In the course of writing my woman-only commuter coaches post, I read an interesting Village Voice piece entitled The Politics of Groping by Richard Goldstein written in the context of the revelations of Arnold Schwarzenegger's groping history. It's an interesting article with interesting observations, particularly around how women's feeling of humiliation cause them to keep silent when they are groped, even women like Sen. Patty Murray, who was groped by Strom Thurmond in an elevator. I think Goldstein's proposed solution to groping is interesting to think about in light of the disagreements around how society ought to address groping which are illuminated in the woman-only commuter car phenomena; i.e., should separate spaces for women be created, or should the focus be on forcing men to stop groping. Goldstein suggests a more direct approach:
Tolerance of male sexual aggression that stops short of rape is the main reason why Schwarzenegger got away with groping for three decades. In liberal Hollywood, he earned the affectionate nickname "The Octopus." In the wake of his victory, we're told that Americans have come to think of a politician's sex life as irrelevant. Clinton gets blamed for that, as well. But this libertarian attitude applies only to men. What if an actress running for office had a history of grabbing men's crotches? Would the voters overlook it? The answer speaks to the politics of groping.
In Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger gave us his credo: "A certain amount of people are meant to be in control." Aside from its authoritarian vibe, this is the perfect groper's code. The right to manhandle women is part of the time-honored system that allows one sex to express its impulses while the other must be constrained. Babes may get to wield the sword in vanguard entertainments, but in life a woman with a weapon is not just dangerous; she's a pervert.
Who knows what effect modulating her sexual impulses—and putting up with men who don't—has on a woman's sense of personal power? Women who rebel against this code must struggle against a lifetime of training in restraint and assertion along strictly defined lines. I'm not just talking about sex but about the larger consequences of keeping your energy in check. If men are given greater expressive leeway, they will always have an advantage over women, if only because they don't have to cope with the anxiety of violating a gender role every time they act out.
This is why women's sports are so important (and why cutting funds for those programs has become a cause for conservatives). Physical agency is the best preparation for having an impact on the world. To the extent that women play ball, wear less binding clothing, drive big machines, and enjoy freedom from sexual subordination, they are more likely to wield power—and to feel good about it. Groping is a remnant of the old order, in which men get to be "playful" and women are expected to enjoy being played.
Maybe some women do dig it, but that doesn't change the fact that groping is a one-way transgression. What if it were otherwise? What if both sexes felt free to reach out and touch someone? At the least, groping would be taken much more seriously if it worked both ways. Women who are tempted in this direction may think grabbing a guy would only add to his pleasure. But that's because when a man imagines being "victimized" this way, the perp is Uma Thurman. They don't think of the female equivalent of Strom Thurmond fondling their nuts in an elevator. Or a middle-aged spinster reaching under men's shorts to pinch their butts. Or a serial groper who is the boss! That's the plot of a male-paranoia movie starring Michael Douglas.
If you want to stop gropinators in their tracks, grab them back. Not as a romantic response, but as a preemptive action when a guy is known for this m.o. Some people may shrink from the thought of mutually assured harassment, but there's another possibility. Women might feel less humiliated by erotic touching if they could respond in kind, and men might not get off on groping if it were no longer a sign of macho. When you change the power relations, an aggressive act takes on new meaning. A predatory male practice can evolve into a tacitly consensual rite. And when it comes to human sexuality, that may be the most you can expect.
I think Goldstein means well and he says some good things here, but he's got a ways to go feminist-consciousness-wise. For one thing, I wouldn't call groping "erotic touching," (even though gropers would.) I would call it assault. I also don't think groping back would make having been groped any less humiliating. Having your body touched against your will, being groped, is humiliating, no matter when it happens, no matter what the circumstances or who does it. It is also, again, sexual assault. Calling it "groping" doesn't make it less an act of sexual assault, and doesn't turn assault into anything that is "erotic" for the victim.
Having said that, I wonder what might happen if, when groped, women groped back? I think if women groped back, men might hit them and hurt them. I also fear that if women groped back, men might rape them and would then call what they did "consensual sex." After all, she returned the grope, that must have meant she was up for it! I think the only way the power dynamic around groping might change would be if women started randomly groping men whenever they got the chance– not groping back, but instigating the groping, so that men and boys never knew when or under what circumstances they might be groped and could not predict who would grope them. After all, men grope women they already want, for whatever reason, to touch; touching them back just gives them more of what they wanted in the first place. But women assuming "agency" and groping men they wanted to grope without concern for what the men wanted– that's something different. That is, in fact, what men do to women when they grope us.
Women are not going to do that. For one thing, in general, most women have no interest in touching random men; it would be too hard to suspend both the ick factor and the fear factor. For another thing, we still live under male heterosupremacy and are subject to its rules and regulations, spoken and unspoken. I believe if women began groping men in massive numbers, comparable with the numbers of men who grope women, we would find ourselves massively punished: hauled into court, 911 called, physically assaulted and brutalized as well. Our competence as mothers would be called into question and we would lose our kids, to social services or to our exes. I think we'd become pariahs, would lose jobs, have difficulty finding jobs, and would be diagnosed, formally or informally as mentally ill. Because those are the treatments reserved for women who actually, physically challenge male power in the world. On the one hand, I'd like to see what happened, see men's reactions, if on one day of the year, in mass numbers, women groped them. On the other hand, I care too much about women to want them to take that kind of risk.