Anatomy of a Street Groping
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.