Pop star Taylor Swift testified a few days ago about David Mueller, a former radio DJ, allegedly groping her backstage during a meet-and-greet after an event in 2013. Groping is a form of sexual violence. When her team reported the incident to his company, they launched their own investigation and fired him.
If her allegations are true, and I believe they are, then Swift’s experience is not unlike that of millions of Americans. In 2014, my organization Stop Street Harassment worked with national survey firm GfK to conduct a nationally representative survey about sexual harassment and violence in public spaces. Alarmingly, 23 percent of women and 8 percent of men nationwide had experienced some form of unwanted sexual touching while they were in public spaces, including streets, buses, trains, stores, bars, concert venues and parks.
I am part of that statistic. When a man I did not know reached out and grabbed my crotch, I was standing on the street in front of a friend’s house near my college campus. I was 18 years old. The man assaulted me as he casually walked by, like it was no big deal. He and his friends were much larger than me, and I froze in place in fear. I was relieved when they moved on, laughing at my expense, but the feelings of disgust and violation stayed with me for a long time.
Unlike Swift, who took action when Mueller allegedly groped her, I was like most people who experience this kind of abuse in that I did nothing.
One reason why people may not say anything or report such incidents is that they may not think it’s serious enough, especially if it hasn’t caused them visible physical injury. In my case, I reasoned that the men moved on and they didn’t harm me further, but it is a violation.
In other instances, people may not know they can report it and that it is illegal under every state law. In California, where I was groped, it is illegal under the Sexual Battery law. In Colorado, where Swift was allegedly groped, it is illegal under the Unlawful Sexual Contact Law.
When it specifically comes to reporting illegal acts like groping to police, some people may choose not to because they distrust law enforcement. While of course many law enforcement officers act appropriately, not all do. Persons of color, LGBQT-identified people and undocumented immigrants may particularly be wary of reporting incidents to police for fear of experiencing harassment – or worse.
Another common reason why people stay silent about groping is they fear being disbelieved or blamed for the incident. Countless women have written on the Stop Street Harassment site about encountering these kinds of responses when sharing their stories of harassment with friends, relatives or police. Even though she is a megastar, it is telling that these are both responses Swift faced. She had the fortitude to refute them in court saying, “This is what happened, it happened to me, I know it was him,” and “I’m not going to allow you or your client to make me feel in any way that this is my fault, because it isn’t.”
Lastly, a reason people may stay quiet when inappropriately touched is they might not be exactly sure what happened, especially if the incident happened quickly or in a crowded space. Chances are high, however, that if the person in question didn’t apologize, it was intentional. In Washington, D.C. this month, a woman at the Columbia Heights Metro Station felt someone reaching up her skirt. While she didn’t feel a hand distinctly grab her, as Swift did, she was concerned and reported it through Metro’s special sexual harassment reporting portal. Metro Transit Police looked at surveillance footage and saw that a man reached up her skirt to take an “upskirt” photo. During the course of their investigation, they discovered the same perpetrator took photos up the skirts of several other women.
Ultimately, people need to keep their hands to themselves if they don’t have permission to touch another person, and if they accidentally touch someone, they need to immediately own up to it and apologize.
In the meantime, while we wait for that day to come, if you experience groping, please know that it is not your fault and it is a serious issue. Also know that if you choose to take action (and it’s okay if you don’t), there are a range of ways you can respond besides reporting it to law enforcement or other security staff. Ideas include:
- Directly state what just happened as harassment and demand an apology.
- Publicly shame the person (if others are around) by calling out what just happened.
- Snap the person’s photo and post it online to shame them and warn others.
- If the person works for an identifiable company, report him or her to their employer, as Swift’s team did.
- Share your story online to raise awareness.
- Use sidewalk chalk or put up a flyer to tell your story where it occurred and “reclaim” the space.
- Contact the National Street Harassment Hotline if you need support.
I’m personally inspired by Swift’s strong stance and I hope that if I am ever grabbed again I, too, will have the courage to speak out.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.