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SEXIST BEATDOWN: Midnight Train to Gropetown Edition

Ah, Gropetown. Once a mere settlement at the border of Sexual Assault City and the Rape Culture territories, it is now a thriving tourist destination, populated by thousands of happy citizens! Thousands of happy citizens who want to grab your ass for no reason while you’re on your way home, that is.

My incomparable colleague Amanda Hess of the Washington City Paper’s The Sexist, of course, is the premier scholar of Gropetown and its mores, having published many a finding recently. Whereas I, myself, am but a person who has encountered the occasional grope! Together, in this very special edition of Sexist Beatdown, we shall endeavor to find some workable explanation for the widespread existence – and really rather appalling acceptance of – gropery in the public square. This week’s line-up of suspects? Law and Order: SVU, dudes with sexual-assault-tolerant dating insecurities, nice ladies who are scared to throw a punch like a nice lady sometimes oughtta, and a culture that not so long ago was cranking out lyrics like this to explain the complex female psyche:

When I hear the compliment’ry whistle
That greets my bikini by the sea,
I turn and I glower and I bristle,
But I’m happy to know the whistle’s meant for me!

Or, you know, there’s this gem:

My favorite part is when she talks about her job goals! But, yes, she is also thrilled about the boys whistling. THRILLED, I SAY! AS SHOULD YOU BE! PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN! ALTHOUGH HE IS CURRENTLY REACHING FOR YOUR BOOB!

Yes, everybody, it’s Musical-Theater-Inflicted Trauma Week at the Tiger Beatdown, for some reason. So, sing along, and we shall discuss!

SADY: well, HI! I am so excited to join you on the Train to Gropetown this evening!

AMANDA: Hi! The Train to Gropetown departs now.

SADY: Perhaps we should note that many ACTUAL gropings take place on trains, which is a bummer?Truly, Gropetown is a destination of the spirit, and not one of mere place and time.

AMANDA: Right. And that on these trains, and subway cars, and buses are dozens of other people who are not gropers or groping victims, but really just witnesses who are standing but feet away from a sexual assault. One thing I hear all the time is that sexual assault is so difficult to “prove” and to “deal with” because it happens in private, tucked away behind doors and in intimate relationships. But really, it happens all the time in front of people’s faces, too! And most people still don’t really give a shit about it.

SADY: Yes. Oddly, I think people have a problem conceptualizing public gropings as sexual assault – the same way they don’t think of street harassment as sexual harassment. It’s just supposed to be one of the many things that, as Ann-Margret would say, help you to Enjoy Being A Girl. [NOTE: This is incorrect. Doris Day FUCK! A combination of ladies who are both TOTALLY NOT DORIS DAY (although she did a fairly well-known version of the song) (also, would you mind checking out the above-linked YouTube video next to the other please, as they may help you to resolve the question of PRECISELY HOW SIMILAR two musical numbers can get?) would tell you to Enjoy Being a Girl. Ann-Margret would tell you that It’s Lovely to Be a Woman. Both cite harassment as one of the more enjoyable perks of ladybeing, and are consequently wrong as all fuck. – Ed.] Like, there is a “Special Victims Unit” concept of sexual assault that most people have, the kind done by scary dudes for dark and wacky purposes – and then there’s getting your ass grabbed on the subway, which, CALM DOWN, sweetheart!

AMANDA: I, too, have noticed a big resistance to considering groping on the spectrum of sexual assault. Of course, I have all sorts of feminist conspiracy theories as to why that’s the case.

SADY: Ha. The BEST kind of conspiracy theories! But I honestly think it’s the same blanket denial of assault as reality that you find everywhere. Sexual assault is rare; therefore, if it’s common, it’s not sexual assault. I don’t know anyone who would sexually assault someone; therefore, if I know someone who would do this – or if I MYSELF would do this – it’s not sexual assault. I’ve never been sexually assaulted; therefore, if it happens to me, it’s not sexual assault. It’s a wonderful loop of logic that keeps anything from ever changing EVER!

AMANDA: Your arguments appear sound, forcing me to discredit you as a man-hating feminist. But seriously folks. One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered in doing this series is that a lot of women respond to being sexually assaulted by freezing and shutting up. But if you look at your other options—like, say, screaming—you find women who report being stared at like she’s an annoying bitch for screaming for no reason, in public.

SADY: Allow me to submit to you some anecdote as data, in lieu of an explanation for why this might be the case!

AMANDA: great!

SADY: So: picture, if you will, Sady, a burly man-friend, and a not-at-all-burly lady friend walking up the stairs of the subway. The lady friend occupying the stair level in front of me, the gentleman and I behind. Lo and behold, I see before me a hand! And the hand is most definitely reaching out to grab – and subsequently grabbing – my friend’s ass. I freeze. The lady freezes. The dude who is with us keeps on a-walkin’ like it’s no big thing, but, whatever. After about 2 seconds, I grab the butt-fondling dude’s arm and shove him into the side of the stairs and yell at him, because, WHAT THE FUCK. But for a second there, nobody was prepared to deal with what was happening. And as soon as I took action, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Am I going to get in trouble for this?” Honestly, I think people are worried about getting in TROUBLE if they respond. I think that is part of the deal.

AMANDA: I actually have a request out to the D.C. police department addressing this very issue. I haven’t heard back from them yet. But my question was basically, “So, women want to know, if men touch them on the genitals, may they respond by punching the men in the face?” And they’ve been working on it for, like, a week. SO, surprise ending to that conundrum to be revealed later!

SADY: Hahaha. Well! I imagine it would take some time to think that one over! Except that is the thing. When you get grabbed, or someone is masturbating in your general direction on the subway, there’s no time to rifle through the bylaws. And I think you just freeze up because, what are you supposed to do?! There is no chapter in Miss Manners that tells you how to politely request that someone put his boner away! And there’s the possibility of retaliation, too. Like, I can’t tell you HOW many times a dude has gotten up in my face to be a dickhole, just if I ask him not to compliment my astounding jugs while I am WALKING, or whatever.

AMANDA: Bitch!

SADY: I KNOW. I am a total bitch; many a person on the streets of New York has confirmed this. Also, I am not in fact all that, and although they once thought I was attractive, further study has revealed that I am not so fucking hot as was once supposed.

AMANDA: And the scary thing is that real people—people who are not the scary dude who just yelled at you on the street—would probably agree with that sentiment.

SADY: Exactly. It’s the culture of tolerance around it that is the real psychedelic freakout bad trip of terror. Like, people seem to believe the phenomenon of groping to be HIGHLY COMICAL.

AMANDA: Or that grabbing a guy’s arm for touching your butt is such an overreaction! Silly, emotional women.

SADY: Or, for example, you can be telling a story about a guy who grabbed your boob in a bar, and male onlookers will weigh in to tell you that you have no idea how hard it is for the men, what with their having to initiate sexual encounters!

AMANDA: HAH. That one I haven’t heard! “You don’t understand—if I can’t just reach out and touch your butt, what am I supposed to do? Talk to you?”

SADY: I KNOW. Perhaps they feel that the ladies will appreciate their forthright natures! And I’m not entirely sure that this is all coming from guys who grab butt, either. I think these are non-grabbing guys who are just, like, “oh my God, if ladies are talking about how OTHER behavior is inappropriate, perhaps someday they might interpret MY PRESUMABLY DIFFERENT BEHAVIOR as inappropriate as well! And then I will not get laid! When clearly the priority here is for ladies to make it easier for me to get laid.”

AMANDA: By any means necessary. But if you end up not being able to get laid, hey—there are butts everywhere up for the grabbing.

SADY: Like, I don’t think we’re long past the stage when casually smacking a strange girl’s butt was considered a cute and roguish flirting maneuver, rather than a reason for that girl to methodically snap off your hand like the head on a Barbie doll. And I think that people for some reason still conceive of gropers as people trying to “flirt” who are awkward and inappropriate and Go Too Far. At least, some people. So for a girl to respond with anger rather than, I guess… sympathy? Dating tips? A welcoming smile? That is just SO CRUEL.

AMANDA: That’s the real crime. I mean, the other thing that has been striking to me is how open victims of groping are to consider how their groper feels. I’ve spoken with women at length about what they think was going on in that guy’s head when he rubbed his erect penis against her back, or whatever. You know—maybe it was an accident! Maybe he didn’t mean to, maybe he was abused, maybe he can’t connect with women, maybe they learned it from their dad, maybe they don’t have any other sort of social power and so they want to get it this way. Because they want to know why this happened to them. I seriously doubt that these poor, lost souls are giving the targets of their erections the same courtesy.

SADY: Yeah. I mean, the point at which you casually assault someone is the point at which we can determine, objectively, that you do not give a fuck about how that person feels. That’s kind of the rationale: “I want this, she has no right not to give me this, I will therefore have it without her permission. And who gives a fuck about consequences! I’m getting off at the next stop!” But that’s part of women being expected to bear the burden of empathy; the last thing you should do is be a person who doesn’t TRY to care, so even when people act in an uncaring way, you try to figure out motivations or whatever instead of just dealing with their actions. And that’s not necessarily a bad way to be, unless you’re in the presence of someone who takes advantage of it.

AMANDA: I’m not sure I have anything else to say about groping right now. I’ve been kind of hitting the groping sauce pretty hard lately.

SADY: Lay off the sauce! Perhaps you can get on the Job Discrimination Wagon! Or enroll in a program for Pick-Up-Artist Methadone! Truly, I think we have delved far enough into groping. And for this, and for your excellent coverage, I thank you.

AMANDA: Does the Train to Gropetown stop anywhere near my house?

SADY: Let us hope not. I am less than fond of their preferred local entertainment.


  1. Irised wrote:

    I was at a dinner once trapped between two or three dirty old men doing little dirty old man looks and hurhurhur jokes and being generally skin-crawly in that lovely dirty old man way where they know they have all the power to get away with it. I distinctly remember purposefully identifying where my fork was and taking hold of it to use as a weapon. Like, not even in a joking way, I don’t know. In general I am a profoundly nonviolent person – I can’t even play contact sports without getting upset – but it was like this visceral reaction.

    I told a friend about the incident later and sie said I was lucky to get attention from men because sie – androgynous and very much not slender and blondeish like I am – was invisible in public and never had anyone like how sie looked. I had no idea what to say.

    Friday, January 15, 2010 at 8:43 pm | Permalink
  2. Maura wrote:

    Oh, whistles, beeping and catcall! I remember walking down the street with a male friend, and getting whistled and beeped at left and right. My friend looked at me and said “You cause quite a commotion, don’t you?” In his defense, he was almost as appalled and embarrassed as I was.

    I was smart enough, even at the age of 20, to know that those guys didn’t care one whit about how it made me feel. What struck me was that they didn’t care that I was with a man. I mean, they didn’t know who he was. He could have been my boyfriend, my brother, my priest. They’re so clueless they can’t even feel any brotherhood with other men.

    I’ve been groped more than a few times in public places. I usually did raise a fuss, and almost got punched out for it every single time.

    Yeah, I can see where they think groping is a compliment.

    Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  3. gogo wrote:

    “I’ve spoken with women at length about what they think was going on in that guy’s head when he rubbed his erect penis against her back, or whatever.”

    I know what *I* would be thinking: “Cock Punch.” Or: “Scrotal Twist.”

    Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  4. Sara wrote:

    Maybe it’s the variety and the amount of times I have been groped on public transit, but I not only have no problem with yelling about it in public, but feel like that’s the only logical and instinctual choice.

    I’ve never been threatened physically for doing it though, so there’s that. But I usually state loudly what the person is doing and demand they stop. Like, “Get your hand off my ass!” usually gets them to stop it. There was only one time in New York where I got up off the seat from a guy and he taunted me, calling me names. But then someone sat down next to him and told him to be quiet while everyone else had “don’t look at the crazy dude” face, so I felt better.

    What I liked about the Ann-Margret video was her dressing in men’s clothes while singing that song. Never saw Bye Bye Birdie, but it looked a little subversive.

    Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  5. Luna wrote:

    @Irised and Maura: I think that’s a big part of the problem – that many people who whistle or beep or grope (as well as those who can’t see it as a problem) just think they’re paying a compliment. And I guess it’s easier to think this if you’ve never been on the receiving end, whereas people who’ve BEEN whistled or beeped or groped know first-hand how uncomfortable it is.

    Not that this excuses it, of course. Groping especially is pretty obviously The Wrong Thing to Do (here’s a good indication that sexual assault is wrong: it’s, like, AGAINST THE LAW.)

    It also gets more muddy when the person assaulting or harassing you doesn’t fit the archetype of a sex offender, e.g. the Dirty Old Man. Like, if an older dude, or a not-very-attractive dude makes a lewd comment to me in public, it’s generally accepted that this is gross and offensive. But I remember in high school, there were some sexy, young, male builders doing work on one of the buildings, and one day as I was walking to class, one of them made a really, really lewd (and most definitely uninvited) comment. Not just a catcall, but a really sexually explicit suggestion that made my skin crawl. But when I told my friends about it, they were EXCITED for me, like ‘oh my GOD the hot builder totally complimented you!’. Or WORSE, some of them thought I was making it up to flatter myself. It’s important to remember that even if the person himself doesn’t creep you out, his action is still out of line.

    And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given some dude an earful for making a dirty remark about my thighs, or butt, or whatever, only to be reminded that I was wearing a short skirt, or had slutty lipstick on, or was dressed like a whore*, and so what else did I expect? Which is totally true, of course. What other reason would I have for wearing clothes I enjoy, other than to make my lady bits the topic of a total stranger’s disturbing commentary? NONE, that’s what.
    *Evidently, any outfit that does not cover at least 70% of your body is whorish.

    Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  6. Ika wrote:

    Oh, you cheer me up.

    I don’t think we’re long past the stage when casually smacking a strange girl’s butt was considered a cute and roguish flirting maneuver

    I had a brilliant (yet stressful!) three-way conversation about this a while back with my gf (born 1948, second-wave feminist), her godmother (born idk maybe 1925) and me (born 1975), where the godmother was kind of ‘paf! kids today!’ about women who don’t know how to keep a desk between themselves and A MAN at all times in the workplace. Like, avoiding sexual assault without causing a scene was a real skill for her, one she’d practiced throughout her life and one she was really consciously proud of… I kind of ended up thinking (and my gf confirmed that it was like this In Her Day) that that culture of groping is/was a bit like the way some people think they have the right to casually touch small children/babies – like, to pick up a friend’s toddler and kiss it BECAUSE IT IS SO CUTE, or to ruffle the hair/pinch the cheek of a six-year-old when you first meet it. So yeah, very much I want this, she has no right not to give me this.

    Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  7. saepe wrote:

    I’ve been keeping up with Amanda’s posts on groping with interest, as someone who only recently moved to a place with convenient public transit. And I’ve got to say, that is a weird moment, when you realize something creepy is happening and you frantically sort through all your reaction options.

    Just this past weekend I was riding the subway in a car that had a few passengers but quite a few empty seats. This guy got on and stood *right in front* of me, his crotch basically at my eye level, and faced me for the next few stops. At first I didn’t notice (my nose in a book), then I realized that there were plenty of seats, so I looked up to see that he was staring intently down at me. CREEPY. I was so startled that I immediately looked away, and then got more and more freaked out by him standing there, leaning over me and staring. You know that Barbara Kruger work, “Your Gaze Hits The Side of My Face”? That’s how I felt as I tried to look away and he just loomed over me.

    My point is, this guy didn’t even touch me, and yet I felt like I needed to go home and take a shower. *And* I didn’t confront him because he hadn’t done anything demonstrably wrong and I was afraid of retaliation. And now I feel badly about that, too. Ugh.

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink
  8. Shorty wrote:

    The last guy who tried it got a broken nose. And I’m not ashamed of that fact.

    I think Sady’s right about the guys who think they would never do this, so no guy they ever know would either. My father thought the Tailhook scandal was a “tempest in a teapot” until I let loose with a list of everything I’d ever had to put up with on the job – I was only 20 years old at the time. I was shocked that he was so shocked – do we really live in such different worlds?

    Hey guys, here’s what a compliment sounds like: “You look very nice today.” Here’s what a threat sounds like: “Bitch, you know you want it!”

    Try to learn the difference, before you’re old enough to serve real time.

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  9. snobographer wrote:

    There was a guy here in the Bay Area who was on the news for going around lifting women’s skirts and groping their asses. This woman at work supposed he was some poor lonely soul with a mental illness and poor interpersonal skills. I tried to explain to her that no, he was most likely just an entitled douchebag. She and I had the same argument about George Sodini.

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  10. snobographer wrote:

    @Shorty – I don’t really need any strange dudes on the street telling me how they think I look either way.

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  11. kristyn wrote:

    Shorty, you have a point, and so does Snobographer.

    Like Sady, I live in New York City, and vouch that people here often feel like they can say whatever they want to other people. Some, mostly older, gentlemen often compliment me in the way Shorty described, and offense is taken on a case-by-case basis.
    Sometimes it just seems genuinely nice, the equivalent of me telling another lady that I like her funky shoes or admire her obviously cherished dress.
    Sometimes it’s nice, but also patronizing, like the man in question thinks I am a doll or a child or this is 1963 and we’ve stepped into Mad Men.
    And then a lot of the times it’s leering and gross in ways we all understand so well, but just phrased differently.

    Maybe I’m only understanding of the first and second types because in light of the other type, they seem almost kind. Maybe I distinguish at all because my fellow women and I are constantly under bombardment from the typical skeevers, perverts, subway creeps, construction workers, addicts, and the type of Jersey assholes who spit on me, bark at me like I’m a dog, and yell numerical ratings at every passing woman.

    Not to mention the systematic oppression, silencing, and hatred we all meet even from some men who are our fathers, brothers, partners, friends, and casual lovers. Or who are cops, coworkers, doctors, postmen, bus drivers, fellow activists, etc. Everybody here is going to know what I mean, so I won’t even bother to continue.

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Permalink
  12. kristyn wrote:

    But yeah, to clarify — like Snobographer said, sometimes I just don’t want to hear it from anybody, even as a supposed compliment.

    Yeah, total stranger. I also like my dress, I actually spent a lot of time looking for just the right one — and no, they don’t make them like this anymore. But FRANKLY, I don’t give a fuck. Right now, I want to go to my appointment or to this date or to the grocery store or the bus stop and now that I’ve left the house, MY OUTFIT DOESN’T MATTER TO ME, I’m CERTAINLY not thinking about the acceptability/fuckability rating of MY BODY, and I DON’T WANT YOU LOOKING AT ME, JUDGING ME, SIZING ME UP, AND DECIDING I PASS MUSTER, thank you very much.
    Because I didn’t leave the house today just so I could walk past YOU and meet YOUR approval.

    And yeah, I did put some effort into dressing up, I always do. But it’s because I know that when I don’t, the harassment is invariably worse. That’s when the homophobes and enforcers of the beauty/fuckability mandate really come out in force, and they get in my face. Sometimes with blunt weaponry and/or threats. So I’d rather have the catcalling, yes. But I’m still not doing this for you, Mr. Stranger. Get out of my goddamned face.

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  13. gatecrewgirl wrote:

    “And as soon as I took action, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Am I going to get in trouble for this?” Honestly, I think people are worried about getting in TROUBLE if they respond. I think that is part of the deal.”

    I had my ass grabbed by a colleague at a work-related conference with few of my co-workers and several levels of upper management standing about 3 feet away. The first time he did it I told him to knock it off, and he grinned and did it again. The first thing that came to my mind was – if I hit him, I’m gonna get fired. I froze. I couldn’t hit him, and I couldn’t think of anything to say.

    So yeah. We freeze.

    After discussing this with one of the upper level managers standing by, it was made clear by her that I probably _wouldn’t_ have been fired. Oh hindsight…

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 10:27 pm | Permalink
  14. Dude wrote:

    Re: the song…

    I’m reminded of Brave New World, in which the characters of every social class are convinced (and systemically remind others) of how their position is the best. Optimism and content is lovely, but not when it stems from ignorant self-degradation.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  15. Dude wrote:

    ** “contentment” rather, not “content”

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  16. Farore wrote:

    In regards to street harassment and the concept of ‘why dress that way if you don’t want those comments’, Mr Farore’s transparency about his feelings on dress styles sheds a bit of light on the issue – though of course, I haven’t the slightest idea if any other dudes feel the same way.

    Basically, he was raised to believe that men did not give a whit for fashion, and that any well-dressed man was only so because he wanted to impress his mate/s (or potential mate/s), and that left to their own devices, men would not bother with clothing beyond what they needed to keep warm.

    This belief is so deeply entrenched in his mind, the concept that he dresses nicely for other people, that even when it is clear that he has very specific taste in clothing and well-developed fashion preferences for himself, he still thinks he is only dressing that way because we, myself and our boyfriend, like it. As evidence for this he cites the fact that he trusts my color-theory-informed sense of ‘what goes together’ more than his own. My father displayed a similar attitude, though he wasn’t so verbal about it.

    Conversely, Mr Farore projects this peculiarity onto others. He feels that dressing to impress your SO(s) is a moral issue, and that dressing in a way your SO(s) do/es not appreciate is morally wrong. For example – he prefers an ‘all-American’ look to a more ‘alternative’ look. When I suggest dying my hair a non-natural color (something high up on my own priorities of attractiveness), his response is not just ‘well, it’s not my thing, but do what you like’, it is also tinged with this underlying, intense current of ‘if you alter your appearance in a way I personally do not find optimally visually pleasing, you are being hurtful to me’. He feels that the only reason ANYONE would ever dress a certain way would be for the benefit of others – he often says ‘you should tell me how to dress, because you have to look at me all day – not me’.

    So perhaps that has something to do with this attitude that catcalling and beeping (which I giggled to first read about, as we say ‘honking’ around here, and my first thought was of a street harasser creepy person standing on a corner talking Beaker-ese to passerby) are complimentary and that if you are dressed like that, you must want that sort of reaction?

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  17. Ksenia wrote:

    Hi 🙂

    I’ve been back-reading your blog for a while and it’s brilliant. I’m still in high school, and I don’t go out much, so dudes don’t bug me very often. However this post reminded me of something that happened a couple of days ago. I was waiting for the subway when an older guy sat beside me. He wasn’t being creepy, I was just leaning over to grab my bag, so I guess it must have looked like he was too close and another woman waiting at the station came up to ask me if I knew the man and if he was bothering me. He wasn’t, but the fact that there are people who would come up and ask made me so ridiculously happy. I know that she shouldn’t have to be concerned that someone would bother a 16 year old girl on the subway, but her making sure made me a lot more optimistic. Anyway, I just wanted to say that you do an amazing job with this site. It *is* really accessible for a younger audience and the things you write really resonated with me 🙂 Thank you.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 12:40 am | Permalink

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