On Groping

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A nervously jokey post at Jezebel brings up the topic of mass transit gropers and frotteurs. Here is an excerpt:

The first time this ever happened to me – and it’s happened to every woman I know, although men are always completely shocked that such things go on – I was about 14, coming back from some innocent foray into the city, alert not to miss the Grand Central stop so I could catch my train back to Westchester. The SMAMIAC – who was probably extra-depraved, given that at 14 I looked a frumpy 8-year-old – must have been pretty obvious, since I was far from wise in the ways of erections and yet knew exactly what was going on. I remember being paralyzed with shock and horror, and jumping off the train two stops early to escape him. When I got into the car where my mother was waiting to collect me an hour later, I burst into tears. She held me as I choked out the tale, almost too horrible to repeat, and then nodded knowingly.

“What you have to do,” she said sagely. “Is publicly shame them. They’re excited by the secrecy of it, so you have to expose them. Next time it happens, scream ‘PERVERT! PERVERT!’ as loudly as you can.”

Every woman I know has been the recipient of unwanted, sexualized touching and/or public masturbation by strangers at least once. One blogger observed several years ago:

There’s something about Chicago I’ll bet anything you didn’t know. It’s not in any guidebook. And that is the fact that Chicago’s citizens feel compelled to show me their genitalia on public transportation. It’s true, and it’s happened to me multiple times. They ride the train, they see me board, and they reach into their collective pants.

Once, I was riding the Howard line rather late at night, minding my own business, when I noticed the guy across from me fiddling around inside his sweatpants. Okay, I think, he’s just adjusting. God knows we all need to do some adjusting from time to time. Go back to my book. The next time I look up the adjusting has changed to pumping, stroking, whatever you want to call it. He’s very definitely, obviously, pleasuring himself. And he’s not doing it AT me (in fact, his eyes are closed), but it’s in my field of vision nonetheless, and it is not acceptable. The El is public space, people. Have some regard for the social contract.

I look around the rest of the car, and it’s obvious to me that other people have noticed, but they are ignoring the Masturbating Man as hard as they can; noses buried in papers etc. Meanwhile, he’s still going at it.

I try giving him my best evil look, but if anything that just inspires the guy. Finally I can’t take it anymore, so I stand up and announce to the entire car, “Ladies and gentlemen, this man is masturbating. Let’s all give him a round of applause!” and start clapping.

Some people laughed, some people clapped with me, and of course the majority just silently thought “Oh god look at the crazy lady,” but I felt better that something was said. And the guy was sufficiently embarrassed to get off (no, not like that) at the next stop. So there.

Fighting back with words seems like the only option besides ignoring the inappropriate acts. Groping back would only escalate things. Another blogger articulated the politics of groping as follows:

…I wonder what might happen if, when groped, women groped back? I think if women groped back, men might hit them and hurt them. I also fear that if women groped back, men might rape them and would then call what they did “consensual sex.” After all, she returned the grope, that must have meant she was up for it! I think the only way the power dynamic around groping might change would be if women started randomly groping men whenever they got the chance– not groping back, but instigating the groping, so that men and boys never knew when or under what circumstances they might be groped and could not predict who would grope them. After all, men grope women they already want, for whatever reason, to touch; touching them back just gives them more of what they wanted in the first place. But women assuming “agency” and groping men they wanted to grope without concern for what the men wanted– that’s something different. That is, in fact, what men do to women when they grope us.

Women are not going to do that. For one thing, in general, most women have no interest in touching random men; it would be too hard to suspend both the ick factor and the fear factor. For another thing, we still live under male heterosupremacy and are subject to its rules and regulations, spoken and unspoken. I believe if women began groping men in massive numbers, comparable with the numbers of men who grope women, we would find ourselves massively punished: hauled into court, 911 called, physically assaulted and brutalized as well. Our competence as mothers would be called into question and we would lose our kids, to social services or to our exes. I think we’d become pariahs, would lose jobs, have difficulty finding jobs, and would be diagnosed, formally or informally as mentally ill. Because those are the treatments reserved for women who actually, physically challenge male power in the world. On the one hand, I’d like to see what happened, see men’s reactions, if on one day of the year, in mass numbers, women groped them. On the other hand, I care too much about women to want them to take that kind of risk.

–Ann Bartow

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