The Subtle Grope: Some Thoughts on Street Harassment

There’s not much new or cutting-edge to say about groping on public transportation. It’s an unfortunate phenomenon that occurs across the globe, and many, many people have been subjected to it.

grope

These ads, which appear on the D.C. Metro system, are part of the city’s anti-harrassment campaign.

But I’d still like to share my recent experience with groping, mostly because I didn’t speak up in the moment and writing about it now is kind of like my own way of speaking out–if not to the man who groped me, then at least for the purpose of clearing my own head.

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One of the combi bus routes in Lima.

Here’s what happened: Last month, I was riding a combi bus back to my neighborhood in Lima, Peru. Combis are ubiquitous in Lima, and they’re a very convenient means of transportation. Even though I’m too tall to fit comfortably in the seats, I ride combis pretty regularly. But I usually have to sit diagonally, with my legs scrunched up against the seat in front of me.

This is how I was sitting when an older man sat down to my right, holding a plastic bag over his thighs (red flag #1). His hands were underneath the bag (red flag #2). The man was small in stature, probably in his fifties, and he sat staring straight ahead, expressionless.

It was in the late evening, I was tired, and I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings. Inside the combi, everything was cramped and loud, and over the course of an hour, I began daydreaming to the noises of traffic and the radio blasting salsa music.

Five to ten minutes before my stop, I realized that with all the shifting and jostling of the bus, the man’s bag had migrated over and was now covering my thighs. I attributed this to the movement of the bus, and I still wasn’t concerned–until I suddenly realized that the man’s hand had sidled onto my upper thigh and was extending onto my crotch.

It was such a subtle and sneaky maneuver that I still don’t know how long his hand had been there. It could have been there for half an hour, for all I knew. As I sat there, dumbly staring at his hand, a jumble of thoughts ran through my head:

Does he not know his hand is there?

Of course he knows.

Maybe it’s a mistake.

Of course it’s not a mistake.

Should I say something?

Of course I should say something.

What should I say?

It took a long time–it felt like several minutes, though it was probably more like a minute–for me to piece together the facts that a) he was touching me, and b) it wasn’t a mistake. (Note: Though I’m well aware of the phenomenon of groping in public spaces, I’ve been lucky enough that it’s never happened to me before.)

Once I had processed what was happening, I looked at the man. He continued to stare straight ahead, still with that deadpan expression. I looked around at the other passengers. No one had noticed; people standing in the aisle were consumed in their own conversations.

I looked back at his hand, then looked back at him. No change. I shifted my legs slightly, looking down at my thighs, and his hand slowly withdrew, disappearing under his bag.

My head un-fogged a bit more, and I finally realized exactly what was happening. And now I was pissed. I felt my face get hot, and I began to fume silently, trying to come up with the words–in Spanish–to chastise this man. In the moment, though, all I could think of was, “What the motherfuck do you think you’re doing?!”

But before I could properly gather my thoughts, stand up, and publicly shame this man, the bus arrived at my stop and I had to get off.

During my walk home, I alternated between fuming about the man, fuming about not having said anything, and fuming about how the responsibility to do something–to address this blatant violation–was unfairly placed on me. Weirdly, the disgust I felt from being touched against my will was almost totally eclipsed by my anger.

I’d always thought that if this kind of thing happened to me, it would be more obvious, like a slap or grope of the ass accompanied by a lewd comment. But like I said, this was so subtle, and so carefully calculated, that it began to happen without my knowledge. There’s something so insidious about that–the sneakiness of a maneuver that this man has probably used a thousand times–and I think the sneakiness of it all partially prevented me from speaking out.

Then there’s the language factor. I would feel so much more capable and strong yelling at someone in my native language. It’s not that I don’t have the vocabulary to chastise someone in Spanish, but I wanted to find the *exact words* to shame this man, and in those quick moments, mulling over phrases in my head, I just couldn’t.

Later, when I told some Peruvians about the incident, both men and women shared some of their own experiences with being groped on public transportation (two were groped when they were children). Some attributed the phenomenon to systemic machoism and sexism; others offered sympathy and lessons in useful curses.

It was helpful to talk over the incident, but after several conversations, I realize there just aren’t any easy solutions. The prevalence of groping shows how deeply engrained the behavior is, and creating separate train cars for men and women–which is a practice in many countries, including Egypt, India, Brazil, and Japan–simply doesn’t address the root of the problem.

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A gender-segregated train car in Japan.

I’ve thought about this encounter many times in the past few weeks since it happened, and I’ve resolved to speak out next time because the people who grope others deserve to be singled out and humiliated for their actions. The fact that this man had an M.O.–let’s call it the “plastic bag approach”–suggests that he’s done it many times before and will do it again, and a public shaming could at least get him kicked off the bus, preventing him from groping anyone else…at least during that bus ride.

In the meantime, there’s a handy guide from Stop Street Harassment that outlines some useful strategies for dealing with this shit.

Also, if anyone has any great insults in Spanish that pertain to this situation, please share (Peruvian-specific would be good).

16 thoughts on “The Subtle Grope: Some Thoughts on Street Harassment

  1. Be ready to punch the guy in the face, specifically on the nose to leave a lasting mark, if, god -forbidding, it ever happens again. These guys are shameless and no words can make them feel guilty about their behavior. A good beating, not a solution but at least a deterrent for them to ever attempt it again with someone else.

    • Don’t get me wrong: I would have loved to punch him in the face! But thanks for the suggestion, because I think this brings up the issue of safety, which I didn’t really touch on in my post. I’d hesitate to resort to punching because I’d be afraid that the man might reciprocate with violence. It’s hard to tell in these situations because sometimes perverts are just perverts, and sometimes their behavior is just a small sliver of a far more dangerous and predatory worldview, i.e. groping is just a one aspect of other violent intrusions against women.

      Maybe words won’t make them feel guilty or change them–in fact, I highly doubt words will change them–but at least it will draw attention to them and possibly prevent them from taking advantage of others.

      • This sense of insecurity in a person travelling alone/ in an alien environment (it could be male or female) is what pervert like the one you encountered are able to take advantage of. It is so much rampant in the country/ city that I grew up (Delhi/ India) that we had to teach our younger one’s (specially girls) to react aggressively immediately when someone is trying take advantage of them, by punching or shouting, one needs put the culprit off his/her feet and grab the attention of other people around. Two incidences come to my mind, one narrated by my wife from her college days when she had to hit a guy on the nose in the regular crowded bus she used to take from her home to college. The guy was shocked initially and then started to react but when he saw that other people in the bus are supported the girl and asking the driver to take the bus to nearest police check-post, he jumped off the running bus and was never encountered on that route ever again. The second incidence occurred in a extremely crowded fair in Delhi where I had gone along with my cousin and niece. This group of young guys started following the girls closely and making them feel uncomfortable. When one of the tried to touch my niece, she turned around, grabbed him by his shirt and started shouting – we all quickly moved and surrounded that guy, he was there with a larger group of friends who started throwing obscenities at her/ us – we caught hold of a couple of them and didn’t let them go till some security guys came along and took them/ us to the Police. We registered our formal complaint, they were booked by the police and we continued to enjoy the Fair.

      • Those experiences are terrifying, and I’m glad your wife and your niece were able to take charge of their respective situations and prevent anything more from happening. I’m also glad the police responded in that second situation.

        It seems sad to me, though, that we automatically resort to teaching women and girls–and boys, and whoever else might be victimized in these sorts of circumstances–to defend themselves. In an ideal world, I would love to educate the perpetrators rather than the victims. The men that find it acceptable (and even natural) to violate others’ space and encroach on others’ bodies need to understand that this behavior is utterly unacceptable and indicative of a larger attitude of disrespect toward women in particular. Of course, I realize that the responsibility to prevent these incidents from happening is often unfairly placed on the victim, and that that isn’t bound to change anytime soon. But I hope we can at least work in that direction.

  2. We just arrived in Lima from a year in Cairo. Such subtle harassment is unknown there – and shaming someone would do nothing. A friend was “encouraged” by the public prosecutor to drop her complaint, as it would reflect poorly on her reputation if people knew she was harassed. Sorry that it happened to you, and thanks for the heads-up.

  3. This happened to me on a crowded subway in NYC once. A gentleman standing next to the exit alerted me that someone in the crowd had been rubbing up against me (behind me). I turned around and spotted the guy and he started laughing kind of deviously. I don’t remember all I said to him but I remember I called him sick, but he seemed to like being caught. I was soooooo disgusted.

    In NYC people stand against one another all the time b/c the subway gets crowded, but the idea of someone using that completely disgusted me, does now. There are just some ill people out there. This was not your or my fault in the least.

    • Ughhh, that is awful. I’m sorry that happened to you. Glad you spoke out, though.

      Just a few days ago, a man made a lewd comment to me on the street and I called him out (in Spanish), telling him she should respect women. He seemed very taken aback and even a bit amused, although that could have also been embarrassment. I don’t know if it’ll make a difference, but I certainly felt better after!

  4. “Cochino” or “Asqueroso”, though not strong words, seem to be incredibly effective to stop and shame these kinds of people. Living in Lima, before moving to the U.S. I found that using the typical insults like “imbécil”, “hijo de puta” or “concha tu madre” sometimes result in the predator responding in a way that shames you for being vulgar (something like “uuuuy, así habla una señorita? qué feo!).

    Of course, I’m not saying you should be careful about offending someone who clearly has no respect for you but I do feel like the first option is more effective because a)you are using an accurate adjective to describe them (and they know it), b)they usually don’t know how to respond to it and c)no one can say that you were as disrespectful of him as he was of you (and I’ve heard this so many times in these types of situations!).

    Hope you don’t have to deal with something like this ever again!

    • I’ve said Qué asco! before (in Spain, actually, when a guy flashed me) and I think it generally works pretty well. Thank you for the suggestions!

  5. Ok, Ima guy so it’s hard for me to relate. But I’d recommend the initial reaction of “What the MuthaFuck are you doin’?” And, if crassness is overlooked there, I would recommend stand up quickly and piss right on the dude. “you wanna touch it? Drink this!”

    As a guy, I would go with comment one. I woulda punched him right below the eye, then invited him to get up off the floor and get some more.

    The plastic bag thang is weird. What about grabbing it real quick and pulling it over his head and suffocating him?

      • No, you’re right–it’s a sad reality. The presence of a male friend automatically lessens the probability of harassment. So when I need to go to a sketchier neighborhood, I usually ask a male friend. When sharing cabs, I also ask the driver to drop me off first, before my male friend. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is. :/

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