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.
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.