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The man never even touched Miranda Vargas, but her body felt him. While riding the Metro, Vargas watched as a man with a “stale, semen smell” inched close to her, opened his legs, and “began playing with himself over his pants,” Vargas says. As the guy publicly masturbated to her, Vargas’ body experienced symptoms of mild shock. She started sweating, breathing rapidly, and overheating. Her mind raced through various exit strategies.
Meanwhile, Vargas struggled to maintain a perfectly calm exterior. “I was so horrified the whole time, I just pretended I was reading my book but I never turned a page,” she says. “When I started breathing faster, I remember I consciously told myself to breathe slower, because I didn’t want the man to know how much he was upsetting me.”
Even the most low-contact public groping incidents assault the nervous system. One woman lay in bed shaking with rage all night after a man swiped her butt at a coffee shop. Another woman dry-heaved after a man grabbed her genitals at a bus stop. One man felt so sick after being deliberately rubbed on the Metro that he was physically unable to look himself in the mirror. Instead, he sat blankly in front of the television all evening until he could fall asleep. Years later, memories of the incident still produce a shudder.
Violent revenge fantasies are common.
Months after 27-year-old Jessica Graves was grabbed in the coffee shop, she still had daydreams about kicking her groper’s ass. “What I wanted to do was push him down the stairs and pound his face into the pavement,” she says. The bus stop victim, 28-year-old Elizabeth, has a recurring fantasy, too. “My anger and my frustration—I got those feelings out in my fantasy,” she says. “In my fantasy, I would turn around and grab him and get someone to grab the Metro police, and he would have gone to jail, and then he would learn that groping isn’t OK.”
One groping victim has spent years reliving his assault, but with one slight revision—the swift downward motion of a sharp pencil.
A couple of years ago, John, then a 23-year-old law student, was sitting on a crowded Red Line train, clutching an open casebook in one hand and a pencil in the other. Halfway through the trip, a new seatmate decided to make it a bumpy ride. “As the train started moving…I felt some
motion from the man next to me—his body was kind of moving slightly up and down against my side,” John says. “At first, I thought this was due to the natural movement of the Metro train, but it soon became clear that the movement was not from the train, but from the man.”
As the train continued down the track, the guy’s movements advanced beyond “natural movement.” “As the train moved on, the [rubbing] got more intense to the point where the man was grinding his side and back, half his ass, and part of his leg up against me,” John says. When John attempted to edge his body away and focus on the reading, his assailant stepped up his activity. “My efforts to get away from him seemed to only embolden him more, and at one point he even reached back to lift up his shirt so the skin of his back was rubbing up against my arm, leg, and side,” he says.
John did nothing. “I just retreated into myself,” he says. Years later, he still fantasizes about taking the pencil in his hand and swiftly stabbing the guy in the leg. Or leaning over and quietly whispering, “If you don’t stop that right now and get the fuck away from me, I’m calling the cops.” But mostly, he thinks about the pencil. “Out of all the scenarios I went through in my mind where I actually did something, this is the one I replay over and over again,” he says. “Of course, I didn’t follow through on it, and I still don’t know if I ever would have been able to. But I do keep thinking about the possibility of attacking my attacker.…It seems more satisfying than trying to embarrass him in front of a train car full of people.” Memories of the minutes-long attack still produce a physical effect in the victim. “I wanted him to feel some sort of physical pain for what he did to me,” he says. “I still do.”
Megan Carpentier, 32, makes gropers feel physical pain. In the decade she spent as a District resident, Carpentier was groped, grabbed, and grinded over and over again. Eventually, she began responding by pushing, elbowing, and stomping. “The crotch-grab—and my lack of reaction to it, honestly—was what pushed me over the edge,” says Carpentier. In 1999, she and some roommates were exiting a crowded Republic Gardens dance floor when a man swooped in for a double grope: “One dude literally just reached down and cupped my genitals over my skirt…without even looking at me. And I just froze,” she says. “He then reached down and did the same thing to my roommate.”
After that, Carpentier understood that the common club practice was a legitimate assault. “[He did this to me] because I had female genitals, and he was bigger, and close enough to grab them, and felt entitled. And it was the first time I realized that,” she says. Since then, Carpentier has been living the fantasy. “The next time some dude groped me in a club…I turned around and punched him in the kidneys,” she says. When another man attempted to grope Carpentier’s friend at (since-shuttered) retro club Polly Esters, Carpentier reached over her friend’s shoulders and “pushed him to the ground,” she says. The latest recipient of Carpentier’s self-defense groped her at an ill-fated Rumors bachelorette party. “Dude walked up behind me, ground his crotch into my ass and attempted to cup both breasts in his hands,” says Carpentier. “He got a 5-inch stiletto to the top of his foot, an elbow in the ribs, and if I’d had less to drink, he might’ve ended up with a sprained wrist.”
The aggressive approach can yield mixed results. Some victims find that no amount of pushing, elbowing, or stabbing can negate a sexual assault. “Almost every victim of assault thinks they could have controlled what happened to them. So you get mad at yourself or blame yourself for what you did or didn’t do,” says local self-defense expert Lauren Taylor. “But even if you do everything you’re ‘supposed’ to do, you were still sexually assaulted.”
Other physical resisters find themselves with less philosophical concerns. Last week, another Rumors-based groping ended in a hospital visit for the victim’s boyfriend. According to police, a woman was with her boyfriend inside the M Street club on Jan. 24 when a stranger approached and groped the woman. The boyfriend responded by confronting the groper, who “without warning or provocation head-butted [the boyfriend] in the face.” For the record, here’s the D.C. police’s official word on assaulting your groper: “The Metropolitan Police Department would never recommend that victims of assaults confront the suspect. This can be extremely dangerous.”
This column is the fourth in a series. Catch up:
Part 1:Touch and Go: How Groping Happens.
Part 2: “I Just Wanted Him to Finish And Leave”: Why Some Groping Victims Stay Silent.
Part 3: “Why Would I Want to Touch Your Ass?”: When Groping Victims Talk Back.
Find all the Sexist’s groping coverage here.
(Illustrations by Brooke Hatfield).