November 14, 2022

GUEST ROOM | When Entitlement Becomes Exploitation: A Survivor’s Opinion

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Content warning: article discusses sexual assault and rape.

As a survivor of sexual assault — of rape, by the hands of a Cornell man — the news of sexual assault and druggings on campus this week has proved extremely reflective, disheartening and (somehow) simultaneously empowering. 

Why empowering? In the most seemingly screwed-up way, I finally feel heard. I finally feel acknowledged. Maybe not understood, but acknowledged.

While the epidemic that is sexual assault is by no means a Cornell-specific issue, I couldn’t help but reflect on it as a peculiar flavor, or perhaps context, behind sexual assault on this campus: that crucial context, to me, has unveiled itself as two things that, when mingled together, create a breeding ground for assault. Those incognito ingredients to this dangerous concoction are 1) elitism and 2) entitlement. 

When people, especially men, have never heard the word “no” growing up, is it any wonder when they don’t treat a woman’s body (and right to choose) as such? Is it any wonder that men who have seldom, if ever, been refused or denied things, feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to women’s bodies? 

Over the past week, I’ve kept my eye out for this entitlement, and not just in the form and context of assault either. I’ve witnessed it in classrooms, at the bar and… honestly everywhere. I never thought I would be “that kid” or, perhaps more pejoratively though more accurately in my mind, “that girl.” The hypocritical elite. The college call-out girl. The hypocritically critical New Jersey sorority girl, calling out elitism. 

But I’m not here to call out, lambast or scream at elitism and entitlement. That’s not my field of interest or expertise. And I’m not going to pretend it is. No, I’m here because I want to understand it. 

Over the past week, after observing the campus through a critical lens, watching for entitlement at every turn, I couldn’t help but pick up on its idiosyncrasies.

As a bartender, I notice that the people with the heaviest, most platinum cards, sometimes in the “highest ranked frats” tend to leave behind a measly dollar tip at best. And the reverse holds true too. The flimsiest cards, held by burnt-out construction workers, leave overwhelmingly generous tips. 

This isn’t a novel concept. “That’s why the rich get richer…” my boss remarked when I pointed out this phenomenon at work the other night.

In regards to sexual assault, as a survivor, I have a lot to say on the subject (and believe me, I plan to) about the appropriate and inappropriate discourses around it, and the action (or lack thereof) that continues to ensue. But, for now, it’s critical for us, as members of the Cornell community, to acknowledge and understand the distinct flavor of this behavior, and why it remains both omnipresent and well-obscured. 

As a so-called elite institution, much of the behavior that accompanies elitism (which, in this instance, and in many, is mainly a proxy for class/wealth), involves entitlement. In mild cases, entitlement looks like a petulant middle-aged guy, scoffing at the internal temperature of his tuna tar-tar. In extreme cases, it means assault. And not just physically either. 

It means an infringement — an assault on a woman’s right to choose. It’s an assault on bodily autonomy and sexual agency. It is an assault on the mind.

As much as I would love to say that education in the form of consent workshops is the highway to heaven when it comes to taming the beast of sexual assault that is evidently rampant in our culture, I have long been, and continue to be, a fervent believer in two things as chief motivating factors in spurring change and preventing dangerous behavior: incentive structures and humanity. In spheres of elitism, people are encouraged to continue their behavior, because, oftentimes, elites wield the power to preserve the institutions that benefit them.

Elites aren’t incentivized or encouraged to change their behavior after so much positive reinforcement. If they have always gotten what they wanted, why stop now? 

This brings me to my second point: humanity — an understanding of ourselves and each other (or lack thereof). To me, the epidemic of assault in American, elite private school culture signifies a whole other epidemic unto itself. It signifies a lack of empathy — a lack of curiosity and willingness to understand the “other.”

We have been taught how to game systems. Heck, that’s why a lot of us are here! But when have we been taught to be curious about people? To see people as beings to be understood (and possibly loved), and not instruments for gain. 

We have been taught through much of the positive reinforcement of getting into a place as elusive and elite as Cornell, to use people, and love things, when we should be exercising the reverse. We have learned that people can be manipulated. We have learned that opportunities can (and maybe even must) be capitalized on. So is it any wonder, then, when men in elite circles, many with their first glimpse into independence, view women’s limp bodies and inebriated minds in a similar vein?

If this culture — our culture — starts seeing people as beings with agency, with a right and a say over their own body (rather than simply tools for potential gain), maybe, just maybe, people will begin to see others not as objects for their disposal or momentary pleasure, but as subjects of their own experience. 

Kat Martin is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.