The darker side of sexual entitlement.

Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.

– Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

Hugo Schwyzer wrote a response to my last post about sexual entitlement.  I think his interpretation of what I wrote was distorted, but instead of repeating myself I would refer him to my post on Owing someone the possibility of sex – which a careful reader may notice was not entitled “Owing someone sex” – in which I tried to describe with some amount of nuance what I thought people “owed” one another sexually.

One reason why I wrote about sexual entitlement, even if this particular word may not have been up to the task, is that emotions surrounding relationships can become so fraught, and jealousy so vicious, in part because there is a strong sense that nobody “deserves” a relationship.  And while Hugo may applaud the idea that nobody “deserves” a relationship or sex, the flip side of this belief is that the involuntarily celibate person (usually, not always, a man or teenage boy) is left with “nothing to complain about” which, I believe, can make competition for sexual partners all the more frantic and desperate. Pain labelled as “trivial” is worse, and less manageable, than pain stemming from a recognized human need.

But I’d like to move beyond what I said in my last post, and talk about “entitlement” in a slightly different way.  Consider, for example, Hugo’s take on his own ethically adventurous youth:

Should I have been fired in 1996 or 1997? Maybe. Should someone — a colleague or an administrator — have confronted me? Absolutely. Would I have stopped my behavior had I been confronted? Perhaps not (I was self-destructive enough to risk my career at that point), but it would have likely punctured my cocky sense of invincibility and entitlement.

Bold mine.

So he says he had a sense of “entitlement.”  And what’s also true is that Hugo, in his late twenties, presumably knew that student-professor sex was frowned upon, especially in feminist circles.  Which means that his behavior was contrary to his own sexual ethics at the time he was engaging in it. So why did do it?  In part, because of his sense of entitlement.  Moreover, had he not felt entitled, it’s doubtful he would have had the psychological fortitude to seduce his students in the first place.  Which is just as well, you might say.  But he would also not have had the fortitude to engage in a number of other, perfectly appropriate relationships.

A criticism of feminism I have is that it doesn’t take into account the darker side of human sexuality.  And while it is important to talk about boundaries and appropriate behavior, we should also be honest about the fact that the darker side of human sexuality not only exists, but is necessary.  Which doesn’t mean that professors should sleep with their students, or that we discard rules against sexual harassment, or other reasonable rules of sexual etiquette.  But what I am suggesting is that sex has a darker side, that young women are often attracted to that darker side, and that good men ought not be psychologically disabled from functioning within the penumbra of the darker side.  Which means that good men should not be completely discouraged from having a sense of – yes – sexual entitlement.  And that’s one reason I think Hugo’s hypocrisy, even if unintentional, is a problem.

By way of analogy, consider the sexual hypocrisy of conservative, evangelical Christians and the “abstinence before marriage” movement.  Here we have adults, most of whom had sex as teenagers, telling their adolescent children that the only morally acceptable behavior is abstinence.  And yet, here’s an important point:  The pro-abstinence crowd isn’t consciously acting in bad faith. I would bet that most of the parents who favor abstinence, despite their own youthful indulgences, genuinely believe that they would be abstinent if they could do it over again.  The fact that their own sexual experimentation as teenagers was probably an important part of their own psychosexual development tends to be forgotten, at least consciously. And so what you end up with is a moral system in which hypocrisy plays a large role.  And while it’s been said that “hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue,” I’d say hypocrisy makes a culture coarser – a tribute virtue pays to power.

Similar to the abstinence-promoting parents, Hugo probably thinks he’d live according to the sexual guidelines he now teaches, if he had to do it all over again.  But what I suspect he doesn’t appreciate is that his own youthful sense of entitlement, his own acting out, gave him the psychological space within which to grow.

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6 Responses to The darker side of sexual entitlement.

  1. CaliOak says:

    You are conflating two mutually exclusive forms of sexual entitlement. Did the young Hugo think he was entitled to sex authority figures disapproved of? Yes. And from his post he still does, if not in the same way. Did he think he was entitled to sex from women? No, not from the sound of his post, or yours. There is no overlap between ignoring the wishes of your boss/pastor/political leaders/parents and ignoring the wishes of your sexual partner. One is not rape, or a rape justification, the other is rape or an argument in support of rape.

    And having sex with students, like adultery, isn’t always discouraged because it’s bad for the individuals involved. Sex with subordinates/students (and adultery) is usually discouraged because it’s a recipe for trouble in general, even if there are times when it works out.

  2. Just a metalhead says:

    This discussion has been getting me to think of the rhetorics of entitlement versus having a “sense of worth”, and the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the difference is almost purely rhetorical. A bit like “government spending” versus “government investment”, the same act can be called both, but the difference is rhetorical, people like that the government “invests” but dislike when it “spends”.

    Going to a dictionary, I found these definitions:

    -Entitled: to give (a person or thing) a title, right, or claim to something; furnish with grounds for laying claim.
    -Worthy: of commendable excellence or merit; deserving.

    And what is the definition of “deserving”?

    -Deserving: qualified for or having a claim to reward, assistance, etc., because of one’s actions, qualities, or situation.

    Notice how both “deserving” (which is supposed to be a synonym to “worthy”) and “entitled” define someone who “has a claim” to something. So the difference between having a “sense of worth”/being “worthy” and “entitlement” isn’t that clearcut, they’re not opposites, nor do the definitions exclude each other.

    If someone has a sense of worth regarding his sexuality or attractiveness for a relationship, that means he must believe that he is worthy of some attention or of having his advances answered favorably. Worth, after all, is mainly defined by others, by how they desire you or recognize what you do or what you are. So in some way, having a sense of sexual or romantic worth means that you must believe that at least some people should feel happy to have you as a sexual or romantic partner. In other words, that you are entitled for someone, somewhere, to respond positively to you, because if you believe yourself worthy and no one else does so, then the logical conclusion should be that your sense of self-worth is a mere delusion, that you are a narcissist who presumes his worth is much more than it actually is.

    Granted, there are nuances on how the words are used, but I think it’s pretty evident that “sense of worth” and “entitlement” overlap a lot more than people claim. The same person doing the same thing could be the said by someone that he has a good sense of worth, while someone else could say that he is feeling entitled, and both would be right. The difference is in how the people want to describe the situation, “sense of worth” is positively charged and “entitlement” is negatively charged in general.

    This said, the use of the word “entitlement” to describe male sexuality instead of “sense of worth” is basically painting it as problematic, deviant and its use keep forcing men to reevaluate ever downward their own worth. When some feminists have accused men of entitlement for, for example, trying to strike a discussion with someone they don’t know well with the intent of maybe starting something romantically or sexually, it is not a big leap to hear instead “men aren’t even worthy enough to deserve a moment of that woman’s attention, they should just presume that they are unworthy of her”. It has been used that way so much that a lot of progressive-minded men (as opposed to the more conservative who just ignore whatever feminists or gender analysts say) have internalized it and think of their worth always as being unjust entitlement.

    I see Miguel’s attempt to use the word in a positive light as a way to escape this trap that he has been taught, by redefining the implied meaning of “entitlement” from negative to, at least, neutral.

    Sorry Miguel if you feel I misrepresent what you’re trying to do.

  3. Jim says:

    “And having sex with students, like adultery, isn’t always discouraged because it’s bad for the individuals involved. ”

    This is an extremely important point. The students a professor sleeps with are not the only students affected. Most actions have externalities and fraternization is one of them. And that’s why such liaisons, whatever the power inequality, may or may not yield much to a rape analysis, but a fraternization anlaysis will usually make the harms pretty clear.

  4. humbition says:

    Power corrupts. Lack of power corrupts differently.

    The feminist concept of entitlement seems to come primarily from analyzing things that men who feel socially or sexually empowered sometimes do. I will leave the reasons this might be so as an exercise for the reader.

    There are other dangers which come from people who feel socially or sexually disempowered. They are not quite the same dangers. They probably need their own analysis, and it is silly for blog feminists to use one concept for both.

    A healthy feeling of social and sexual empowerment probably tends to make one a better person, though such a feeling does not come on demand. Like many things, it is good within limits — too little, and too much, may be toxic.

  5. Jim says:

    ‘They are not quite the same dangers.”

    Well if your ideological heuristic lumps both all men into a class, then what appears to be similar behavior is going to get labeled with the same term because there will be no criterion to distinguish one instance from another.

  6. Marle says:

    He’s a professor. How can he possibly grade fairly when he’s sleeping with his students?

    But there’s nothing “dark” about the sex. He was in his late 20s, they were in their early 20s or maybe 18. That’s no big deal. The issue is he wasn’t doing his job right, and no one cared.

    It seems like the answer your seeking for the plight of the sexuality isolated is to encourage woman to initiate more. Maybe that’s not really a topic you can really cover, since it’s would be hard for a man to tell women how to initiate, but it would be a solution.

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