Friday, August 26, 2016

The Right to What?

by Jean Roberta

When I reached puberty, my father began warning me about “girls” (which in his vocabulary could mean females of any age) who “asked for trouble.” This was the kind of thing I was never supposed to do, because, presumably, if I “asked” for trouble, it would show up.

“Asking for trouble” could take a wide variety of forms: wearing clothes that were “too tight” or too revealing (all subject to the viewpoint of the observer), drinking or doing dope of any kind, swearing or discussing unladylike subjects, such as sex.

“Trouble” was equally vague, but ominous. The word always implied the righteous use of force by someone who was entitled to use it. Presumably, if I did, said or wore the wrong thing, I would lose the right to be treated with any respect. I could be grabbed, beaten, held in place, groped or raped by someone who assumed I deserved it.

Since then, there has been much discussion about rights, boundaries, respect, communication, and consent. Various analogies have been used to persuade potential rapists (masculine people) that sex must always be based on clear consent, and that it must be given each time; there is no such thing as “the kind of girl” who can always be punished or used with impunity (aside from clearly-negotiated BDSM relationships). I sometimes wonder if educational material based on a feminist concept of consent has much effect on an age-old credibility gap between those who feel entitled to dish out “trouble” (only when it is “asked for,” of course) and those who have reason to fear being seen as trouble-magnets.

A sense of entitlement can lead to all sorts of coercive behaviour. Years ago, I noticed that certain students (most of them male) felt entitled to negotiate with me for higher grades on assignments, and not to accept no for an answer. In most cases, these guys had a certain charm, and they smiled a lot. I came to suspect that their approach to me was parallel to their approach to the girls they dated, except that in each case, they were pushing for a different outcome.

For some people, “no” doesn’t sound like the end of a discussion; it sounds like a challenge. The concept of assertiveness (and guidebooks with instructions in how to practice it) probably arose in response to the sense of entitlement that goes with unequal power. The reason why assertiveness is not universally accepted is because it prevents someone else from getting what they feel entitled to have.

No one I’ve ever met has claimed to be in favour of “abuse,” however described. Of course not. That goes without saying. However, I’ve heard cringe-worthy conversations among other people of a certain age and income-level about how Group X (especially service workers in restaurants, stores, hotels and planes) should never say no to a customer, no matter what. The diner got roaring drunk and demanded to know why Grilled Rhinoceros is not on the menu? The server should apologize, and if asked, should fetch the manager to apologize again. The customer ruined an item of clothing, then brought it back to the store for a free replacement? The salesclerk should provide it, instantly. The customer is always right.

The customer is often much older and whiter than the service-provider. What a coincidence.

This attitude reminds me of the traditional heterosexual dating game, in which the Alpha or host is expected to pay for everything that costs money. Presumably, he’s not really paying for sexual service, but if he doesn’t get it, he feels entitled to complain that he has been misled, scammed, taken for a fool. Or he feels entitled to take what he thinks he has earned.

I would like to believe that a sense of entitlement is dying out of the culture at large as a sense of empathy rises like a tide. That’s what I would like. Alas, it’s not what I’m entitled to.


  1. Oh, yes! I'd forgotten about the "I paid, now you put out" bargain many men feel is implicit in the traditional dating culture. (It has been a long time since I went on a date. And even when I did, I often insisted we split the tab.) That's a perfect example of entitlement (in the negative sense).

    As far as these attitudes dying out... I think that perhaps they're less widely held than before. However, there are obviously still many men (including young men) who feel that they're entitled to dish out trouble to women who they perceive are asking for it.

  2. "Presumably, if I did, said or wore the wrong thing, I would lose the right to be treated with any respect."

    This is the crux of it, I think, and that's what needs to change if people are going to get any better about this. Because the things one can supposedly do to lose respect are so small, and the punishments so large. And the things people can buy or do that make them feel entitled to anything they want with your body can also be quite small, and the entitlement large.

    I've felt I had to sleep with people who gave me a ride home, and later I thought about how a taxi ride would have been less than 20 dollars, and all the gross things that says about worth and this sort of transaction.

    I've always had a certain sense of freedom with my body which I think is natural to who I am, and it's sad to me how often that sense of freedom and generosity has been taken as a declaration that I'm not worthy of respect.

    So these are really important points you raise, and I'm glad to see this subject addressed from a position of strength, as you did, where my somewhat similar take on entitlement was written from a position of weakness.

  3. The key to all of this is that it's the beholder who gets to decide who's asking for what and how to dispense the fix. Judge, jury, executioner. Rather one-sided.

  4. I think I've mentioned before that my father and I clashed a lot when I was a teenager. I asked him, after one of his many lectures about my dress and behavior, just what it was that I should wear out of the house. He told me that if my clothing was too short and revealing, boys would be driven wild with lust and force me to do things, all my fault, of course. But if I dressed in a very modest way, covering myself up entirely, they'd wonder what was under all of that clothing and be driven wild with lust and force me to do things, all my fault, of course. So what he was really saying, was that I shouldn't go out of the house at all. He smirked and me, and nodded.

    Another of our fruitless "discussions" involved me asking him, "If boys do and girls don't, who are the boys doing it with? Each other?" To which he regarded me haughtily, "Other people's daughters." Sigh. I wanted to yell at him that many of them were doing it with me, and it was MY idea, but I didn't want to get tossed out of the house while I was still in high school.

    Once he threatened to take me to a psychiatrist, because having read Freud in the original German, he thought that any analyst would agree with him that I obviously was totally fucked up, in expecting to be in control of my own sexuality. I offered to go, and told him I wanted him there also, so the analyst could judge which of us was the one with problems. Another time I was almost tossed out. He used to take my picture out of his wallet, telling me that he didn't have a daughter anymore. Later, he'd put it back in, and I was supposed to be grateful.

    And the final straw was when he told my brother and me, that he wished I was his son, so he could be proud of my sexual exploits, and that my brother was his daughter, so he could be proud of having a child who abstained. We both looked at each other, then at him, saying, "Um...thanks, Dad? Love you too?"

    Unfortunately that feeling that men rule and women serve, is still with us, in some cases more than ever. Women are still expected to control themselves, AND all of the men around them. That's a heavy load to put on a hormonal young girl. And it excuses every boy/man around her from having to be responsible for his own behavior, which is unfair to both of them. Men don't learn control, and women don't get to choose. Entitlement hurts both parties in any exchange. Unfortunately, society changes in teeny, tiny increments. 2 steps forward, and 1 back. All of us will be long gone before these particular beliefs die off. That's part of why I like sci-fi so much. It lets the reader buy into a time in the future when men and women truly are egalitarian, and no one is forced to kowtow to anyone else, unless it's their idea. Though I'm sure that human nature being what it is, there will be other things some will feel entitled about.

  5. In the pre-birth control pills days girls could be kept in order by fear of pregnancy, and there's still an element of that, but I think a large part of the motivation in ultra-conservative circles to make contraception hard to get is that they want to keep that threat to keep girls in order. On the other side, the availability of contraception makes men feel all the more entitled to sex when ever they want it, since women often don't have fear of pregnancy as an excuse for denying them sex. For women it's a lose-lose situation. And why should women need an excuse to have or not have sex in the first place?

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Discussions of sexuality are often depressing, since conservative argument haven't changed since before I was born in the 1950s. In fact, politicians who don,t like birth control in any form generally don't understand how the pill works, no matter who tries to enlighten them. (I suspect my late ex-husband was ignorant until death.) I can't claim I've figured out how to outwit or stop men with a sense of entitlement - I've just grown older and more resistible. :)

  7. You're so right, Jean. Along with you, I guess I've also grown more "resistible." Fortunately, not to my husband. But other men, even those my age, spend all of their time ogling very young if! When I was very young, I thought old guys trying to hit on me were disgusting! I'd laugh at them. What is it with some men that not only do they feel entitled, but they think they continue to be so, long after their shelf date?

  8. Fiona, you've come close to a description of the sex trade: older men with money paying for service from younger women who need money. That's what I discovered as a call girl in the 1980s. Of course, some versions of this deal are private arrangements (guy helps girl with her rent and is then entitled to spend nights with her) that aren't visible to the public at large.


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