the challenge of entitlement (or, entitlement 201)

I think for me the most difficult challenge I faced in my journey of accepting and learning to enjoy my dominance has been that of entitlement. I’ve seen, and been on the receiving end of, horrendously entitled behaviour on the part of men for my whole life – entitlement to comment on women’s bodies and clothing and appearance (negatively or positively), entitlement to touch women’s bodies (though I have never been raped or seriously sexually assaulted, like most women I’ve fended off hundreds of gropers and breathers and jerk-offers and stand-too-closers over the years), entitlement to take up physical space (on buses, couches, sidewalks, dance floors), entitlement to take up energetic space (in conversation, in meetings, in workplaces, in volunteer groups), entitlement to anger (in difficult situations, both emotional and physical explosiveness without consideration of the consequence for others) and entitlement to knowledge (assuming they know more than others do, especially women, even when not necessarily better educated on the matter at hand).

My experience is that when challenged, the guys who do this react with offense – “I’m not a bad guy! How dare you suggest I’m doing something wrong! What’s your problem? Fucking bitch!” – that sometimes makes things worse than they were the first time around. Women sometimes display entitled behaviour too, and it irks me just as much and sometimes more, but it happens less often, in fewer areas, and far less predictably. Interestingly in discussion with Ariel, the guy with whom I’m teaching a BDSM and abuse workshop this coming weekend at International Ms. Leather (details in the workshop section!), he mentioned that entitlement is one of the things that domestic violence support services listen for when they’re screening for abusive situations. I didn’t know that in so many words, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Now bring this entitlement issue into the BDSM world. I find that the place where most dominants mess up, when they do, is exactly in this realm. It’s as though a lot of people figure “I’m dominant, they’re submissive, of course I’m entitled,” without stopping to think about how a person’s role in kink does not on its own constitute permission or invitation for just anyone to take up that entitlement. I’m not sure why it’s such a hard conceptual leap to make – but bad male-dom behaviour in this realm fits right in here, much like general male entitlement in the everyday world. Again, female dominants do it too, but not as often or as predictably. These are the women who’ve reclaimed their right to entitlement and then taken it too far. But if I go into mixed play space, I can absolutely guarantee that there will be at least one guy every time who will behave with entitlement towards me or someone female or trans that I’m with. Sometimes this happens in ways that mean he gets kicked out of the event, sometimes it means we roll our eyes and ignore him until he goes away. Okay, I’m sure I’ve attended a handful of events in the last decade where this has not happened, but they are the exception, not the rule. Also, gay men tend to have way less of the women’s-bodies entitlement than straight ones do (although many of my butch friends who pass as men get groped too), and are often somewhat more sensitive to entitled behaviour than the average guy, but many can be just as bad with regard to space, energy and knowledge.

I’m queer and female so I have the privilege of spending a lot of time in women-and-trans-only spaces where this sort of energy and behaviour is simply absent for the most part, or so rare as to be highly exceptional (and boy, does it ever stand out when it happens – gah). This is good on the one hand; on the other hand it means I’m all the more sensitive to the difference in dynamics when I’m in pansexual space. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to see so many queer women self-segregate for this exact reason. I make the political choice to remain deliberately in contact with pansexual kink spaces and groups, and to maintain friendships with straight men, because for all that the entitlement thing crops up consistently, it’s essential for me to continue to expose myself to all the many guys out there who do not behave this way – otherwise I’d end up doing that “reverse sexism” thing and tarring all the guys with the same brush, which just isn’t fair or accurate.

Now take this entitlement question from the larger BDSM context and bring it down to the context of individual relationships. In addition to generalized male entitlement, in my younger years I was also on the receiving end of such behaviour in the context of two different significant relationships that together spanned about six years of my life. They were very destructive to me, but they taught me a helluva lot about what not to do. In that sense I’m glad I experienced them; I wouldn’t wish abusive relationships on anyone, but they certainly served to educate me about what abuse looks like and keep me deeply and intimately aware of how such things work.

Needless to say, given all this background, the thought of any kind of entitlement being encouraged, welcome, desired was completely baffling to me for a very long time. Like years. And yet there was always some part of me that understood that to authentically take up power in a D/s situation, a certain entitlement was both welcome and necessary. This messed with my head. I had a little breakthrough in 2006, which I wrote about here in “entitlement 101″, and the experience of having three really significant D/s relationships over a period of several years has made it much clearer. I’ve finally wrapped my head around it, and it finally makes sense on a gut level too, in the realm of the emotional – in that if someone craves to be owned and used and useful, entitlement and expectation is exactly what they need to from their partner as a counterpart to that mindset, which to them is good and satisfying and positive. (Add structure and discipline and correction and reward to that, of course, but that’s another post.)

If every time I took up power with one of my bois, I asked if it was okay first, then it wouldn’t be very powerful – that would undermine the value of the consent that was given to have the relationship exist along D/s power lines in the first place. It would be like saying, “I know you said this was okay, but I don’t really believe you, so I’m going to ask again each time and make sure.” This is great when you’re playing with someone on occasion, but it sucks the essence out of things if it’s done within an ongoing D/s relationship; it’s like saying the gift of ownership hasn’t really been given, or the desire or consent isn’t really valued, and it recalibrates things as being equal when the entire point is to create and sustain a deliberate inequality for mutual enjoyment and benefit. If we take this out of power exchange concepts and frame it in standard relationship terms, it would be like checking with your wife every morning if it’s okay to wear your wedding ring that day – that implies that maybe she’ll change her mind overnight, which is hardly an indication of trust in the depth and solidity of a relationship. In this way, behaviour that indicates an entitlement to the use of power is the only thing that truly validates what’s going on.

For example, Boi L once told me that if I were to take off my jacket and let go of it without even looking behind me to see if she was there to take it – if I assumed her to be paying attention, without feeling a need to check and make sure – that would be a high compliment, because it’s an indication of my trust in her service. In a way it’s like a trapeze artist swinging into the void, and letting go, and expecting that their partner will make the catch. The flyer is responsible for holding themselves in a way that makes that catch possible, for being timed and tuned with the catcher, for communicating through body and motion what needs to happen. But it’s the trust that makes it possible for the catcher to do their job. If the flyer doesn’t really expect the catcher to be there, and behaves accordingly, either she’ll mess up the move or she’ll never let go and fly at all. And a catcher who’s constantly at the ready but never gets to actually perform will get awfully frustrated with the situation too.

Part of what makes that entitlement okay is that it’s not only consensual, but deeply desired. That said, desire and consent aren’t enough to make it okay; you can see why I’d be so careful (see my recent post entitled “the dominant’s consent”) about making sure that the people with whom I do D/s are coming from a healthy place in their consent to, or pursuit of, that entitlement. I think for me the trick to holding dominance in a person’s world is to find ways to take exactly what they want to give, feel entitled to that because that’s what’s desired, and yet still somehow make my entitlement as much about them as it is about me. Not in the sense of disavowing my own dominance, but in the sense that if I get so wrapped up in what I feel entitled to that I stop considering what it means to them or what it costs them to give it, that’s no longer okay.

Part of this is about understanding where D/s takes the people on the submissive end of it. The trust that someone gives when they say “you own this piece of me” is enormous. In a sense, it becomes safe for someone to give over control of something when they know the person holding it will only make a decision that keeps their health and happiness in mind. But once that ownership is given over, no matter how true it is that the person can still take it back and walk away, the psychological and emotional cost for doing so becomes extremely high. There’s a huge grey zone between “I trust that she will only ever make decisions that are good for me” and “hey, that’s such a shitty abuse of my trust that I have to walk away,” and that’s the grey zone within which it’s up to me, as the dominant party, to hold to my principles and not get drunk on the power I have in someone’s life.

It’s that whole “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” thing. I can wake Boi M up in the middle of the night to fuck even if he’s got to work the next morning. I am most definitely entitled to. Should I? Every once in a while, yes, because the thrill of being rudely awoken for sexual purposes is pretty darn good, and goes a long way to making him feel desired and used in that satisfying happy way. Should I do it every time I’m awake in the middle of the night (which is often) and in the mood for a roll in the hay (which is just about as often)? No. That would be disrespectful of his needs for sleep and to be alert at work.

But where is the line between what feels good and what’s got unhealthy consequences? Waking him once every six months? Once a month? Once a week? Every second night? Every night for a week but never again? At what point is it a special treat versus an expected part of how we operate? At what point does it become a chore instead of a thrill? Conversely, at what point does it become something that hasn’t happened in so long he starts to wonder if I’m still interested in taking him that way? This discernment is up to me – which is not to say that he has no part in it, because he very much does. But there’s a difference between expecting someone to call you out on bad behaviour or poor choices, and making sure you don’t behave badly or make poor choices in the first place. This is the responsibility I take on as a necessary counterpart to my entitlement.

As part of that responsibility, I assign certain expectations of my bois. They are, for example, responsible for letting me know the salient details of their well-being. We often refer to this with a smile as “protecting the property” – as in, because we are talking about human beings here, and not an item of furniture or clothing, their well-being may shift in different circumstances and I can’t be the sole person watching for that; that’s simply unrealistic. This is not like owning a t-shirt, where a cursory examination is enough to make sure it’s in good shape and if it’s really falling apart you toss it in the rag bag. 

I need to know if a headache is coming on, there’s a big day at work tomorrow, the old knee injury is acting up, there’s a doctor’s appointment tomorrow so big bruises are a bad idea. I need to know if they’re having a bad day or need me to be gentle. I also need to know if they’re full of energy and want a place to direct it, if they’ve been feeling neglected, if they’re ragingly horny, if they’re lonely, if they’re having a hard time at school, if they want more structure or more tasks or more explicit direction on a given point. If I’m going to assign a new task, I need to know how performing it will affect their everyday lives – are there enough time and energy and resources for them to perform it well, or will it be taking those things away from other important endeavours? If I’m going to require a change in habits, I need to know everything about the context into which those habits were born in the first place, and what purpose they served. An order to quit drinking coffee, say, is not a bad one in principle, but doesn’t exactly equip the person to carry it out or recognize the needs that bad habit fills which will now need to be met in new ways. These things are all factors in how I deal with my bois and the degree to which I take up my entitlement.

Not only that, but I need to trust that the guiding principle for all of us is well-being whether I am present to enforce it or not. In other words, I need to trust that they won’t continue to perform a service to me if it’s detrimental to them; I need to know that in my absence, the prime directive is “do yourself no harm,” so if I told them to finish cleaning the bathroom but they realize they haven’t eaten and are feeling faint, food comes first. I will not accept self-destructive behaviour in the guise of obedience to me.

Entitlement on its own pisses me the hell off. Entitlement that’s conscious, chosen, desired and responsibly maintained is a different story entirely. It’s an ongoing journey to find my way through what that means to me and to the people with whom I share that path.

12 Responses

  1. Okay, so, totally not the same thing at all, and I’ll try not to go all Freud on you. But you keep dancing with huge psychodynamic themes. And some days I can’t believe you’re not a sex therapist. . .

    So, the one significant relationship in my life where there is a serious imbalance of power is parenting. And similarly, parents who believe and act as if they are entitled to their children’s obedience because of some inherent superiority of themselves as people or of adults as a class irritate me. But the relationship is what it is, and pretending that both parties in the parent-child dyad are equal serves neither me nor the kid. I am not entitled to his obedience, but I *expect* it. Not because of any of *my* qualities, but because of the trust I have in the solid nature of our relationship, and my faith in my child’s abilities. I expect when I make a rule, that it will be followed. If I am constantly checking and micromanaging, that would undermine his confidence in his own worth, his assessment of my belief in his abilities, and both of our senses of the essentials of our relationship.

    And it’s so not the same. But parent-child relations are where the majority of people first experience unequal power in intimate relationships. Heck, intimate relationships at all. And no matter what, they serve as a model for other interactions.

    (And from there my pathetic analogy entirely falls to bits, as this parenting relationship thing is entirely non-consensual, my power is enshrined in law, and neither of us can leave, even if we wanted to.)

  2. The idea of negotiated entitlement occurs in music, as well. I was a professional violinist in the first of my three careers. There are two roles open to violinists playing classical orchestral and chamber music: first violin, which takes the lead and sets the pace and tone, and second violin, which supports the first and provides the base and undercoat tones, with occasional forays to the front. (Actually, there’s a third option, too – viola!!! But I resist the viola jokes here … though it’s hard). I’ve played both first and second, and it didn’t take me long to realize that the role I craved and in which I kicked serious ass was second.

    Good seconds know their firsts well and can follow unexpected leads. It’s a physical connection, primarily, although an emotional one is nice, too. But you *must* understand how your first breathes and moves and how to translate subtle facial expressions and eye contact. The magic trick is allowing your body to track theirs through complete focus, concentration, and relaxation – selflessness, I guess.

    I played second in a serious string quartet in my early 20s – about 20 hours of rehearsal each week in which we negotiated respectfully (sometimes heatedly) in detail what we wanted to happen and developed our understanding of each other. The first violinist was a good friend of mine, and an immense talent, and neurotic and sensitive and interesting to boot. I enjoyed playing second to her. It took her a long time to trust that I could track her when she wanted or needed to let go without worrying about me. One day, I suggested that she play a crazy-making passage in as many different ways as she could dream up – varying the tempo, dynamic, mood, and direction – and see if I could match her everything. I could, and she stopped worrying after that and just assumed that I had her back. It was freeing for her and I adored that. I mean, I was proud of my skill, but I totally loved that she felt like she could just play. Yeah! We explored many more places musically after that, which was fun for everybody, and I liked it that she felt entitled just to let it go and to let it rip without worrying about whether I’d be there. It was a real charge for me, a total thrill, one of the best feelings of my life, a complete high, fulfilling, and not kinky.

    Damn it was good! Let’s hear it for negotiated entitlement emerging from mutual respect.

  3. Hmm. Well, maybe it was kinky, maybe a little bit. I can’t help it!

  4. Wow. Parenting and classical music. I suspect we could come up with dozens more comparable examples if we tried. Thanks for these two!

    Lothyn – I’m not a sex therapist because I already listen to people and observe and analyze relationships as a hobby and in my friendships. I think I’d go nuts if I had to do it for pay as well. Seriously, I did consider it. Anyway, the idea of parental relations being the first ones in which a power imbalance exists is, yes, Freudian, but nonetheless quite true. I think we only get into problems when we expect that abusive homes turn out kinky kids, which unfortunately many people think is true. Not that it can’t ever be, but it’s a gross oversimplification of how kink develops in people. But you didn’t go there.

    medici – So well said: “negotiated entitlement emerging from mutual respect.” I think that’s kinky if the people involved think it’s kinky, regardless of the specifics of what’s actually happening. I sometimes wonder if kink (of the D/s variety at least) isn’t simply the ability to articulate the pleasures of power relations, eroticized or otherwise, and express a desire for them. People are enmeshed in power relations every day in countless situations that I’d label kinky if they were happening in my world. I never would have thought of a string quartet as an example, but hell, why not? :)

  5. From my experience, most of the men that don’t know their own boundaries are not into kink, but are on the path to those that become rapists or go into assaults. However, I have had more issues with gay men and women then more then one of my female friends has had with men. And I’m the first one to admit that I’m not the standard for attractiveness (slightly overweight, balding in my mid-twenties).

    I’ve also seen that it doesn’t matter which side of the power dynamic your on, there will always be people that feel that it’s not your place to speak (which is why I’ve left almost all the forums I used to be on). Some people just don’t know when they have reached their limits. This really plays into the Gorean lifestyle, were one or two people think they know it all, and forget that everyone has different experience and expectations for what their in.

    Now, I’m not into the party scene at all, so that means I haven’t been put into that situation….

  6. Yes… I hear ya. Unfortunately, there are jerks everywhere, kinky or otherwise, and regardless of gender. And they don’t even have to be into kinky sex! Which I suppose is a good thing, I wouldn’t want us to be stuck with all of ‘em…

  7. About being a good second… medici, you have beautifully captured my positional preference anytime that I can find someone competent enough to take the role of first.

    I like to lead, teach and make things happen. I just don’t like to hold the responsibility alone. When I can find a synergistic pairing, I will choose it every time and I am currently most successful at this as a second.

    It’s the pleasure of singing harmony as an alto, even though it’s more work in many ways. I’d rather do the work and feel the buzz of blending flow, but I still end up singing soprano more often than not because my voice is strong and confident and the choir needs me to help carry the melody.

    Singing alto when there isn’t enough soprano in a church choir really messes up a congregation that’s trying to sing along with a new piece of music. Melody is most supportive in that case, too.

    It’s a luxury to sing a duet as a rich alto beside a strong soprano and just get lost in the beauty of it all.

    Life is a lot like choir. And evidently, so is D/s. *wry smile*

  8. […] Geek has a recent post on entitlement, and how that plays into D/s relationships that touches on this. It doesn’t focus on service submission specifically, as much as the […]

  9. Hi there! Let’s see if I can make solid thoughts, it’s late at night!
    So a few things that stand out to me:

    1) “isms” (oppressions) as I see them are prejudices + power, they happen on an individual, interpersonal, institutional and idealogical level. You can’t reverse them because there isn’t the same sort of Power flowing from another direction. So while one can be prejudiced against the oppressive groups, you can’t be enacting reverse sexism, it’s just not possible (yes, I see the amazing and fabulous power that is held by groups with holes in their privilege, but I’m speaking specifically to the kind of invisible and therefore unfabulous power that is held and goes largely unquestioned by the holders).

    Which brings us to 2) the ‘oh, but gosh, taking that power that is visible to us and using it and perverting it sure is hot’ part of the comment: which originally had to do with accountability and responsibility and then got cut by me for length and repeating what you already said in other words.

    3) The problem of ‘hey, keep your entitled ass out of our space!’ aka, when it’s one of us with the bad attitude I have no answers for. Sorry. You’d think it was somehow my job to have answers, right? But I wanted to say yes, it’s way more upsetting, way more aggravating, way more harmful (to me) when it’s coming from one of us: a Trans person who tells me to change my name so that they have an easier time getting my pronoun right, a Queer person who talks over me (oh, Prententious Poly People on occassion) to get their point across, a Jew who questions my ability/Big Jew Credentials to discuss the occupation of Palestine. I get this shit from The Man all day, how about a break, my sibling of x community?

    I am disappointed so entirely when I think that we meet each other on all of these important axes and then go unheard or specifically stomped out, and I think that this is the sort of thing that I was partially referring to in a recent discussion BDSM & sexual assault on the different type of loss when the perp is a community member and when they are not: It hurts differently, we want some safety, or some understanding, or some accountability from those in our boat, and it is totally wrenching when we are left without it.

    So, useful comment? I’m unsure, but your post was super provoking, so yeah.

  10. I just wanted to thank you for writing this. I’ve never been in a D/s relationship but then I started dating a submissive . . . the biggest problem I’ve been having with trying to be his dominant is actually feeling entitled to what I am entitled to, and taking it, and then also stopping myself from being an asshole about being entitled to anything. (I tend to err on the side of never feeling entitled to anything, which is a huge problem in my life in general.)

  11. Ariel – Thanks. A tangent, but a very good one – the way power and privilege are negotiated and sometimes ignored (to others’ detriment) within like-minded community does indeed hurt in ways that cut deeper than when we’re getting it from the “outside.”

    Ren – Boy, do I ever hear ya! That one took me about five years to get through, and I still have my moments. Good luck to you.

  12. Reblogged this on syrens.

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