Rub Me Tender

A reformed frotteurist explores the roots of his long-lost fetish.


Back when I was a teenage sex pervert, my best friend and I would go out on Friday nights to rub up against college women. Our venue of choice was the Fish Market in Washington, D.C., a rowdy watering hole for the trust-funded collegiate set. On weekends the bar was a fire marshal’s nightmare, jammed wall to wall with sweaty Georgetown frat boys and their perky female counterparts.

My pal Tom and I were your average 17-year-old high school horndogs — suburban dweebs in skinny leather ties, armed with fake I.D.s and a raging appetite for illicit contact. We would order a couple of Singapore Slings, settle into a corner and try not to look conspicuously underage.

The Fish Market, a long, narrow place with a U-shaped bar, had high-top tables and stools running along the perimeter, by the windows. Between the bar and the tables, dozens of women stood trapped in a mass of clammy bodies. The Fish Market served cheap beer in tureen-sized glasses, so by the time Tom and I rolled in, the lightweights were already teetering. From our shadowy corner we lovingly eyeballed the semi-adult womankind, our juvenile loins tingling with expectation.

Then we would begin: We circled the bar, arms raised over our heads like soldiers wading a creek. There was no room to pass through the crowd, really, so you had to squeeze in-between and around the women, getting sandwiched by their breasts and butts. By pretending we had to get through to go to the bathroom, or the bar, we could usually make three or four circuits before anyone started getting suspicious.

Sure, I’m ashamed to admit that I wallowed in such wanton sexploitation, but back then it seemed more like schoolboy mischief than hardcore perversion. Eventually I quit rubbing up against women and moved on to more socially acceptable courtships — conversation, dating, marriage, etc.

Not everyone gives up the habit so easily.

Frotteurism, as clinicians call it, is the practice of rubbing up against an unconsenting — and usually unsuspecting — person, for the purpose of sexual gratification. The term comes from the French verb frotter, to rub. The rubbing act itself is called “frottage” (the word we also use for the decidedly un-arousing act of rubbing a pencil over an object under paper, to create a snazzy design).

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), the psychiatrist’s Bible of mental ills, frotteurism is installed in the category of Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders. Unlike other deviancies in that category — exhibitionism, voyeurism, transvestic fetishism, et al. — frotteurism is a strictly male pursuit. According to the DSM-IV Case Book, the companion piece to DSM-IV, no cases of the disorder have ever been reported in females.

DSM-IV’s frotteurism case study features “Charles,” a 45-year-old schmoe who was referred for psychiatric consultation after his second arrest for rubbing up against strangers in the subway. Charles would choose a woman in the train station, follow her onto a train and begin pressing against her from behind — wearing plastic wrap around his penis so as not to blow his cover with unsightly stains. Charles estimated that he had “frotted” more than 1,000 women over the course of 10 years.

Like Charles, most frotteurists do their sneaky deed in overcrowded venues — subways, theaters, sports arenas and shopping malls. The average frotteurist, according to DSM-IV, often fantasizes that he has an exclusive, caring relationship with his victim. And he’s seldom caught or prosecuted because, where human bodies get mashed together helter-skelter, it’s difficult to prove that anyone has acted licentiously.

DSM-IV classifies frotteurism as a paraphilia, or sexual perversion. But in the world of Marv Albert’s lace panties, Monica Lewinsky’s cigar and Dick Morris’ sweet tooth for toes — the boundary between ordinary sexual behavior and deviation has been blurred beyond distinction. In the millennium’s twilight, you can get away with almost anything under the aegis of sexual
liberty. (Witness, for example, “Amputee Love,” a Web site dedicated to those discriminating connoisseurs who enjoy ogling naked amputees.)

Yet it’s naive — and short-sighted — to think that the times we’re living in are extraordinarily perverted. Human nature doesn’t change, and the parameters of deviance have always been dictated by cultural context. (Until 1974, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a paraphilia.) This isn’t to suggest that someday soon frotteurism advocates will march on the Capitol, upholding non-consensual rubbing as the alternative lifestyle du jour. But if frotteurism victims are so seldom aware of what is happening to them, are there any real victims? Is frotteurism a malevolent act — “the erotic form of hatred,” to use sex author Robert Stoller’s name for perversions — or is it a lecherous but basically harmless way for sex-deprived nerds to get laid standing up?

What’s so uniquely pathetic about frotteurists is the underhandedness of their transgression. Precisely because she’s unaware that anything untoward is happening to her, the victim can’t even begin to defend herself. Stripped of its PC descriptors, frotteurism is basically this: low-grade molestation for the chicken-hearted pervert, who dreams — while he’s brushing his stiffy against some unaware bus rider’s backside — of a soft-focus Hallmark forevermore with his darling frottee.

Melissa, a 32-year-old who asked not to be identified, has had a few run-ins with frotteurists. Melissa travels frequently but spends the balance of her time in Washington and New York, and she’s noticed a frottage routine unique to the Big Apple. “When you’re going through the turnstiles in the New York subway, guys will sometimes squeeze in right behind you, so you’re smashed together between two turnstile bars. So they’re pressing up against your butt. There’s nothing you can do. It’s happened to me and a bunch of my friends.”

“Elevators and escalators are bad,” says Martha King, a 34-year-old from Virginia. “But bars are the worst. It happens all the time: You’re sitting at a bar and some guy reaches over you from behind to get his drink from the bar, and he’ll rub up against you. It usually happens so quick you’re not even aware of it.”

Some frotteurists are more direct in their approach. “I was coming off the subway in Washington,” Melissa says, “and some guy just reached out and grabbed my boob. I screamed, but it was too late — the guy was already gone.” (Some classic texts distinguish groping — “toucherism” — from rubbing, but the DSM-IV compiles both exploits under the banner of frotteurism.)

So what can a woman do to protect herself against the sly frotteurist slinking around the subways and shopping malls?

Jane Kelly, a 32-year-old Washington native who commutes daily on the capital’s jam-packed subway, has developed elaborate techniques for defending herself. “I create a strict personal space,” Kelly says. “I back into a corner and open the newspaper about 12 inches from my face. I build a wall, and nobody gets inside.”

“Elbows are the best deterrent,” says King. “If you’re in a bar and some guy is rubbing up against you from behind, you pretend to go for your keys and you throw your elbow back. What I really hate are the guys who are so blatant about it. The ones who make eye contact — they want you to know what they’re doing.” When the rubbing is obviously deliberate, King will sometimes confront the offender. “I’ll turn around and say, ‘Was that good for you?’ or ‘That’ll cost you a drink.’”

Everyone seems to agree that frotteurism is rampant, but, among the women I surveyed, not one has ever reported an incident to law enforcement authorities. “I’ve never felt physically threatened to the point that I would go to the police,” King says.

Which raises the next question: Is frotteurism a crime? Calls to the sex
crime divisions of three different police departments, the F.B.I.
Communications Office and the Bureau of Justice’s National Criminal Justice
Reference Center rendered a series of long, dumbfounded silences but no
cogent explanation of frotteurism’s legal footing. Nobody in the world of
sex-crime statistic keepers seems to be keeping track of frotteurism.
Because it isn’t technically a “forcible” act — like rape, sodomy,
fondling, etc. — frotteurism doesn’t even register on the radar screen of
American law enforcement.

If nothing much is being done to stop the frotteurist, what can be done to change his ways? One answer is chemical castration. Doctors currently prescribe two distinct classes of drugs — antiandrogens (to battle overly abundant testosterone) and serotonergics (to relieve depression, which is often one cause of sexually aggressive behavior) — for the treatment of paraphilias. Since men using antiandrogens and serotonergics have reported a marked decrease in their sexual urges, these drugs have become the standard prescription for sex offenders.

Some doctors claim the drugs are so successful that behavioral therapy has become obsolete. Psychologists, of course, disagree, arguing that the causes of paraphilia aren’t always physiological.

“Compulsive sexual behavior is used as a way to disconnect from painful realities, by objectifying another person,” says Helen Friedman, a sex therapist and radio talk-show host in St. Louis. “People with a sexual compulsivity describe it as an overwhelming urge. They feel like they want to stop, but they can’t.”

Friedman has come across quite a few frotteurists in her practice, including one patient currently under her care. So if frotteurism is so common, why don’t we — the public — hear about it more often? “Most women have had this experience: getting pinched, someone copping a feel. But in our culture,” Friedman says, “women are reluctant to come forward.”

Jack Porter, a professor of psychology at Westchester University in Pennsylvania, believes that compulsive behavior like frotteurism often serves as a substitute for the more ordinary pleasures of literal, coital sex. But there’s also an aspect of thrill-seeking to the frotteurist’s game. “Part of the excitement comes from the risk of being caught — that heightens the sexual component. The more forbidden the act, the more desirable it becomes,” Porter says. In his independent practice, he has encountered two cases of frotteurism. “Both were professional men who had access to women in their workplace.”

In fact, according to Al Cooper, clinical director of the San Jose (Calif.) Marital and Sexuality Center, the fastest growing group of sexually compulsive individuals is very successful men in high-paying, high-profile jobs. Which explains why so many big-time politicians, actors and pro athletes, guys who should know better — President Clinton, Hugh Grant, Michael Irvin, et al. — keep getting caught with their pants around their ankles.

Since there’s no unified theory — from a physiological or psychological standpoint — for the treatment of sexual disorders like frotteurism, the best solution, for now, seems to be a generous blend of drugs and therapy. In an article available on the Mental Health Infosource Web site, Dr. Martin P. Kafka writes that “most males with sexual impulsivity disorders treated with pharmacotherapy should have a concurrent psychological treatment including a specialized sex offender program, group therapy, a 12-step sexual addiction/compulsion recovery program or a therapist familiar with the disorder.”

Still, doctoring one disorder to the exclusion of all others may not do the trick. Friedman believes that the presence of a single disorder like frotteurism tends to signal the presence of a much broader spectrum of sexual maladies. “They say that most frotteurists are between the ages of 15 and 25, and the behavior wanes after that. But true sexual compulsivity doesn’t wane. It’s more likely that they [the frotteurists] are just moving on to other types of compulsive behavior.”

Which raises an interesting question for your humble reporter — this grown-up horndog, half a lifetime removed from those sweaty days of incidental gang-groping at the Fish Market. What type of compulsive behavior did that old schoolboy urge morph into? Compulsives dine on a vast and varied menu of fetishes: exhibitionism, cross-dressing, obsessive masturbation, chronic marital infidelity, sex with prostitutes, voyeurism, even necrophilia. But a quick inventory of me finds a guy pretty damn normal on all sexual fronts, faithfully married, with a relaxed and wholesome approach to self-abuse, no nude corpses in the closet, no transvestic tendencies beyond the occasional craving to wear my wife’s sweaters.

Most of your reformed junior-league frotteurists would make the same claim: I’m grown-up now. I don’t go there anymore. Then again, one of the traits commonly associated with sexual compulsion is a tendency toward denial. So play it safe, gentle reader: Keep your back to the wall.

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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