That Time I Was Groped By A Man In Public
I was waiting at the front of a crowd in New Orleans, waiting to watch a free show on New Year’s Eve. It was December 31st, 2017. I was about to graduate college and this was a reunion trip with my high school friends, a way to get together before we all started working and had more money but less time.
We were excited because we were right at the front and stood there for many hours holding our place. Half of our friend group, uninterested in crowds or concerts, had gone back to our airbnb, and the half that remained jumped up and down in the cold during the opening performances.
I will say this again — it was cold. I was wearing a thick winter coat, jeans, and some black Timberlands.
At some point the main act — Imagine Dragons and Walk the Moon — was coming soon. The outdoor arena really started to fill up, with people filling in all behind us. We were even more excited, then, that we’d secured such a good spot.
As the crowd pressed further I felt someone behind me. I was annoyed —I’d been to concerts before and figured this person was just trying to edge forward for a closer position. So I did what I normally do at concerts — I moved and elbowed and nudged to claim my space. Still this person seemed too close. I wriggled some more, and some more.
At some point, something started to feel wrong.
I started to get uncomfortable. Was someone…fondling my ass? I figured it was just the crowd jostling, but at some point, it had gone on too long. I started to slow down, hoping it would stop. I kept trying to move out of the way and the sensation would stop for a while, and then it would continue. This person clearly knew what they were doing. The contact was just light enough that I squirmed for a while, uncomfortable, uncertain, before finally turning around to face whoever was behind me and say something.
And as I turned, I saw a man run back through a dense crowd.
It happened very quickly. I didn’t get a good look at his face but he looked middle aged and white. I remember a black hoodie and jeans and boots.
I felt a sinking feeling in my chest. I looked at the people who were standing right next to him, a man and his young daughter. He glanced at me, then averted his gaze from my eye contact. I have no idea whether he saw what was happening or not.
This is the part I hate the most:
I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t scream.
I didn’t make a big deal out of it.
I didn’t even really make a big deal out of it to the friends I was standing with. I vaguely remember telling one of the friends there that I think someone was touching my ass and I felt gross. I can’t quite remember whether they didn’t fully realize what I said, or if the way I said it played it down, but no one reacted in a significant way.
As seconds turned into minutes, I found myself wishing I had screamed, or yelled, or pointed or done something. This seemed to bother me more than the harassment itself. Now it’s too late, I thought. You can’t just scream about something when the person is already gone, and you’re not physically hurt, and there’s no point, and we all stood here for so long to get this spot at this free concert.
So I continued to say nothing. I put it aside in my mind, even though I was more sensitive to all the normal bumps and jostles of a concert crowd for the rest of the evening. I just put it in a box in my head and closed that box and decided not to look inside.
Occasionally, though, things escaped. Thoughts like, what was he touching my ass with?
I have thought about a lot of different reasons why I didn’t really say anything, especially to some of my closest friends. I love my friends and this is a personal insecurity and no fault of theirs, but part of it may have been that I have always been conscious of being the largest person in that particular group of friends. Somehow these things were linked in my head, having a large frame, especially a large butt, and being groped. As though somehow it’s harder to grope skinny people in a crowd.
Later that night I had mostly succeeded in keeping everything in the little mental box. Some people in front of us moved, and then we were really right up against the railing before the stage. They started filming Imagine Dragons’ performance. Dan Reynolds talked about his struggles with mental health in attempt to de-stigmatize and bring awareness to it.
Then, as we left the concert, I checked my phone and saw a bunch of messages.
“I saw you on TV!!!”
“hey this is weird but, are you in new orleans right now? cause I swear I saw someone who looks just like you…”
[A group chat] “GUYS Selam was on TV!!!!!”
It turned out that, in the front of that crowd in New Orleans, my face had been broadcast on national television as part of ABC’s new year’s coverage for about 4 seconds.
Your face being zoomed in on as a reaction from a crowd is pretty low-stakes ‘fame’, in which no one cares except the people you know. But by this time, everything else that happened was so buried in that box in my mind that I did not even think about the great irony of this incident. Dan Reynolds talking about mental health, and then singing to “never give up on your dreams”. Being broadcast on national television. All after having my ass fondled by a man in a crowd.
I shoved all of this into that box for a long time.
A couple weeks ago I was watching the Netflix show Sex Education, in which there’s an episode where a character is masturbated on by a man in a public bus on her way to school. For the duration of almost the whole episode, she keeps telling people it’s fine and it’s not a big deal. But in reality, she keeps imagining the face of her assaulter wherever she goes. She no longer feels safe on the bus and walks an hour to school instead. It all boils over at the end of the episode when she yells at two of her friends, and after hearing how she has been silently in distress, they all talk about the times men have groped them or done other inappropriate things. The next day a group of girls gathers together and rides the bus with her in support.
I was watching this show with my boyfriend and I said to him, “that shit happened to me once.”
“Yeah. I was at a concert in New Orleans and some guy groped my ass.”
The incredulity I saw in his face is partly why I can’t stop thinking about it. This is so common, so unbelievably frequent. Why is anyone ever surprised.
I dusted off the box that had been sitting in the back of my head.
I thought about how no one believes women, and so you learn that you will not be believed either.
I thought about how even if you are believed, you are told frequently that your needs are not important enough to warrant attention, and that a woman seeking attention is always a bad thing. It’s boring, high-maintenance, needy. You may have never been beaten or raped — what’s one little rub on the ass?
I thought about how women are accused of hysteria when they seek medical attention, and how black women die from childbirth at higher rates, and how even being Serena Williams will not protect you from this, and how this might affect how you react when you need help.
If you need something, something important and necessary, if you need help, but you also know people may not believe you or say you’re just being ‘hysterical’ — would you hesitate?
I thought about body shaming, and how the implicit message from it is that your body is worthless in its current state. Your physical body needs to change, and so until it does, it is not a body deserving of love, or care, or respect. It is a body that anyone is allowed to openly criticize, and they won’t even have to hear such morally certain terms such as ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’. It is somewhat socially acceptable, in virtually every community, to tell someone their body is wrong. And so what if you begin to believe this— would there be any reason to protect your body, then, if it is wrong altogether?
I thought about why I didn’t scream. I think a big part of it is, honestly, that it took me a second to realize what was happening.
And then I thought about how women are so used to having their personal space invaded, particularly at every type of social or public venue that young people are likely to attend — concerts, bars. Public transit. Yes, these are all crowded areas. But I am certain this does not happen in the same way to men.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how it all boiled down to a moment’s hesitation, and then the feeling that saying or doing anything after some minutes had passed would be “too much”. I recognize that not everything is systemic oppression — some of it may well be just me and my personality. I tend to be the type of person that avoids or quells conflicts, the peacemaker. It’s in my name: Selam. I usually try not to be the cause of unrest in social situations, and if there is something I can sacrifice to make peace — the place I sit or sleep when cousins are arguing about this — I will happily do it. Don’t get me wrong, I march and protest and write obnoxious blog posts about what I believe is right, but if it is only about me, an individual, I try not to make a big deal out of things. But I wonder how many other women have been socialized to be that way, simply because a woman’s opinions and needs are seen as too much, ‘high maintenance’, and less important.
So this is me, screaming, two years later. I was at a concert, and a man groped my ass, and right now, I am screaming loud, tearful screams so that security guards will run after him, or something. People will point and shout and detain the perpetrator in acts of heroic good samaritanism. Someone and/or multiple people will be tackled to the ground. The dad and his daughter that stood next to him will be shocked, and that dad will say something like “I had no idea — I’m so sorry! I thought something was wrong but I just — ” Dan Reynolds will include something about misogyny or feminism in his mental health speech. I will go home on January 1st, 2018, bringing justice into my new year.
Happy Valentine’s Day.