News flash! Whether it is your sex partner, a sex worker, a coworker, or simply someone you would like to get frisky with, you do not have the inalienable right to grab someone’s crotch without their consent! Shocking news to some, but true nevertheless.
As a girl in a poor neighborhood, crotch grabbing was an unfortunate and seemingly inevitable part of my school experience. I remember being grabbed from behind and in front by a myriad of boys of all kinds. I tried yelling, slapping, arguing, pleading, and even grabbing back once, which caused a momentary shock and a heartfelt and indignant response of “You can’t do that to me! I’m a guy!” They didn’t understand much about what they were doing, but they knew that much.
I remember years later exchanging school stories with an upscale lawyer who was shocked by this and innocently asked why I never “went to the principal about it”. “Oh, I don’t know,” I casually replied, “Maybe ’cause I didn’t want the shit kicked out of me.” We knew very well that the principal would not be able or willing to protect us from our “peers”. My lawyer friend and I were mutually surprised by our so very different experiences in life.
I am happy to say that I have never had a workplace where that experience continued, but I am aware that it is still prevalent for many workers. It is just another way for those with power to remind those without that “we own you” and can do as we will. Sexual harassment, sexual coercion, and even straight-up sexual assault are part of the bitter workday for many workers who, like the tender and frightened girl I was, cannot face the real or potential consequences of speaking up. Or who unlike me bravely do speak up, and are punished instead of protected by a society that cannot see “what the big deal is”. When aggressors face little to no risk in continuing their behavior, it perpetuates itself and goes on reinforcing the power structure. Many human bodies are still seen as public spaces. But that is certainly not the law.
In fact, I have seen several criminal cases involving crotch grabbing, all workplace incidents. Of course crotch grabbing is not the official title of the criminal code section. Rather, it is cast as “assault in the 4th degree with sexual motivation”. Many people think of assault as a punch in the face. Assault where I live simply means an intentional touching of another person without their consent in a way that was offensive to them or would be offensive to a reasonable person. I myself don’t find it unreasonable to presume I should be able to walk through the world or even lie down without anyone grabbing my crotch out of the blue. And it doesn’t occur to me that other people’s crotches should be within my reach at my whim. But apparently my attitude is not universal, especially among those who were raised to feel entitled, and view others as property.
My work has shown me that the attitude still exists in some workplaces that crotch grabbing is simply being friendly, flirtatious. and fun – a complete denial of how it feels to the recipients. At the same time, most larger employers are giving workshops and doing education about workplace harassment and standards that need to be met. So sexual harassment has completely ended. Just kidding! I wish. Instead, most sexual harassment has now gone undercover.
Believe it or not from your various positions of privilege, it still happens quite routinely at certain workplaces, but now it is denied, like racism often is. Instead of “Why shouldn’t I do that?” it has become “I wouldn’t do that.” And in both cases, the victim who would like to keep her physical integrity and choose how she is touched is perceived as being unreasonable, oversensitive, or simply lying. Let me acknowledge here that of course many men are also victims, but all the victims I have worked with so far have been female, so I use the feminine here, with full respect for all victims along the gender spectrum, and no intent to be exclusionary.
Although I am aware that sexual harassment is alive and well in the workplace, I have absolutely no opinion on whether any specific individual for whom I have interpreted is guilty or innocent. I don’t know and it is not even relevant for me to know as an interpreter. I write about this in detail in Day in the Life (recounting the incidents of a single workday) in my Longer Pieces section. Whenever I interpret, it seems to me that I observe with one part of my mind while I interpret with another. I observe for future reference, while I continue to interpret in the moment, as faithfully, neutrally and accurately as humanly possible. And as I interpret, I see things from my watchtower. Some of them I think about later.
I remember the look on one man’s face of surprise and even shock when confronted with this charge. The head shaking. The deer in the headlights. “How could this happen to me? I didn’t do anything wrong! This is so crazy! I want to go to trial! Like I told my wife here, that girl’s crazy! Why would I do that? I didn’t do it! Of course I didn’t.”
The lawyer explains in full detail how the alleged victim clearly and sincerely believes that something happened, is clearly very disturbed by it, was consistent in her interviews with her boss, the police, the prosecution and even the defense investigator, and thus she will likely make a very good witness for trial. “And so far,” the defense attorney adds, “I have been unable to discover any possible motive she could have for fabricating this story that you grabbed her – private parts”. (I note as an aside that even this criminal defense attorney who specializes in assisting accused sexual aggressors acknowledges that a woman has private parts. Ha!)
Toward the end of the interview, the husband and wife have a moment to come to a decision. No great choice for them. “Do you want to go to trial, which may lead to a conviction, jail time, losing your job, having a permanent record, and deportation? Or would you like to plead guilty to something you claim you didn’t do? If you plead guilty you have to say in writing that you committed an act that fulfills all the elements of the crime. That means you have to swear under penalty of perjury that you touched her in a way that was offensive, and say where that was on her body. And you will have to say on the record in open court before the judge that yes, this is true. That you are guilty.”
“The good news is that if you plead guilty, the prosecutor will not ask for jail time. The bad news is that they are asking for a sexual deviancy evaluation. This may include a lie detector test, and the peter meter, where you are checked for physical arousal to certain stimuli. Based on the results of the evaluation, you may be ordered into further treatment. And you have to pay for all of this yourself. The cost? A couple thousand. Two or three. Around there. No, that is just the cost of the evaluation – treatment will be more. You’ll have to check with the therapist on that.”
The husband in his nervousness gets up to stretch and his young wife automatically stands when he does, but then she steps away and turns her back to him, leaning her head against the wall. He stands behind her, and says, “I think I’d better plead guilty,” to which she quietly responds, “Why wouldn’t you just go to trial and fight it, if she is just a liar and you didn’t do anything?” He says, “Honey, you and I both KNOW I didn’t do anything wrong! But I just don’t want to take the chance of a conviction and jail time, for your sake, and the children’s! I am doing this for you!”
I can see the wife’s face, although the husband cannot. And her face tells me that her husband is wrong at least about one thing. They do not both KNOW that he didn’t do anything wrong. How could they? She is not at work with him, observing how he acts and talks. She is not inside his head. She cannot know and she will never know what he did or didn’t do. She has a hard time believing that a random woman at work would go through all this agony for no reason, no reason at all, if nothing at all had happened. She is trying, trying her wifely hardest, to believe him. And it is gut-wrenching for her. And it is a punch in the face to her, that he cannot even see how hard this is on her.
The supportive wife of the alleged crotch grabber can never know what really took place that day at work, or any other day. And that is beyond painful to her. She has to fly in the face of the evidence. She has to try and force herself to believe what he says, so she can go on living with him, parenting with him, and helping him to pay for his evaluation, his treatment, his court costs, and the rest of it. She has to choose to believe him, because thinking that he is guilty would make her life unbearable. And yet that nagging, gnawing doubt that makes her turn her face to the wall – she can never know for sure exactly who he is and what he has done. And he doesn’t seem to recognize what an incredible leap of faith he is asking her to take. Because he is so used to being trusted, believed, and loved by her that he takes her for granted.
Whether he also took a coworker for granted and relied on her silence as acquiescence, I will never know. And neither will she.
I don’t need to. But it would be nice for her to have that certainty.