Thursday, September 15, 2016

Frotteurism : a variation of street harassment 

Gender-based street harassment is very common nowadays, and I am fairly certain all of us have heard of it, witnessed it or experienced it by now. We can easily find testimonies about street harassment online (for instance, in this previous blog post).

Feminists have argued that street harassment is a manner for men to claim that the public space belongs to them and that women should remain in the private sphere. For example, Deborah M. Thompson stated in an article in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism : 
If [...] women are subject to violation of that zone of personal privacy when they enter public areas, that very invasion of privacy effectively drives women back into the private sphere, where they may avoid such violations. Thus, by turning women into objects of public attention when they are in public, harassers drive home the message that women belong only in the world of the private.
In New York, the Rob Bliss Creative Video Agency filmed a woman walking on the streets for 10 hours (youtube video). In Belgium, Sofie Peeters a documentary film student filmed the streets of Brussels in her documentary Femme de la Rue (Woman of the Street).

Critiques have been made about the underlying racism and classicism of these films because their focus is on a white young woman being harassed mostly by young black and Latino men. Since then, sources and movements are more cautious and have acknowledged that everyone can get harassed by pretty much everyone. Hollaback, an international non-profit and movement to end harassment in public spaces stated :
Replacing sexism with racism is not a proper holla back. Ditto to classism, homophobia, transphobia, and the usage of any other identity signifier. In our experiences, harassment comes from people in every facet of our cultures and every strata of society.
The same movement along with Cornell University conducted an illuminating international survey in 2014, with total of 16,607 respondents. The survey reveals for example that more than 81.5% of European women and 85% of US women experienced their first street harassment before the age of 17.

However, there is a variation of this phenomenon that gets less coverage in my opinion : frotteurism. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as 
The paraphiliac practice of achieving sexual stimulation or orgasm by touching and rubbing against a person without the person's consent and usually in a public place—called also frottage.
Not surprisingly, it happens usually on public transportation where people (usually men, aged 15-25) act like the place is too crowded and get closer to other people (usually women). They get so close that they touch the victim and basically grope them or rub themselves against him/her. A bus or subway never gets that crowded. In fact, these acts can constitute sexual assault, depending on the country's law.
In taking advantage of the fact that they are stuck on public transport and in the crowd, the assailants count on the victim's impulse not to make a scene. They rely on the victim's embarrass and passiveness.

It would be truly interesting to have data on frotteurism and to identify countries/regions were it happens more frequently. I struggled to find such reliable information. However, it is common at least in France and Italy as I have witnessed firsthand. A special police force in Paris is actually dedicated to spotting frotteurs (to see them in action :

Frotteurism is considered to be a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.
The symptoms must have been present for at least 6 months and the patient must experience significant distress or negative impact on functioning [...] Diagnosis of frotteuristic disorder is based on recurrent touching or rubbing of one or more nonconsenting individuals on at least three occasions, and clinically significant distress. [...] Treatment of frotteuristic disorder focuses on the reduction of sexual urges and behaviors through behavioral therapy, used to identify triggers and redirect behavior, and psychopharmaceutical intervention.
I find it hard to believe that this type of behavior is a disorder. I am fairly certain that in some places or cities this type of harassment does not occur. Thus, it seems too easy to justify this horrific behavior by merely saying it is not something that the perpetrators can control.


Kyle Kate Dudley said...

This is a fascinating and horrifying phenomenon. To think that such an assault can be so commonplace that it has a name and a dictionary definition seems to me an almost systematic misogyny. It's not that most women haven't dealt with catcalls and approaches by men (I ran a theatre camp exploring the topic and the girls in it started being catcalled as early as age 11), but this goes to the next level.

Thank you for writing!

Flamingo said...

Thank you Kyle Kate! I'm intrigued by what you found out with your theatre camp, did boys of the same age have any idea that this was going on? Were the girls being catcalled only by older men?

Also, I am very curious about how widespread frotteurism is. So if anyone can confirm that they have heard of it of witnessed it in any city or country it would be a greatly appreciated feedback for me :)

Earnest Femingway said...

Flamingo, when I saw the title for this blog post, I immediately thought you would be discussing this case: In short, the appellant is up for a Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) determination. After he serves his prison sentence, and is found to be an SVP, he will be committed for life. The issue in the words of the court was "whether a defendant’s various mental conditions, including frotteuristic disorder, exhibitionist disorder, bipolar disorder, and anti-social disorder, which two experts opined would likely result in future acts of sexual battery, satisfy the requirement of the Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA) that a defendant 'will engage in sexually violent criminal behavior."

I too am skeptical of frotteuristic disorder as a mental disorder, however that distinction appears to have immense legal importance. The court ultimately found that the defendant did qualify as an SVP because of the frotteurisitc disorder creating a propensity for sexual battery at the felony level. It is encouraging to see the court treat this behavior for what it is, horrifying.

Joan Maya said...

Flamingo, I am so glad you wrote this blog! I had no idea that there was an actual name for something I have seen many times riding the metro. I grew up in Seattle and started riding the metro at age 12 or 13 like many of my friends and luckily only had one incident where a man sat down next to me and put his hand on my leg. I was to young and scared to say anything at the time but I sure would if it happened again to me today.

I think this conversation also brings up another important issue - class. Women who are on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum are more likely to need and use public transportation and other crowded modes of transportation where someone with frotteristic disorder (if it is really a disorder) would likely touch for gratification. And they are more likely to walk alone (cabs and ubers are expensive!) and thus more likely to be put in a position where they would be catcalled.

Josie Zimmermann said...

This is fascinating to me. I have only heard about frotteurism from friends who live in different parts of the county, and never knew there was a name for it. Growing up in LA County I haven't taken too much public transit, and when I have it has never been full enough to camouflage this kind of behavior. While I agree with the instinct to say that it can't be a mental health issue since it isn't equally widespread, I'm hesitant to hold firm to such a claim. I think there are many factors, including class as Joanie mentioned, that could affect the appearance of frotteurism. Regardless of whether it is a disorder or just a disturbing practice, I do think it points to a problem in our society (along with catcalling) where men are entitled to do whatever they want to women when they deign to go out in public.

I'm reminded of the "Stop Telling Women to Smile" campaign from a few years ago. With that type of harassment it's (almost always) men feeling entitled to have women look pleasing when in public regardless of their actual feelings or circumstances. With frotteurism it seems that men who engage feel entitled to sexual gratification because a woman dared to take public transit.