remains fuzzy and gray.

      1. … of course, the amusing irony of saying “Instead, it seems reasonable to ask him to abide by the mores of his own time period, and then judge him by how he adhered to those mores.” is that he didn’t exactly abide by the mores of his own time – saying “I’m Gay and always have been” in Melody Maker back in January of 1972 and wearing a giant dangling earring on the Russell Harty Show in 1973 wasn’t exactly toeing the line on the social mores of the day 😉

  8. GG
    8

    Yeah… the “whose mores?” is just a big a problem as the “when?”. One way to resolve that particular dilemma is to postulate that there are moral norms which are independent of time and place. They are then binding on Bowie, you, me, and people 50+ years in the future. Aoife seems to be pointing in this direction when she says

    “I judge a society that turned a blind eye- at best- to forced labour and the indefinite imprisonment of thousands of girls and women. Harshly. As harshly as I judge a society that refuses to bring the perpetrators of this modern-day slavery to justice.”

    I happen to agree with the notion that there is some minimal set of norms which is universal (elaboration of that point at http://aleph-nought.blogspot.com/2012/09/on-not-endorsing-moral-axioms.html), but that view seems to have fallen out of favor in the contemporary era. A non-trivial subset of feminist scholars, for example, have called out the notion of universalist ethics as deeply problematic (good discussion of that at http://www.iep.utm.edu/fem-e-n/).

    I dunno the solution to that one… you tell me. There are behaviors which seem to be pretty evil by anyone’s standards, regardless of time or place (Savile, for example). But its far from clear that we can actually act on that belief without marginalizing other viewpoints in the process.

    1. 8.1

      I totally agree with you here, but I think as much as we’d all like to agree on the “universal ethics” of some things – like the Golden Rule of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” – then you find out about stuff like honor killings‡ and you really have to wonder how there are still people in the world that Just Don’t Get It.

      ‡”An honor killing or shame killing is the homicide of a member of a family by other members, due to the perpetrators’ belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family, or has violated the principles of a community or a religion, usually for reasons such as refusing to enter an arranged marriage, being in a relationship that is disapproved by their family, having sex outside marriage, becoming the victim of rape, dressing in ways which are deemed inappropriate, engaging in non-heterosexual relations or renouncing a faith.

      — Wikipedia

  9. 9

    I think… “it was acceptable back then” isn’t a blank-check moral pass, but it *can* be an acceptable reason under certain circumstances. Depending on *why* it was acceptable back then, and isn’t now.

    For example, part of why we have “age of consent” type rules is, well, the presumed difference in power and authority between an adult and a child, and thus the presumed *abuse* of authority when an adult has sex with a child. But different societies have different lines for “adult” vs “child”, anywhere from “anything past puberty is fine” to “anyone under 21 is off limits”. Especially when both parties are relatively young, and entirely willing, statutory rape is a grey area at the best of times.

    And, personally, as I understand the situation, I might be willing to give him at least something of a pass on it even if it happened *today*, much less 40-odd years ago. I see a *big* difference between “guy fails to check the age of young person throwing herself at him, in a situation where he can reasonably expect that the people around him are of age” and “guy seeks out and seduces girl that he knows is underage”. I mean, sometimes “I didn’t know she was underage” is a lame and patently false excuse, but… if you meet someone at a bar or the like, you generally assume they’re old enough to be allowed to be there, right?

    Another way to look at it is… the meta-rules are universal. Things like “hurting people is bad”. But the specific *applications* of the meta-rules aren’t so universal. Things like statutory rape rules fall under “specific applications” without necessarily breaking the meta-rules, but things like the Magdalene laundries you mentioned were breaking the meta-rules.

    And, of course, situational moral relativity doesn’t mean that there are no rules, just that in some situations one set of rules more or less overrides another, or a rule doesn’t apply because of special circumstances, or the like. The very off-topic example that seems relevant here: I think we can agree that sending “useless” old people off to die alone is a bad thing. But if you’re barely on the edge of survival, and, say, trying to bring Grandma along on your annual migration to the winter hunting grounds may mean that the rest of the tribe doesn’t make it, and you *all* die, then leaving her behind to die when you leave may be the least bad thing to do. Would you, a comfortable inhabitant of a wealthy nation, be right to condemn those edge-of-survival tribesmen for their “savagery”, when you might well have made the exact same choice *in their circumstances*?

    I’m not saying that boinking a 14-year-old was a good moral choice, just… if you as you are now might have made the same choice he did *in his circumstances*, then it’s not exactly fair to condemn him after the fact for breaking rules you would expect him to follow in other circumstances.

    Pardon me if I’m rambling semicoherently, it’s almost 4 AM and I should have been in bed *hours* ago.

    1. 9.1

      More interesting food for thought. Speaking as one closer to a grandma’s age than a kid’s, I favor assisted suicide under certain circumstances; no way would I want to break the family’s bank account to keep any one member (even the most important one, that indicated by the perpendicular pronoun*) hooked up to tubes in and out and pacified with inadequate** amounts of opiates. And yet the morality of this is extremely controversial, and the legality of it varies.
      That’s off-topic except for considerations of evolving morality. And reminds me that attempted suicide was — no kidding — punishable by hanging in Britain until 1961. Indeed, earlier in history, actual suicide was punishable by forfeiting all your worldly goods to the Crown. That’ll show the family who drove you to it …
      *Credit Yes Minister
      **Adequate under the circumstances being excessive under all other circs

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