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Anatomy of a Street Groping

May 27, 2010

I know what happened and in the broadest sense I know why. But I don’t know how. I’ll get back to that.

What happened is that my friend Kendall wanted a fucking taco, and what she got was nonconsensually groped by four men she did not know.

Lots of men get very upset when someone points out that women have reasons to treat them all as potential assailants. Men are not all rapists; in fact, the vast majority of sexual assault is committed by a small group of repeat offenders. It would be great if we all could tell who they were just by looking at them. It would be great for everyone but the predators. But we can’t. And women, for whom the stakes are high, may take the approach that I tell my kids to take towards dogs: if you don’t know them, you can’t trust them. (Worse, the men who are most dangerous to women are not the strangers, but the ones they know, at least a bit.)

Five* men stood outside a bar on the Lower East Side. It was late and they had presumably been drinking, so she braced herself for street harrassment: whistles, calls, threats framed as offers. What she wasn’t prepared for was this (posted with permission):

They were just a normal group of dudes standing outside a bar. As I approached, they started doing the typical catcall bullshit which I pretended to ignore, but when I actually walked through, fucking arms started extending like some weird sci-fi movie and it was like slow-mo where I was thinking “… ooohhhh hellllll noooooooo…..???”. And then, sure as shit, those arms touched me: left arm, left lower hip, right shoulder, right middle back/waist.

I had already had a really shit night and was so annoyed with everything that I just charged on, too angry, in my walking groove, and focused on getting tacos to want to raise a fuss, but now that it’s the next morning, I totally wish I’d turned around and gone apeshit on them.

So that’s what happened. Kendall is not alone; probably every woman I know has street harrassment stories. Recently, Amanda Hess blogged the NBC local’s interview with Miss DC Jen Corey, who is speaking out about public sexual assault.

And the why is simple enough. We live in the culture that frames women as bodies whose purpose is sexual availability to men, or secondarily reproduction. The Commodity Model (for those familiar with my Yes Means Yes essay Toward a Performance Model of Sex) posits that consent is passive so that the absence of no is consent. That kind of thinking justifies all sorts of aggression and intrusion.

What I don’t know is how. Since the research shows that the actual rapists are a narrow proportion, it’s unlikely that there are four out of five or so standing together on the street.

I have a theory, though. My theory is that one of them was the ringleader, that he made up his own mind to violate Kendall’s boundaries. Because he’s a bad guy who likes sexually assaulting women. The other guys are sheep. They went along with the social cues because they are easily lead and because the prevailing culture creates the conditions where they can convince themselves that going along with a leader on a sexual assault is okay. Maybe one guy just stood there. I don’t know why; it’s possible he knew what they were doing was wrong, but lacked the courage to stand up to and get in the way of the developing situation.

I don’t know for sure that this is how it happened, but that’s what I think. And if I’m right, there are two implications. First, the broader cultural narrative that permissions men to treat women’s bodies like property is the overlay that allows this to happen. Change that, and the go-along guys will not go along. More immediately, the second thing is that these guys who are easily led need better leaders. The cis het men who are one of the guys in this situation need to set an example, to stand up and say that what is going on is wrong. My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that if the guy who didn’t participate had said, nice and loud, “That’s not right! Leave her alone!” then there would have been one asshole groper and not four. And then Kendall could have called him out on his bullshit with considerably less concern that she’d get stomped for standing up for her basic human rights. (We cannot change the predators; we can only isolate them so that their behavior stands out as aberrant, and requiring response.)

For those of us who are cis het men, that’s our job. We cannot cede leadership to the bad guys. We have to lead.

*Numbers approximate; it all happened very fast.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Aaron permalink
    May 27, 2010 1:23 pm

    We have to lead.

    Even when we’re scared shitless to. In fact, maybe especially then.

  2. May 28, 2010 9:00 am

    I agree with you analysis as a partial explanation, but I think it’s very incomplete. In particular, I think a significant factor you’re missing is how people create their social groups: like-minded people tend to seek each other out.

    For example, men with the attitudes you describe are men that I find myself extremely uncomfortable around, and so I make no effort to become part of their social group (in fact I make an effort to distance myself). And if I find myself in their social group somehow, I make an effort to get out of it and into another social group that I’m more comfortable with. And this behavior has only intensified as I educate myself more about sexism, racism, etc.

    Having said that, I do still end up associating with people like that through work, other shared interests (in my case, open source and 3d animation), etc. But again, the more I learn, the less and less I want to be around them even despite those things.

    I don’t claim this is a complete explanation either. But I do think it’s a significant factor. And I wonder what responsibilities we have as cis white men in that regard. Should we armour up and push our way into those groups? Should we not try to get away from those groups if we’re already in them?

    Anyway, I agree with your post. But I think there is still more to this.

  3. May 28, 2010 10:09 am

    Totally true that a lot of guys consider a woman’s consent to be “passive”.

    I’ve long ago given up on dancing with guys at clubs because apparently, “yeah, I’ll dance with you for a song” also implies “…and please grope my ass so that my skirt hikes up almost to my waist. And also, could you grab my hand and press it against your crotch?”

    Fucking ridiculous.

    I wish Kendall had told the guys in no uncertain terms that what they were doing was sexual assault – but honestly, if I were in her shoes I think I would’ve been too scared. Social change is all well and good but my main focus is survival. :P

  4. May 29, 2010 10:33 am

    Have to side with the comment above. I live in an area where street harassment is a huge, huge problem. I don’t drive, and all of the bus stops available to me are 10-15 minute walks away, and every day I go out I have to brace myself for the catcalling and honks from passing cars. I had one guy who was standing in his lawn walk backwards so that he could get closer to the sidewalk, and when I approached he greeted me. I said hello back to him, and he leered in return, “So where your boyfriend at?” and I turned away as quick as I could and kept walking and ignored him…but the damage was already done. I once had a car slow down while I was walking and the guy roll the window down and start propositioning me. I hate having to pass large groups of guys because there’s always that expectation of being harassed or, even worse, what’s been described here, though that element of street harassment has never happened to me. More serious harassment have actually been by guys I already knew and thought I trusted.

    I don’t believe in the whore stigma and I’m an extremely sexual person on my own, but stuff like this bothers me a great deal and can even make me feel ashamed of myself sometimes, which is infuriating. Wearing a tight shirt and skinny jeans as I walked to the bus stop farthest away from the house, an outfit I wore because I wanted to wear something that actually fit my frame that day, got me honked at and had assholes yelling out their cars at me both as I walked and while I stood at the bus stop. It made me momentarily re-think wearing clothes that look good on me if I have to go out, and that’s one of the most enraging things about harassment like this…or harassment on any terms, I guess. You either have to develop a strong skin to deal with all of this shit, which is much easier said than done, or you have to limit yourself and what you can do, what you can wear. It’s maddening to have to be the one to make the compromise when you’re not the one doing anything wrong.

    Thanks for posting about this, though the situation that led to it was completely disgusting. Guys have to step up and realize that this is wrong and that they can be the one to stop all of this mess, but groupthink is more the reality than individual conviction, it seems. I remember when the Erin Andrews story broke last year and reading about it on a baseball blog (it was someone who was posting a link to the video, actually) and you had one guy say that it was wrong, and all the other guys on the site called that one “gay” and basically ripped him apart for telling them to show some respect.

  5. May 29, 2010 10:14 pm

    There is always a fear when you call out street-harassers that they will turn aggressive or violent–and if the people who are around them stand up and call them on their behavior, everyone will feel safer. Allies–safety in numbers.

    I have walked down the street too many times with my arm around my female partner and had men catcall us. At first I flicked them off, but after one man followed us for half a block, calling us ugly bitches, I wonder if it’s safer for us to turn aside and pretend not to hear.

    We are forced to become “passive” because of the possibility of aggression.

  6. Donald permalink
    May 31, 2010 7:10 pm

    While there’s some truth in the sheep following an aggressive leader analogy that’s only part of what’s going on here. The other element is macho competitiveness. There is in-group status involved in being sexually aggressive. When the leader harasses a woman either verbally or physically the others believe that they should do the same to show they are equally macho. Not taking part or challenging that behaviour is seen as unmanly.

    While the proportion of rapists in the male population is so low that five random men are unlikely to all be rapists the group you describe isn’t random. It is self selecting on the basis of similar values. As other commenters have indicated, if they found themselves in such a group they’d try to get out of it.

    I’m afraid the only answer is for women to fight back when they are touched by strangers. Men avoid touching other men they don’t know unless they are looking for a fight because they expect physical retaliation. Women aren’t expected to retaliate which is why they get called names when they do. Only when it is normal for women to respond violently will the cultural change occur.

    I’m not suggesting that anyone should put themselves at risk for the greater good of cultural change. We all have to balance risk in the specific situation. However it’s worth remembering that failing to confront can be interpreted as acceptance and encourage them to go further.

    • June 5, 2010 1:37 am

      “Women aren’t expected to retaliate which is why they get called names when they do. Only when it is normal for women to respond violently will the cultural change occur.”

      sorry but this is total crap, sir. the reason we are IN this mess in the first place is BECAUSE of hyper-masculine violence, women fighting back en masse will only escalate the situation. and also, that is such a total guy cop out to a complex gender issue. most things can’t be solved with violence, public sexual assault aka gender violence is one of them.

      in the moment, i usually ignore harassers. these guys are smart, they target women who are alone (gee why am i rarely approached when i have backup around…?) and seem vulnerable. for me, it’s not worth getting the shit beat out of me just to tell off some neanderthal who. as far as REAL solutions to stopping sexual assault go, the trifecta of education/awareness/prevention in communities is the only thing that will work. we need a cultural change, not a war.

      • Donald permalink
        June 5, 2010 8:51 pm

        There is no such thing as “hyper-masculine violence”. There is predatory behaviour carried out by those who perceive themselves strong against those they perceive as weak. Western culture expects and conditions men to be strong and women to be weak irrespective of their true abilities but violence is not restricted to either gender.

        The fact that a single man will not harrass you when you are with someone else is precisely the point – he perceives two women as stronger than he is alone.

        I’d like to think education/awareness/prevention will solve the problem but it won’t. There will always be a minority of people who resort to violence and threats of violence to get their way. When it comes down to that situation the only defence is a credible threat of violence. Indeed you want someone to prevent attacks – i.e. you are asking someone else to use violence on your behalf. I don’t have much respect for anyone who wants someone else to do a dirty job they won’t do themselves.

        And before you dismiss my comments as male priviledge I’ve had plenty of harrassment over the years because I do not appear macho enough. Furthermore as I get older it increases as the perception that I can and will defend myself fades. As you say there are cases where the benefits are outweighed by the risk but it is important not to exaggerate the risk. Most predators don’t want to get hurt and will back off if you make a credible threat.

  7. June 2, 2010 10:56 pm

    Even as my anger intensifies while reading this, I am aware of a sense of validation. Seeing this kind of behavior acknowledged for what it is gives me back trust in myself and my ability to discern…gives me back trust in my perception. Victim blame, constant denial that these things we experience daily are what we call them, shame…all these affect me so deeply that even MY first reaction to where your friend was touched was, “well…they didn’t touch her breasts, or ass or vag…is it still groping if they don’t touch our private parts?”

    I appreciate the blog, and everyone’s posting in response to it. Who knew you could find community on the internet?

  8. QSymm permalink
    June 3, 2010 5:41 pm

    Sorry for being offtopic, just wanted to say: L, I totally feel what you are saying:-)

  9. June 6, 2010 7:20 pm

    I wish more people would stand up and say “Don’t do that, it’s not right.” It really is effective.

    I was assaulted in broad daylight on a busy street in downtown Los Angeles. A man biked up behind me, reached up my dress and groped me before biking off.

    Fortunately for me, someone was willing to step up. ONE man who saw what happened took off running after the guy while screaming “SEXUAL ASSAULT!” Although he couldn’t run fast enough to take the biker down, enough people heard him screaming and saw the man biking for his life that one of them was able to jump out and clothesline him. The man took off on foot after he fell off his bike but the multiple people now chasing him didn’t give up and continued to scream “SEXUAL ASSAULT!” while they were running.

    LAPD found him by mapping out the 911 calls they got – no joke. The man made it about a mile but he was being chased the whole way, with people continually joining in the chase, and so many people called 911 that they traced his route and had three squad cars waiting for him when he turned a corner.

    I always thought it was a little too much effort on behalf of strangers considering all he did was grab my ass, and worse things happen every day. But now I realize it DOES takes that much effort on behalf of the community to stop behavior like that – although it usually isn’t in such a dramatic and public form. That man thought it was perfectly acceptable to grope a stranger in broad daylight on a busy street because no one had ever stood up to him and said “That’s not okay,” and made him suffer any consequences.

    All it took was the one man to start running after him. I’m sure lots of other people saw it and didn’t say anything, but because ONE MAN started running and yelling, everyone else was spurred to act for what was right.

    Once one person steps up, others will follow, and the whole community can be turned against behavior like that. But it’s very rare that anyone volunteers to be that one person.

    • Alex permalink
      June 23, 2010 11:56 am

      I think that this is one of the best success stories ever! Seriously, if this kind of thing happened every time a sexual assault occurred in front of someone, I could well believe that a) the level of shame that victims/survivors experience would go down considerably, and b) the sexual assailants might be forced to assault much less.

  10. June 16, 2010 5:50 am

    Males congregating and perpetrating offensive behaviour seems to happen across culture. Perhaps like Donald pointed out, the macho culture amplifies one bad behaviour because nobody wants to be outdone.

    I also agree with Courtny in that it is never easy to confront such behaviour because commonly the female victim is alone. The numbers alone would cause her pause and she would be focussed in getting away to safety as quickly as possible; not trying to educate some louts that what they were doing was unacceptable.

    How do we solve this?

    Easier to get peace in the Middle East, eh?

  11. Ellis permalink
    June 20, 2010 6:23 am

    Like everyone else, what we need to stop street harrassment is to promote awareness and encourage men to step up and stop fools from acting like fools. Most of the men who do this are cowards and bullies,so all it takes is a single man to call them out. However, this isn’t enough,as it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is our hypocritical sexual double standard, that states that men are supposed to be hypersexual and to not want to dominant and control women is seen as weakness or being “pussy-whipped”. We need to tell men that harrassment is not manly, just disrespectful and disgusting.

  12. Georgios permalink
    June 20, 2010 11:42 am

    There’s two things in this particular blog entry that I don’t really buy: that the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by a few repeat offenders (a few bad apples are ruining our cultural barrel?), and that “we cannot change the predators.”
    I guess I see sexual assault as pervasive in our culture, and I think that almost all men were trained to assault, or at least to have very problematic ideas about sexual encounters. As part of this, women (and men) are trained to not recognize sexual assault as sexual assault unless it fits a very narrow (mainstream) cultural definition: you’re sober, not dressed provocatively, and a stranger hops out from the bushes and penetrates you while you clearly verbally and physically resist. Rapes like this happen, and yes, I think they are mostly committed by a few repeat offenders. I bet they’re also more likely to be reported.
    But I suspect (and it’s hard to know, because sexual assault is such an underreported crime) that the majority of actual assaults are situations that we are trained to not recognize as fucked up, or at least to not define as sexual assault: you’re drunk and someone you thought was your friend assaults you, for example.
    most of my friends who were raped, the rapist had no idea that they committed rape: they thought they had a normal sexual encounter. And I have plenty of friends who have had sexual experiences I would consider rape, but don’t classify it as such: some, I think, because the weight of such a classification is too heavy for them right now, but others because they were socialized not to consider what happened to be rape.
    I think the idea that most rape is committed by a few bad guys works much better when you have a narrow definition of rape: when you see it as a wider and more pervasive piece of our culture, the few bad apples idea changes into “shit, this whole barrel we call masculinity-as-we-know-it was rotten from the start.”
    I guess my point is, men, in many ways, are trained to be rapists. many men have committed rape, or sexual assault, or violated boundaries without even knowing it: because we weren’t trained to ask, because we were taught that our desires take precedence over a partners, etc. Our culture is predatory: to say “we cannot change the predators” is to admit defeat in the great ongoing struggle of changing our culture! The idea that perpetrators are called out and isolated, but never given a chance to work on their shit, dooms the majority of men to be classified as permanently and irreparably broken. I’m not willing to give up that easy.

    • Ellis permalink
      June 22, 2010 4:29 am

      That is so true, and it isn’t helped by the fact that women are encouraged to be sexually submissive and not be clear about what they want, while men are encouraged to be constantly sexually aggressive. I think we all heard that stupid joke “no is just one letter short of now” that rapist use, or heard someone blame a rape victim for their assault with “you shouldn’t have been drinking”. Our society teaches men to be abusive, and women to be punching bags,yes, we have a sick society indeed.

    • Alex permalink
      June 23, 2010 12:09 pm

      Sorry, but I still think that it’s not very many men who commit rape. Two of the assaults I’ve experienced are exactly the kind that might not be thought of as assault to the general public…until it comes to actually doing it. Every guy I’ve mentioned these assaults to said it was fucked up, and I didn’t even label them as assaults to them before they said that. What’s more is that these guys I told are the kind who get drunk a lot and have a lot of sex. Sexual assault is an assault in which sexual parts or situations are used to humiliate, harm, and/or frighten the victim. These guys I told want sex, not to assault. The guys who assaulted me wanted to assault, not to have sex. Furthermore, the kind of assault you mentioned has happened to many of my friends too, and let me tell you that there is a great deal of overlap when it comes to the assailants. What’s more, not long after I talked about my assailants, other women came forward saying that they’d been assaulted by the same guys. So yes, repeat offenders of all kinds of sexual assault. They manage to mix and mix well, and find people of like mind, but proportionally, there aren’t very many of them. It’s just that every one of them is a repeat offender who knows exactly what s/he is doing.

    • Emily S permalink
      August 1, 2010 11:52 am

      Actually, I believe it that a minority of men do commit the majority of sexual assaults. A while back the results of a survey about sexual assault were released, and it discovered that something like 4% of men had committed or attempted a rape (although the survey didn’t use the term “rape”, it said things like “used physical force or threats of force to get sex” or “had sex with someone who was too intoxicated to say no”), and on average they had each raped about six women. So, this minority of men are indeed repeat offenders, and if they’d actually rape or try to rape six women in their lifetimes (which aren’t over yet), then how many women do you think each of them has groped, catcalled, or otherwise harass? Also, consider that walking to the bus stop in a city a woman may pass by hundreds or even thousands of men, either on foot or on their bikes or in their cars, so even if only a fraction of a percent of men actually do harass her, she’s still statistically likely to get harassed every time she steps out the door.

      Also, what Alex mentioned is true – in college, at least a dozen of my friends and I were sexually harassed by the same fellow student. Unfortunately, by the time we realised it was harassment and borderline assault and made up our minds to report him to the campus police the next time he so much as said something that made us feel uncomfortable, he’d given up because all of our male friends had started physically putting themselves between us and him to stop the creepyness. (Yes, that did have chivalrous/chauvinistic “men protect women” overtones, but the guy would probably go after a sewer rat if he could tell that it was female, and he was super-homophobic to the point that he seemed to try to avoid even the chance of coming into physical contact with men, so that was just the simplest and most direct way of stopping it).

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