It starts with an insignificant touch. The accidental brush on the Metro. The hug that lasts a few seconds too long. The hand that dips down past the small of your back to settle just below the waist.

And then it gets a little bit closer. The stranger who pushes against your butt as he edges past you on the crowded dance floor. The businessman who sticks his hand out as he passes you on the street so that his palm briefly grazes the side of your ass. The drunk guy in the crosswalk who leaves a mark on your shoulder from an unsolicited kiss.

It starts with a dance. He just dances by grinding his pelvis into yours. He also hugs by grinding his pelvis into yours. And he positions himself on the crowded Metro by grinding his pelvis into yours.

This is how he shakes hands: He takes your right hand in his right. He grasps your upper arm in his left. As he shakes, he makes sure his fingers reach out to rub up against the side of your breast.

It starts with an excuse. The gay man who insists that he’s got carte blanche to fondle straight girls. The straight man who goes to gay bars so he can fondle straight girls, too. The hipster for whom groping breasts is an ironic touch. The good friend who casually places his hand on your ass like it belongs there. The woman who thinks she can grab a man’s ass and grind herself into his groin on a public sidewalk in order to convince him to sleep with her, because he’s a man and she’s a woman.

It starts with entitlement. The man who approaches you on the National Mall on the Fourth of July, squeezes your breasts, and runs off into the crowd. The man who saddles up behind you at the bar and cups your boobs. The man who wanders behind you at the bookstore when you’re bent over to pick a title from the lowest shelf and grabs your ass. The guy who passes you in line for the coffee-shop bathroom who swipes his hand under the hem of your skirt. The cab driver who takes your money, then tries to take a little more. The group of four friends who spend their evening systematically groping every woman in the bar that night. The man standing against the wall who casually cups your vagina in his hand without even looking at you. The boy who grabs you, gropes you, and tells you he’s going to rape you in order to give his friends a laugh.

And then it doesn’t stop.

The man on the crowded Metro who grinds his pelvis into your back every time the train bumps, whose erection is in full view when you escape to an open seat two stops later.

The man who targets you on the packed dance floor, puts his legs between yours, and doesn’t let go until he ejaculates.

The man who targets you on the Metro, follows you to your destination, trails you to your car, then leans on your driver’s-side door until he gets what he came for.

The funeral director at your boyfriend’s grandmother’s memorial service who sees you hanging around at the back of the chapel, shoves his hand between your legs, and squeezes.

And what do you do? You don’t know what to do. You stiffen up. You edge away. You wait until he’s finished. You convince yourself it was just an accident. You turn it into a joke to tell your friends. You don’t tell anybody. You can’t sleep. You shake with rage. You daydream about it for months afterwards. You fantasize about pounding his face into the pavement. You would have said something, but he was bigger than you. You would have said something, but he smelled like alcohol. You would have said something, but you didn’t have any proof. You would have said something, but it wasn’t worth your time. You would have said something, but you didn’t want to embarrass him. Next time, you’ll say something.

Or you do say something, and he denies it—why would he want to touch your ass? Or you tell your friends, and they tell you you’re too meek. You need to start walking with more confidence. Or you scream, but he’s already down the street, across the club, on another train. And everyone turns to look at you like you’re crazy. Or you report him to the bartender, who says he’ll kick the guy out. And he doesn’t.

Or you dump a beer on his head. You stick a 5-inch stiletto heel into the top of his foot. You’ve been groped one too many times. You punch him in the kidneys. You call three police departments until someone takes your case.

These are the experiences of D.C.’s groping victims. The scenes of their crimes are our local bars, bookstores, national parks, parking lots, Red Lines, and sidewalks. Their attackers are their cab drivers, dance partners, friends, and fellow passengers. Their gropes occurred in plain view of hundreds of witnesses. But despite the highly public nature of these sexual assaults, the majority of these groping victims did not report their attacks to police. Some of them never told their friends. A few didn’t even move an inch.

Gropers succeed in a system where sexual assault is minimized as an accident, a joke, a myth, or a fact of life. Over the next month, this column will examine how the system works to claim others’ bodies as public property while excusing away the District’s most prolific sexual assailants.

This column is the first in a series. Part 2: Why Some Groping Victims Stay Silent. Read all the Sexist’s groping coverage here.

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield