The Sexist

Touch And Go: How Groping Happens


It starts with an insignificant touch. The accidental brush on the Metro. The hug that lasts a few seconds too long. The hand that dips down past the small of your back to settle just below the waist.

And then it gets a little bit closer. The stranger who pushes against your butt as he edges past you on the crowded dance floor. The businessman who sticks his hand out as he passes you on the street so that his palm briefly grazes the side of your ass. The drunk guy in the crosswalk who leaves a mark on your shoulder from an unsolicited kiss.

It starts with a dance. He just dances by grinding his pelvis into yours. He also hugs by grinding his pelvis into yours. And he positions himself on the crowded Metro by grinding his pelvis into yours.

This is how he shakes hands: He takes your right hand in his right. He grasps your upper arm in his left. As he shakes, he makes sure his fingers reach out to rub up against the side of your breast.Boob2
It starts with an excuse. The gay man who insists that he’s got carte blanche to fondle straight girls. The straight man who goes to gay bars so he can fondle straight girls, too. The hipster for whom groping breasts is an ironic touch. The good friend who casually places his hand on your ass like it belongs there. The woman who thinks she can grab a man’s ass and grind herself into his groin on a public sidewalk in order to convince him to sleep with her, because he’s a man and she’s a woman.

It starts with entitlement. The man who approaches you on the National Mall on the Fourth of July, squeezes your breasts, and runs off into the crowd. The man who saddles up behind you at the bar and cups your boobs. The man who wanders behind you at the bookstore when you’re bent over to pick a title from the lowest shelf and grabs your ass. The guy who passes you in line for the coffee-shop bathroom who swipes his hand under the hem of your skirt. The cab driver who takes your money, then tries to take a little more. The group of four friends who spend their evening systematically groping every woman in the bar that night. The man standing against the wall who casually cups your vagina in his hand without even looking at you. The boy who grabs you, gropes you, and tells you he’s going to rape you in order to give his friends a laugh.

And then it doesn’t stop.

The man on the crowded Metro who grinds his pelvis into your back every time the train bumps, whose erection is in full view when you escape to an open seat two stops later.

The man who targets you on the packed dance floor, puts his legs between yours, and doesn’t let go until he ejaculates.

The man who targets you on the Metro, follows you to your destination, trails you to your car, then leans on your driver’s-side door until he gets what he came for.

The funeral director at your boyfriend’s grandmother’s memorial service who sees you hanging around at the back of the chapel, shoves his hand between your legs, and squeezes.

And what do you do? You don’t know what to do. You stiffen up. You edge away. You wait until he’s finished. You convince yourself it was just an accident. You turn it into a joke to tell your friends. You don’t tell anybody. You can’t sleep. You shake with rage. You daydream about it for months afterwards. You fantasize about pounding his face into the pavement. You would have said something, but he was bigger than you. You would have said something, but he smelled like alcohol. You would have said something, but you didn’t have any proof. You would have said something, but it wasn’t worth your time. You would have said something, but you didn’t want to embarrass him. Next time, you’ll say something.

Or you do say something, and he denies it—why would he want to touch your ass? Or you tell your friends, and they tell you you’re too meek. You need to start walking with more confidence. Or you scream, but he’s already down the street, across the club, on another train. And everyone turns to look at you like you’re crazy. Or you report him to the bartender, who says he’ll kick the guy out. And he doesn’t.

Or you dump a beer on his head. You stick a 5-inch stiletto heel into the top of his foot. You’ve been groped one too many times. You punch him in the kidneys. You call three police departments until someone takes your case.

These are the experiences of D.C.’s groping victims. The scenes of their crimes are our local bars, bookstores, national parks, parking lots, Red Lines, and sidewalks. Their attackers are their cab drivers, dance partners, friends, and fellow passengers. Their gropes occurred in plain view of hundreds of witnesses. But despite the highly public nature of these sexual assaults, the majority of these groping victims did not report their attacks to police. Some of them never told their friends. A few didn’t even move an inch.

Gropers succeed in a system where sexual assault is minimized as an accident, a joke, a myth, or a fact of life. Over the next month, this column will examine how the system works to claim others’ bodies as public property while excusing away the District’s most prolific sexual assailants.

This column is the first in a series. Part 2: Why Some Groping Victims Stay Silent. Read all the Sexist's groping coverage here.

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

  • jf1

    "but I just wanted you to consider that a lot of women don’t do something because they are afraid."

    Of course. Absolutely. No matter what, women can come in small packages, relative to men, can be much weaker and can be lacking in a killer instinct, the ability to take things up a notch or two too far.

    I completely understand this.

    How do they compensate for this?

    By screaming bloody murder at the drop of a hat. By making a huge big deal out of the slightest issue.

    At least *some* of them do.

    And certainly there are guys out there who are eager to prove their "manhood" by taking such women "under their wing", as it were. You want to see some crazy crap, watch a guy who thinks that he is protecting a womans' honor challenge another guy who is too full of himself to back down, whether he did anything bad to her or not. They each get into a fight thinking that they are being a man and can't back down from a challenge, can't even *tolerate* a challenge. And there the girl is, trying to get in between them and keep them from fighting, suddenly apologizing and saying that it's not a big deal, it's too late. The nuts are on the pavement and they have to go toe to toe.

    You think that I don't know that women are afraid of guys? LOL I've seen more than my share of shit between guys and other guys and guys and girls and I know very well that most of the educated women in the DC area didn't get to be where they are by getting into streetfights :)

    What do you think that these chickenshit guys who rub up against them and squeeze them on a dark street or in a crowded hallway are thinking? They're thinking that they can hit it, turn away and by the time that she gets over her outrage they will be long gone, she's unsure of who it was and she won't raise a stink. Then you know what happens, they start to point the finger at guys who LOOK LIKE they could be gropers. The guys that don't quite "fit in", the guys who aren't wearing a suit. The guys who look like they might have trouble with women. When all along the problem is the guy who blends in easily, who no one would suspect for a groper.

    Time and time again that is what happens. They work in the shadow of suspicion, while everyone else is focused on watching someone else, someone else who is likely to get blamed for what they do, simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong "look", dealing with the wrong set of idiots.

    You don't have to tell me that women are "nonconfrontational" out of fear. That doesn't mean that they can't do a good job of stirring up trouble out of fear. Indeed it usually means quite the opposite. Women are really good at stirring up a LOT of trouble out of nothing more than fear.

  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    Women get groped everywhere, jt1. My girlfriend & I were on the sidewalk on M Street in Georgetown in the early evening, & we both live in Georgetown. So according to you we're supposed to avoid walking on M Street in Georgetown?

    Idiot. I am replying to a clown like you just so the other people can see clearly what a clown you are.

  • Ken

    I feel for women after readinh this. I had no idea this went on. My only suggestion is to shame the groper by screaming and making a public scene/ shouting/ embarassing the groper. Also Hank, I think women can tell the difference between being brushed against in a crowded mall or subway station because of the fray of activity and being deliberately groped. Groping is not ok and must not be tolerated.

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  • pwedz

    I went to see Grandmaster Flash at Ibiza last night.

    I'm a tall white guy, not too bad looking.

    I was battered by intense booty dancing all night.
    It was shocking how many girls came up to me and grinded their backsides on me.. ..I think that their intention was to get an arousal..

    btw - worst CP article ever on style.

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  • Reid

    Wait, Comrade Al Gonzales, vanguard of the proletariat, lives in Georgetown?

  • Occam

    I'm interested at how many suggestions there are on this thread for women on how they should react to groping. If we frame this discussion in a "what should women do when they are groped" way, that continues to put the onus on a woman to make groping as bad as possible for the groper. This isn't victim-blaming per se, but it is assigning the proper reaction to the victim of groping, hoping that her reaction will make the groping stop.

    In order to stop the problem, we need to assign blame to the gropers and suggest ways that they can be stopped, while also not putting the responsibility for stopping them on their victims.

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  • roula

    Did I ever mention I <3 Amanda Hess? Thanks for being so awesome, perceptive, feminist, and tenacious.

  • SJL


    If you are concerned about getting mistakenly identified as a groper, I suggest you take pains to be alert for gropers when in crowded areas and do your best to stop them when you witness an assault. Maybe you could take some self-defense classes and learn some conflict resolution skills. Make sure you stand on the train in the best position for observing and intervening should someone grope a woman. Remaining oblivious is one of the largest risk factors in being misidentified as a groper. Make sure you don't compromise your judgement.

    What is that you say? You shouldn't have to be vigilant all the time? You shouldn't have to devote all your attention in public places to thwarting unwanted advances? It shouldn't be your responsibility to prevent bad behavior? The proper authorities should be on the case?

    that's what I say too, only when I make that assertion, I*'m a crazy women stirring up unnecessary trouble. Or, I'm an irresponsible slut who should know how to handle herself properly.

  • c.f.


    usually I don't read comments on articles like these because they just depress me, but your last comment made it all worth it.

    "What is that you say? You shouldn’t have to be vigilant all the time? You shouldn’t have to devote all your attention in public places to thwarting unwanted advances? It shouldn’t be your responsibility to prevent bad behavior? The proper authorities should be on the case?"

    I'm not sure it will actually persuade any of these "oh i'm sure they're just accidents" or "women stir up trouble all the time" or "man this is sexist nobody objects to women brushing up against men on the subway" types, because I'm not sure anything could - but it's so true that it hurts.

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  • Amelia

    Amanda, thank you for writing this series. I hope it makes guys more aware of some of the experiences that many girls & women have to face (and be on their guard against). I am 23, and I have four younger brothers. It's interesting to think about how much of my life they won't ever 'get'. We have different experiences of walking down the street in a public space. When I pass by a group of builders I stop thinking & I am nervous. When my brothers pass by a group of builders (or whoever) they won't think twice about it, they feel free & safe in a public space. I have experienced sexual harrassment (from builders and other men), but not public groping. Clearly many women DO experience groping in public places, though - it's great to see an article written about this very quiet, insidious assault. It makes me angry to think that groper's almost always get away with it, because the groper is a stranger, and it happens quickly in a public place. Reporting him to the police won't do anything if he has disappeared - and he knows it.