How creeps get away with it

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HandAt a recent holiday party, I was talking to an older acquaintance when out of the blue, I felt him rub his junk on my hand. I was already on my way out. My husband was a few feet ahead of me, and I’d just grabbed the sauté pan that had contained my potluck dish. As I chatted with the creep, I held the pan against my torso. My right hand was on the far side of the pan, out in front of me.

I don’t remember now what we were talking about. What I do remember is an awkward feeling suddenly overcoming me. Something was out of place, but it was so very wrong that it took my brain some extra time to register what the hell was happening.

What was happening was this — the scumbag was rubbing the front of his pants against my hand. By about the third time, my brain could no longer question the sensory inputs it was receiving. Oh. My. God. I looked straight at him. He smiled back at me, and for a moment I questioned myself. Did that just happen? I may have smiled back or even laughed a little, my nervous habit in awkward situations.

His behavior was so brazen that it didn’t seem possible. There were people all around us. The room was bright. His wife was a few steps away. Paralyzed with cognitive dissonance, I kept politely talking to him as I slowly backed away.

When I got into the car, I was overcome with a compulsion to disassociate myself with the hand. It felt filthy and contaminated. I told my husband what had happened, and he was appropriately upset. But neither of us felt it was serious enough to go back inside and confront the guy.

Creep2On the drive home, I replayed the incident in my mind and rehearsed alternative endings. In one version, when he smiles that repulsive smile, I look him in the eye and ask, very loudly, “Why are you rubbing your dick on my hand?” In another, I drop the pan and scream when I feel him brushing against my fingers. Or maybe I just humiliate him. “Hey dude, is that a Chapstick in your pocket?”

Of course I did none of these things, and that’s how perverts like him get away with it. It wasn’t my fault that he rubbed himself on me, but once he did it, the onus was on me to call him out and that’s an uncomfortable duty — especially when you’re naturally inclined towards niceness. Jerks like him have figured out that you can get away with some pretty revolting moves as long as you execute them in a way that getting caught or punished requires your victim to take on the role of the accuser.

Because no one wants to be the one who makes a scene. I was grossed out, but I was also tired and I wanted to go home. It’s easier to raise hell about the most flagrant acts, but when the behavior in question is mundane, fighting it can feel almost as annoying as the offense itself. Which is a problem, because as small as these individual misbehaviors might seem on their own, they add up to a sexist culture that should have ended long ago.

Fighting misogynists is tiring work, but it’s worth doing. Because each time we let it slide, those bastards get the message that it’s ok. It’s not.

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20 thoughts on “How creeps get away with it

  1. So much rage, but frustratingly impotent! Nothing like this has happened to me. Yet. But knowing it could, and knowing how paralyzing it would be, sometimes I rehearse different endings in my head in the hope I’d be prepared to win if it ever did. Kind of like a fire drill, I guess.
    I’m sorry this happened to you. I hope you get a chance to settle the score with this creep.

  2. I’ve been in similar situations. I’ve never publicly called a creep out on it, and there were several instances where I really wish I had. You don’t *want* to have to take on the role of accuser because that makes YOU the bad guy being mean to the social awkward and confused guy who had no idea he was [standing way too close and looking down your dress] [touching you in an uncomfortable manner] [rubbing his junk against you]

    Although later it is totally obvious that you *should* call creeps out for inappropriate behavior, it is difficult to do in the moment, partly because it’s unbelievable it’s actually happening (as you noted) and partly because being the accuser feels bitchy. Like Erin said above, I’ve rehearsed different endings in my head, and I think the next time I’ll be ready to say something. (So sad that it’s “next time” and not “if it happens again.”)

  3. Horrible. The creeps do get away with it, and making a fuss at the time is not necessarily productive, as you say. I think a key thing is whether this is someone you have to deal with on a regular basis or someone you will never have to see again. I wrote about some of the options, and their cost-benefit analysis, here http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2012/05/12/to-confront-or-not-to-confront/
    I do hope the rest of the holiday season is a little more pleasant for you!

  4. Yuck. I have certainly encountered things like this over the years. I agree that most of us are socialized to not quite believe it’s happening and laugh in embarrassment in the moment, which allows them to tell themselves we liked it and do it again to someone else. Or at least be assured that they can get away with it.

    Yet, for the sake of each other, I think it’s better to make a scene. Of course, I never have. The funniest response I ever read about was a woman who found a hand on her ass and grabbed it and held it up for everyone to see and shouted, “Look! I found a hand on my ass!” The guy attached to it was presumably embarrassed enough to think twice about doing that again. I don’t know if this is apocryphal…

  5. Christie: the problem with these kinds of things (racist comments go in this category, so do gay slurs, sexist comments, over touching that isn’t a grope (ie the long hug)) is that we never know what exactly is going on at the time. For example, two days ago at the supermarket the anglo bagger was making fun of how the latino cashier was talking…but I couldn’t figure out what was going on at the time, it wasn’t clear to me what he was doing. AS I left the store, I realized I should have said something. But in the moment, beyond being in my normal daze, I was truly perplexed about what was going on. Note that this is exactly the same thing that happens during mass shootings: people’s first response is to not understand what is going on…that’s why the concealed carry solution to shooting is problematic–often you can’t tell what the hell is happening or who is making it happen, so it’s hard to act in a way that doesn’t hurt innocent people… This cognitive problem when faced with the unexpected is one of those things you are perfectly suited to explore, given what you’ve written about…

  6. CHristie,

    So sorry this happened to you! I think the best way to out this guy is to write an email to everyone at the party and let them (including the groper) know what happened. (Or just send them all this story–with the name!) Hopefully this will create enough of a stir that 1. other people (also silent types) will admit the same thing has happened to them, 2. he will be ostracized and not invited to the next party, and/or 3. he will realize he has a problem and get some help.

  7. Thinking this over. Kidpower does self defense classes for adults that include situations like this. They are a great organization.

    Chapstick is excellent, but I favor inadvertently whacking him with the frying pan. Maybe sticking it out a little and then suddenly turning to call to someone across the room. “Oh! I’m so sorry!” Then you can smile back at him the way he did to you.

    The important thing though is to have a plan. Getting caught off guard is a big part of the problem.

  8. I’m grateful for all of the supportive comments and feedback, both here and privately.

    Auden and Jennie bring up an excellent point. It’s really difficult to react to incidents like this, because they’re so unexpected and off script. It’s so infuriating. Auden, I may take up your suggestion and write something about the cognitive problem this kind of situation poses. There must be some research out there…

  9. You really should have confronted him because it is obviously taking over your ability to write without your emotions overrunning the article. Yes, what happened to you was bad, but you are hanging on to it to the point that it hurts you.
    As for myself my mother always told me that if someone does something I don’t like to me then yell, not scream, not be cutesy or insulting, just yell. In your case a simple “You’re in my personal space.” would have sufficed. Then he would either back up or take it to the next level, which others would clearly notice.

  10. Magoonski, wow, that was really condescending. I suggest you re-read this post. Nothing about it is inappropriately emotional. On the contrary, this is level writing about an upsetting situation. The whole point is how it is difficult to know how to react in the moment, and how the perpetrators exploit this difficulty. I, for one, don’t appreciate your attempts to shame and blame the victim.

  11. Let me start by saying that the experience you related is, first and foremost, disgusting. It is, however, not confined to your side of the gender gap. I have, on more than one occasion, been standing within a group of people when a woman, generally younger than me or my own age, has leaned into me just enough to rub her breast against my arm, back or chest. As with you, it was often done with direct eye contact. As with you, it was a surprising and uninvited invasion of my personal space.

    Now comes the problem of how to react. I cannot imagine (maybe you can) any good outcome resulting from my yelling something like, “Stop rubbing up against me!” Certainly, nothing good would come from my reaching out and grabbing the offending body part. My guess is that any overt reaction I had would result in me, not her, not being invited back.

    Perhaps if we lived in different cultures where “personal space” is much smaller or non-existent, we would not feel violated. Were that the case, the other party might not have won the confrontation.

  12. Oh Christie, I’m so sorry this happened to you. I was once molested on a crowded subway and I didn’t actually realize what precisely was happening (I just kept backing away) until the creep started doing the same thing to another friend and she very loudly said “DON’T TOUCH ME.” Good on her. But I had had the same “what the hell is happening?” experience that you did and couldn’t react appropriately in the moment. I would love to read something, if you do write it, about that confusion and how/whether a person can overcome it in the moment.

  13. There’s no need to beat yourself up because you weren’t prepared for someone else to act like a pervert at a party. That’s over. But you have the power now. I like the suggestion Kim made to link to this column in an email to some of your circle. Definitely include the guy’s wife; she must know he’s a creep, but maybe not how big a creep. It’s not about revenge. It’s about protecting others, and maybe altering the creep’s behavior (a long shot, admittedly, but worth trying).

    The most uncomfortable thing for this victim of testosterone poisoning is realizing that on some lower, noncontact level of creepiness I may feature in some woman’s catalog of creeps. I hope not.

  14. In a way, that immediate inability to respond to stunning rudeness comes from something really nice: we expect kindness and civility and respect because those things are the norm, we can count on them. So I’m sad to have to have at the back of my mind, always ready, the hostility needed to say, “Get the fuck away from me.”

  15. Was the point of contact actually in view? I ask only because about two years ago while moving furniture a friend gasped and looked down. I looked down and saw that my cell phone in my right front pocket had been pressing against her waist. I jumped back and we both blushed, stammered, and tried to quickly do something else. If she hadn’t have gasped and looked I would never have known.

    This is not apologism of any kind if you’re sure, just an overwhelmingly embarrassing alternative hypothesis.

  16. This kind of thing as happened to me over the years and I’ve tried the accusatory loud-speaking – it doesn’t work particularly well, because the creep immediately denies all knowledge of the rubbing making me look like some weirdo who thinks every guy is hitting on her.
    Now, I tend to speak loudly and clearly “Do you know your [dick is rubbing against my hand][hand is rubbing my thigh][hand is on my ass]?”
    Less confrontational but just as effective at getting them to back away, slightly perturned that they were called out on it. Adding the ‘do you know’ part can also result in other women in the room stating that the same thing was done to them.

  17. Now, I tend to speak loudly and clearly “Do you know your [dick is rubbing against my hand][hand is rubbing my thigh][hand is on my ass]?”

    I think these individuals have to be confronted directly at the time so they absolutely get the message that this behavior – which is a form of sexual assault – is called out and a clear message is sent that the behavior won’t be tolerated. It is almost certain that this is not the first time this person has engaged in this behavior. I also think the person’s name should be obtained directly or indirectly if possible, and the incident should be documented.

    I’m always wary of giving other people advice when it concerns a situation that I’ll likely never experience … on the other hand, I have two daughters who are victims of sexual assault and I’m very, very aware of how painfully it can disrupt a person’s life and sense of well-being.

  18. The common thread I see in reports of these experiences is the assumption that you have to respond right away or never. Why? These people aren’t like dogs, who forget what they’ve done wrong unless immediately corrected.

    The last time something like this happened to me, I was in my car getting ready to head home from the place it happened (and swearing to never go back) when I decided I wasn’t letting the creep drive me away from someplace I had a right to be in. I thought about what to do, went back into the building, hunted him up, and confronted him.

    We’re allowed to take our time in situations like this. We don’t have to keep ourselves on a hair-trigger, ready to respond immediately without thinking; the response is ours, after all, and the only rules about when to respond are the ones we choose to accept. Why should we deprive ourselves of the chance to think, plan, and reflect?

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