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Groping: The Sex Crime No One Talks About

In Advice, News stories, street harassment | on 02.08.12 | by | Comments ( 3 )

If you pick up the March 2012 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, which just hit newsstands today, and turn to page 180, you can find a four-page article about the problem of men groping women in public places. (And I know some men have been groped too, but the article focused on men groping women.)

I’m glad to see Cosmo take on this under-reported and under-acknowledged, but widespread problem. When I conducted a survey of 816 women for my book Stop Street Harassment, over half of the women, including me, had been groped by a stranger on the street at least once. Cosmo said that 77 percent of respondents in a survey they did reported being the target of this behavior.

I did an interview for the article author, Stephanie Booth, and shared my advice for how to respond if that happens to you. Given the article length and how long my responses were, only some of my advice made the cut. I’m including my longer responses below in case they’re useful to readers. Feel free to share your own advice in the comments.

1. Stephanie Booth (SB): What is the best way for a woman to respond to a groping incident?

Holly Kearl (HK): Every situation is different so there is no one perfect response that will work in all scenarios. A primary piece of advice is to assess the situation quickly and decide how safe you are before choosing a response. If you feel safe (e.g. there are people around, it’s daylight, you’re in a familiar area, and you’re with friends or family), telling the harasser to stop or to back off, shouting out to bystanders about what just happened, demanding some kind of apology or accountability from the harasser are all good options. If you are quick on your feet, using humor can also be effective. This is one of my favorite stories, included in my book, about how a woman handled her harasser after the slapped her backside:

Living in France, I often felt harassed and didn’t know how to deal with the harasser/language and culture barrier. One night while walking home, a group of young men who often whistled at me or called at me began their usual routine. I usually ignored them, but this time the ringleader slapped my butt as I walked by. I turned around and in French said to him, “Congratulations. Is that the first time you’ve touched a woman?” I turned around and walked away while his friends laughed at him. I felt that I had really turned their game against them, and they never bothered me again.

If you feel unsafe, leave the situation as quickly as possible and get someplace where you do feel safe.

Regardless of how you respond in the moment, if someone has groped, grabbed, or slapped you, that is assault and it can be reported to the police, and/to transportation authorities, and/or to business owners/managers (depending on where the harassment happened and what outcome you hope to see). A lot of harassers are repeat harassers so reporting them to ensure they face some kind of penalty for their behavior can hopefully help deter them from harassing someone else.

2. SB: Of course, police should take such a complaint seriously, but is it there a chance it will get blown off? Are there certain “buzz words” a woman should use when she calls police to get them to pay attention?

HK: Yes, based on feedback from women who have reported harassers, there is a chance that police will not take the report seriously. But many police officers do, so it’s worth trying (if people have the time/energy to do so).

I haven’t heard of any buzz words women should use, but looking up their city’s laws and then citing the specific law that was violated may help. For example, in Washington, DC, “misdemeanor sexual abuse” is defined as engaging “in a sexual act or sexual contact with another person . . .  without that other person’s permission,” where “sexual contact” is “the touching with any clothed or unclothed body part or any object, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person.”

So a person who is groped in Washington, DC, can call the police to report a case of “misdemeanor sexual abuse.” There’s no guarantee that describing it in those terms will make the police pay more attention than if the person called it “groping,” but it’s worth a try.

3. SB: Is it ever smart to verbally confront a man who is groping you? (Like a woman recently did in the NY subway?) What do you say?

HK: Yes, if you feel safe, it can be very impactful to verbally confront a groper or any type of harasser. People grope and harass because they think they can get away with it and if you’re silent after being groped or harassed (which is sometimes necessary for safety reasons) that often lets them continue to get away with it. Calling them out lets them know you won’t stand by and let them abuse you and calling them out can inspire others around you to help stop the harasser or groper and to stand up to their own harassers or gropers.

If gropers/harassers can no longer grope and harass and then carry on their merry way because suddenly they are being confronted by their target, they will hopefully be less inclined to harass or grope again.

Additionally, as the former Executive Director of the Washington, D.C. Rape Crisis Center, Martha Langelan, teaches in her sexual harassment seminars, there are a few men out there who use street harassment, including groping, as a rape test. They may attempt rape depending on how a woman responds to street harassment. If she is assertive and forceful, they will leave her alone, but if she cowers, freezes, or humors them, they may escalate the harassment to rape.

4.  SB: Should you ever snap his photo with your cell phone and post to a hollaback website?

HK: Yes, you can snap a photo, but if you do, it’s usually more productive to submit it with a police report than to post it on a website. Since harassers are strangers, snapping a photo can help police identify the harasser. Very few police check the Hollaback sites (although last year Holla Back DC! did have a case where a photo of an upskirter posted on their site led to his arrest because a police officer visited their site and saw the photo). Since probably no harassers go on the site either, it’s not a very effective way to deter them from harassing again. A better deterrent may be to print his photo on a flier and post it all around the place where the harassment occurred. He may often pass by that area and see it or someone he knows may walk by and see it.

But sharing one’s story on the Hollaback sites or my site Stop Street Harassment with or without a photo is important because it helps document the problem and it often makes women feel empowered to share what happened with a supportive audience.

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3 Responses


We were in NYC with a large group of family over Thanksgiving weekend last year. We were all out and my 13 year old daughter and I were together crossing at a corner in the Theater District. We were surrounded by people and family and a man crossed in front of us and grabbed her in the crotch area and kept walking past. I didn’t see the assault, only her reaction and knew right away that something horrible had happened. I was overcome with anger and wanted to attack him back. By the time I had gotten my wits about me and told my husband and family what happened he was long gone and nothing could be done. I’m so worried that it will effect my daughter long term. She was really shaken up by the whole thing. And to tell you the truth so was I.


[…] I’m glad Cosmo decided to take on this under-reported human rights issue, and that our bestie Stop Street Harassment got in some good tidbits, but I guess I take it for granted that people already know that it can […]


One of my best friends and on and off girlfriend who i hope to later marry was groped against her will. I. I don’t know what to do. It’s just. i don’t know. she knows the males that tried. i needed to know if i could do anything legal about it and thankyou for this. now i have this artical if i need it. Thankyou so much (i am crying right now) I just thankyou. Thankyou.

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