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.