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What Is Groping?

By G. Wiesen
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Groping is a form of sexual harassment that typically consists of physical touching of inappropriate areas on another person’s body without his or her consent. This type of touching can be grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit, and may lead to jail time. Though the term can also be used to refer to inappropriate or unnecessary public displays of affection between consenting adults, this type of behavior is more properly termed fondling, as it is wanted by both people involved. Groping is generally considered inappropriate in most cultures, and in some areas has become a major public concern.


Though different actions can be considered groping, this type of behavior usually consists of one person touching someone else in a way that is inappropriate and unsolicited. While touching a person who does not wish to be touched is generally considered rude or impolite, groping often involves areas of a person’s body that are considered private or sexual in nature. Touching of women’s breasts, for example, or grabbing of the legs, buttocks, and groin of both men and women is often considered groping.

Role of Consent

The consent of the person being touched is one of the main aspects of groping. If a person being touched is threatened, drunk, asleep, or otherwise unable to consent to the touching, then it is considered illegal. This is true even if the person doing the touching is drunk or not fully in control of his or her actions. Additionally, the person being touched does not have to specifically say that he or she doesn't want to be touched before it happens, especially if the context is clearly non-sexual. If in doubt, it's always better to get explicit consent before touching.

Legal Repercussions

The penalties for groping vary by jurisdiction and according to how it is classified. In many areas of the US, it is seen as a type of sexual battery and can be punishable by a fine or jail time. It can be seen as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the area, duration, and type of touching involved. If a person performs other unwanted sexual activities at the same time, like flashing or frotteurism — which involves rubbing against an unconsenting person — he or she will usually face a harsher penalty. This type of behavior can also contribute to a hostile work environment, and most workplaces consider it grounds for dismissal, particularly if done repeatedly.

Social Concern

In several countries, including Japan, Italy, and India, groping is considered a social problem. Women are particularly at risk, but men experience it as well. This type of behavior often happens in crowded areas, like city streets, subways, and trains, and people of certain ages or genders may be targeted, depending on the area. For instance, students are often at risk of being groped on subways in Japan. Countries with this type of problem take a number of measures to discourage it, including public awareness campaigns, gender-specific public transportation cars, and harsh legal penalties.

Is Groping Sexual Assault?

Groping is a type of sexual assault. It's unwanted sexual contact, and therefore not only unethical but illegal. Victims of groping should alert the police if they're comfortable and, depending on the circumstances, the organization that employs the perpetrator. For example, if the assault takes place in an office, the company should be notified. If assailants are teachers, the schools where they work should be informed. These notifications let organizations identify and support other victims who come forward.

What Is the Definition of Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is when one party performs a sexual act on or with another person who does not consent. Cultural understandings of consent have heavily influenced the law, so the definition of sexual assault has changed over time. Today, the U.S. legal system recognizes that the lack of a "no" doesn't constitute consent -- all parties involved must be of the legal age of consent, in control of their faculties, not under coercion and giving a clear, enthusiastic "yes" to every aspect of the encounter. Consent can be withdrawn at any time, and if parties continue with sexual contact after their partner withdraw consent, that is also sexual assault.

What Are the Penalties for Committing Sexual Assault?

There's no statute designating groping as a crime itself, but states and the federal government have laws against sexual assault. Since groping falls under the sexual assault umbrella, you can receive jail time for it.

Legal repercussions vary by state, though they often include prison time. How much depends on the circumstances and the degree of violence involved.

People convicted or credibly accused of sexual assault may also face consequences at their place of employment:

  • Suspension
  • Firing
  • Demotion

If the assault took place on company property, the employer might launch its own investigation to determine the extent of the problem. For example, company or department culture may condone groping and therefore make it more likely to occur without reports.

What Does Groping Mean?

Groping is a specific type of touching against another person's will. Unfortunately, the very nature of groping can make it difficult to prosecute, as perceptions of what constitutes this act can vary between the victim, perpetrator and even third parties such as witnesses and the U.S. judicial system.

Intentional Nonconsensual Sexual Touching

For an act to be considered groping, it needs to fulfill four characteristics:

  • It's sexual
  • It's physical contact
  • It happens without the consent of all parties
  • It's intentional

In many cases, perpetrators use their hands to touch victims' bodies, but pressing or rubbing against someone is also groping. However, talking about touching someone or implying you want to isn't considered groping, though it constitutes sexual harassment.

When authorities are trying to identify and punish groping, one of the difficulties they face is proving intentionality. Many perpetrators claim their acts were accidental or misinterpreted as a way to avoid consequences. In fact, it's common for perpetrators to grope in environments where accidental touching is genuine and frequent.

There's also the issue of whether physical contact is sexual. Perpetrators may toe the line between what is generally considered innocuous and what is considered sexual in an attempt to avoid detection. However, if the act is sexual to the perpetrator, it's groping.

Changing Acceptability With Evolving Social Norms

In the past, groping was considered a normal part of life that certain members of society were expected to endure based on their gender, sexual orientation, race and other factors. However, through the tireless work of victims' advocates, today's justice system recognizes groping and other forms of sexual assault as violence.

What Does It Mean To Grope Someone?

For victims of groping, the experience goes beyond inappropriate touching. There's a societal misconception in the U.S. that sexual assault is about the perpetrator's sexual gratification. While that may be a side benefit to the perpetrator, the act itself is about power. To grope someone is to show that you can do what you want and the victim can't stop you.

Victims of groping and other forms of sexual assault may experience long-term effects as a result. In many cases, victims develop mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder caused by a traumatic event. Individuals with PTSD may experience the following:

  • Problems sleeping
  • Angry outbursts
  • Behaving self destructively
  • Trouble remembering the traumatic event
  • On-going guilt, shame and fear

These symptoms can make it difficult to function day-to-day.


Sexual assault can be a tool of intimidation. Victims may not feel comfortable returning to the location where it occurred or doing activities associated with the event. Others may lose a general feeling of safety and live in fear that a similar event will happen in the future.

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Discussion Comments
By anon987123 — On Jan 30, 2015

I think a lot of people are calling things groping when it is not . I was on the NYC train where a woman was acting that people were groping her when they weren't. At the supermarket, a potato chip bag rarely touched a woman's arm, and she called it groping. Yes, there are perverts out there who do that. However, there is a lot of paranoia with those women and women's victim-hood that is happening.

By anon337756 — On Jun 07, 2013

I work for an airline. They allowed my groper to still keep his job by downgrading him. I took it to court and everything. He was found guilty and got probation for a couple of months. He is a pastor for a church. I have never spoken to him outside of our airport and held his hand only in prayer. I give him a hug every now and then because everyone knows he is very touchy borderline.

When he pushed me up against the locker and ground his hips into mine, it felt unreal. It was this old guy! Afterward, I went to management and so many people blamed me. He made up rumors that I was sleeping with him on the side.

It's been almost nine months now. I'm so furious and angry every day. I see him and I want to spit on him and push him down a flight of stairs. I know they will give him back his supervisor's job soon. It makes me sick.

By anon261331 — On Apr 15, 2012

I was groped by a boy and it hurt. I felt really dirty. He did it forcefully but I've never said anything, only to a couple of people because it's not like he raped me or anything.

By Denha — On Jul 25, 2011

@DentalFloss- I've heard about that sort of thing, and you're right. While not groping, I think that that sort of preference really is a form of sexual harassment. Especially since I imagine it was a lot easier for the girls who were already treated well to do a good job than those of you who felt under-appreciated.

By DentalFloss — On Jul 25, 2011

I have never, thankfully, worked somewhere where there was an issue with groping. However, when I worked in food service in high school, I witnessed another sort of sexual harassment based on looks.

Our supervisor was only 20 when I started working there, and he was very obvious in his preference of girls over boys as employees; furthermore, he showed huge favoritism to the girls who he deemed attractive, of which I was not one- I was about 17 and still at the tail end of the pubescent awkwardness phase.

The girls who showed up, however, with great makeup or who came in on their off-days wearing skimpy outfits and "dropping by" to "say hello" got more, and better hours. They also got raises faster.

While I admit that these girls were good at their jobs, and least some of them were, it was clear to some of us that he didn't give these girls perks based on their work ethics.

By Catapult — On Jul 24, 2011

@wavy58- I am so glad to hear about an office harassment that was solved. I have known a few people in similarly uncomfortable situations who just never knew quite what to do. They were so familiar with the person doing the harassing, or felt that it might hurt their jobs, that it was hard to do anything at all.

By wavy58 — On Jul 24, 2011

Every woman at my office had at one time or another had problems with a certain supervisor. He thought it a sign of familiarity to walk by and slap them on the butt or gently squeeze their thighs in a meeting. He never did any hardcore groping, and I think this confused the ladies. They didn’t appreciate his displays of “friendliness,” but they didn’t feel they had enough to nail him.

Finally, a new lady became very offended and confronted him right after he touched her. He went into his little speech about just being friendly, and she went straight downtown and filed criminal charges against him.

By orangey03 — On Jul 23, 2011

I hate going to outdoor festivals because of crowd groping. People are so jam-packed that I don’t always know who did it to me, and even if I did, I couldn’t get away.

I went to a music festival in a big park last year, and people had crowded together to see the headliner. It was dark except for the streetlight and stage lights up ahead, and I was encircled by young men. One or more of them kept subtly touching me inappropriately. I tried to squirm my way out to another location, but there just was no room to squeeze through. I had to endure the harassment for the whole show.

By shell4life — On Jul 22, 2011

Playing it off as an accident probably happens a lot. That’s what happens to me in crowds in the city where I live and work.

Every now and then, I will feel a hand squeeze my butt or leg so gently and then hear a voice say, “Oh, excuse me!” I know that it was intentional, because if it had been an accident, it would have been more of a brush or a swipe rather than a cupping.

I think we must have a gang of subtle gropers on my street! It’s never the same guy, and it seems to happen every few weeks.

By Perdido — On Jul 22, 2011

Groping occurs pretty frequently in some workplaces, and at times, the victim is treated poorly for telling a superior about it. That’s what happened to a lady in my church.

She used to work at a factory. She never wore revealing clothing or did anything to invite flirtation from any of her coworkers. She was simply a pretty lady surrounded by animalistic men all day.

When more than one of the men began to quickly and abruptly grope her and then say, “Excuse me,” like it had been an accident, she reported it to her supervisor. The main boss called her in and fired her for trying to cause trouble!

By manykitties2 — On Jul 21, 2011

@letshearit - I really think that more big cities need to start making public groping more of an issue by creating safe zones in crowded areas.

I had the misfortune of getting groped while exiting a crowded elevator and I was more mad than anything. It is such a violation of your personal space and I hate knowing there are so many perverts out there that can get a way with things like that just because there are so many people around.

How does everyone think cities should go about making crowded areas safer from groping?

I think all cities should have an optional separate train car for women. I also think there should be a an option for women only elevators.

By letshearit — On Jul 21, 2011

Experiencing unwanted groping can be very traumatic for a person and if this happens to you make sure you tell the authorities. It seems to me that more and more people are suffering from groping incidences on crowded subways, making it especially unsafe for women to travel alone during peek hours.

Interestingly some countries known that groping in a crowded train is a serious problem and they have started by creating women only train cars that run during peek hours and late at night.

When I was visiting Tokyo I found it really novel that they had these protective trains painted in pink and that there was security around at all times. The women only train cars even had marked wait areas just for them. It was really great to see a city taking personal safety so seriously.

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