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It used to be that Jessica Graves was always up for a dance party. So when she headed out to Dupont Circle gay bar Cobalt one night in 2006, Graves and a male friend hit the crowded dance floor hard. “We were being kind of raunchy,” she says. “When we go out, my friend says things like, ‘Trash me!,’ and I play along. It gets pretty outrageous sometimes. But my friend is gay, and we’re just being ridiculous and having fun.”
Later in the evening, another dancer decided to join in on the fun. “I was grinding with my friend, and this dude got up on me from behind,” says Graves, now 27. The interloper inserted a leg between Graves’ legs and latched his hands around her waist. “He was strong enough that I had to adjust my body to not get knocked over,” she says. But everyone at Cobalt that night was dancing close, and Graves didn’t think much of it—until something shifted.
“At some point I figured out the guy was straight,” she says. The man had developed an obvious erection. “We were all still moving,” she says. “He rubbed up on me with an erection and wouldn’t back off until, as best I could tell, he had ejaculated.” Graves stayed silent as the man assaulted her. “By the time I figured out what he was doing, I just wanted him to finish and leave.…I didn’t want anybody else to notice what was going on, because I was so embarrassed by the whole thing,” she says. When it was over, Graves bolted for the bathroom in an attempt to rinse off the experience. But years later, Graves still remembers the look on her groper’s face: “He just had this nasty smile on his face. He knew he had me. And I was too stunned by the whole thing to really stop him.” Graves rejoined her friends and waited out the rest of the night inside Cobalt. “I had to stay,” she says. “My friends were my ride.”’
Stephanie Rinehart’s grope occurred on a brightly lit Metro train, in plain view of dozens of people. But she did not immediately register a physical reaction to the assault. “I wasn’t actively groped,” explains Rinehart, a 24-year-old office administrator. “Well, not with a hand.”
In May 2009, Rinehart was in the middle of her standard commute—a Yellow Line to Red Line switch in the direction of Silver Spring. “After shuffling on to the Red Line at Gallery Place, I was sandwiched with my crotch in some poor lady’s face, and a gentleman standing slightly behind and to the right of me, who stank of alcohol,” she says. Before the train left the station, the man had already begun “noticeably rubbing his front parts to my back parts,” Rinehart says.
She froze. “I couldn’t move forward, or sideways, since I was smashed in place by the other riders on the train,” she says. “It was discreet enough that my friend, standing five feet away, never knew it happened, but it was alarmingly obvious to me.” Rinehart wasn’t eager to acknowledge that a large, drunk man was rubbing his genitals on her body in the middle of the crowded train. “I did have a moment where I thought, ‘Maybe he isn’t doing it on purpose,’” she says. “I’ve had my share of accidental brushes on the Metro.”
In fact, Rinehart was being accosted by a type of sexual assailant so common that the French have a word for him: frotteur, or “one who rubs.” Rinehart stood still as the man frottait. “I didn’t know what to do or say to him,” she says. “It wasn’t until two stops later, when I shot quickly into an empty seat, did I notice that he had a full-on erection.” Later, Rinehart was able to process exactly what had gone down. “Nothing that happened to me, I know now, was an accident.”
Liz, who asked to be identified only by her first name, was also groped on the Metro—just feet away from where her parents were standing. “I was in charge of navigation on the subways, because my parents are, in general, inept,” she says of her family vacation duties. “I motioned for them to get on to the next train, which had just pulled into the station. As I moved toward the open doors, some middle-aged man with a Walkman grabbed me by the ass cheeks and herded me onto the train.” As the man grabbed her, Liz looked back to see her parents still waiting on the platform. “I had to pry his hands off my ass to get off the train and back to my parents,” she says. “I was 14.”
A couple of years later, Liz was groped again—this time at a concert in Philly. “I walked past a guy,” she says. “While maintaining eye contact with me, [he] grabbed my crotch.…I remember he smirked, and his friend laughed. I’ll never, ever forget that, because it’s probably the most degraded I’ve ever felt in my life. I felt violated, and pissed off, but I couldn’t even muster the courage to make eye contact.” In both instances, Liz did not confront her attackers. “I remember feeling a sort of quiet desperation,” she says. “I still get mad that I didn’t respond.…To this day, I wonder: Why didn’t I do anything?”
Why didn’t these women do anything? Perhaps it’s because they were being abused by professionals. A groper doesn’t strike just once. He repeats his depravity so often that he knows how to prey on the various conditions that allow him to go unpunished—surprise, uncertainty, fear, and shame.
And so, after being assaulted on Cobalt’s dance floor, Jessica Graves never even mentioned the violation to her friend. “My friend would have brushed it off anyway, because it’s a really raunchy dance floor,” Graves says. Nowadays, Graves doesn’t go out like she used to. She prefers dancing of the ballroom variety, with rules that emphasize decorum and personal space.
Graves’ attacker had succeeded in exploiting the gay bar’s different rules—where innocuous touching between gay men and straight women is common, and women don’t expect to be targeted by sexual aggressors. “It was extra creepy because I was in a bar where the women are not there to get picked up,” says Graves, who says there were fewer than five women at the crowded club that night. “I certainly didn’t have my guard up like I do in a club where I expect there to be straight men.” The guy who shows up at the gay bar looking to target straight women is aware that his victim is unsuspecting. “This is a hyena coming in and scavenging,” Graves says.
Rinehart didn’t speak out about her attack until several months later, when she relayed the story to her boyfriend. “He’s the only person who knew, and he laughed about it because it was ‘unbelievable,’” Rinehart says. “I think there’s a large amount of society that views what happened to me, or incidences in a public place, as not a valid form of molestation or groping.…It’s something that women should just brush off and get over.…[There’s] this mentality that, ‘After all, honey, it was just an accident, your clothes were on, you were safe in a public place.’” After her assault, Rinehart retraced the factors that contributed to her temporary paralysis. If her groper had only been smaller, less imposing, not so drunk—then, maybe she could have said something. “I do have those moments where I think, ‘Next time! I’ll get him next time!’,” she says. “But there hasn’t been a ‘next time.’”
Nine years after she was first groped, Liz, now 23, doesn’t talk about her experiences, either—not even to her boyfriend. “It’s not like my logical brain thinks he’ll be mad at me, but I’m embarrassed that a stranger touched me so intimately and I did nothing about it,” she says. “What it comes down to is that I don’t want him to ask me why I didn’t say anything. I don’t think I could explain that in a way that a guy could understand.”
This column is the second in a series. Catch up with Part 1: Touch and Go: How Groping Happens. (Illustration by Brooke Hatfield).