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Frotteurism: Sexual Assault or Accidental Encounter

You receive a dispatched call of a sexual assault at the train station, with no further details.  You answer up, as does your beat partner.  On scene a transit officer shows you the reporting party; a young, attractive woman, in her late twenties named Angie.  She reports that while she was on a crowded rush-hour train, a male rubbed against her rear-end with an erection.  She wants to press charges.  You are somewhat baffled.  There is either no suspect; or if there is a suspect he claims it was an accidental encounter related to the tight quarters in the train car.  Is this a crime?

International studies have demonstrated that most women have had the unfortunate and unwanted experience of some stranger copping a feel, pinching or being sexually rubbed against by a stranger.   These patterns represent a sexual deviancy called a paraphilia; and yes, it is illegal. 


Paraphilias are defined as any sexual practices that are considered by a community or culture as an abnormal means of achieving orgasm or sexual arousal.  Paraphilias are sexual feelings or behaviors that may involve sexual partners that are not human, not consenting, or that involve suffering by one or both partners.  Quite simply, a paraphilia is a sexual perversion.  The most common paraphilias (in order of prevalence) are:

  • pedophilia (sexual activity with a child usually 13 years old or younger)
  • exhibitionism (exposure of genitals to strangers)
  • voyeurism (observing private activities of unaware victims)
  • frotteurism (touching, rubbing against a nonconsenting person)
  • fetishism (use of inanimate objects)
  • sexual masochism (being humiliated or forced to suffer)
  • sexual sadism (inflicting humiliation or suffering)


Frotteurism is a hands-on paraphilia: physical contact is present.  Frotteurism is defined as the intentional rubbing up against or the touching of another non-consenting person for the purpose of sexual arousal and/or sexual gratification.  A frotteur derives sexual pleasure from the touching of other people without their consent and frequently without their knowledge.  It is a sexual compulsive behavior. 

The usual scenario for the non-consensual rubbing contact, pinching and groping is in a crowded place.  Examples where this behavior most commonly occurs include the following:  elevators, escalators, subways, trains, buses, sporting events, spectator events, shopping, and theaters. Frequently, the victim in these cases is packed into such a tight space that they are not be able to respond quickly or at all.  Often, a victim is unaware or does not recognize the unwanted contact as an assault assuming the physical act of the frotteur was unintentional. 

In the act, the frotteur usually fantasizes that he is in an exclusive, caring relationship with the victim.  Part of the excitement from frotteurism comes from the risk of being caught which heightens the sexual response. However, frotteurs do realize that escape is paramount, and run away or hide immediately after the act. Most of these cases occur with males inappropriately touching females, although (there have been cases of females touching males, females touching females, males touching males, and adults touching children). Areas of the body most frequently groped include the buttocks, breasts, and thighs on woman, and the penis and testicles on a man.  Frotteurism is most common between the ages of 15 and 25. Comorbidity of frotteurism is very common; 68% of frotteurs also have another paraphiliac behavior; usually exhibitionism and/or voyeurism.

Frotteurism is not an American only problem, it occurs in many cultures.  In Japan and India especially, the problem has become so widespread that special train cars and buses have been converted to women only spaces.  In Japan groping is called “chikan”.  Studies reveal that over 66% of female passengers in their twenties and thirties reported that they had been groped on trains in Tokyo.

Frotteurism Laws

Legally, frotteurism is treated as a sexual assault or battery in most jurisdictions.  A sexual assault is a criminal offense and therefore carries potentially serious penalties.  Depending upon the particular circumstances, frotteurism may constitute a misdemeanor or a felony criminal offense.  However, it is usually classified as a misdemeanor.  As a result, legal penalties are often minor.  It is difficult to prosecute frotteurs as intent to touch is difficult to prove. In their defense statements, the accused often claim that the contact was accidental. Conviction may result in a sentence including prison/jail time, compulsory psychiatric treatment, and registration as a sexual offender.  Additionally, a victim of frotteurism may file a private civil lawsuit in order to seek monetary damages from the frotteur.


The prognosis for eliminating frotteurism is poor as most frotteurs have no desire to change their behavior. They most probably will not change. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to change a person's sexual activity preferences. Without treatment, individuals with paraphilias, including frotteurism, can have a recidivism rate of 100%. In order for treatment to be successful, a frotteur must admit that they have a problem and want to change. Most often, a desire or need for change comes from a court order. Acts of frotteurism appear to wane after the age of 25, however, true sexual compulsivity doesn't wane. It's more likely that frotteurs simply move on to other types of compulsive behavior.

Treatment options for all paraphilias include; behavioral therapy, aversive conditioning, confrontation, victim empathy, assertiveness training, desensitization, social skills training, orgasmic reconditioning, 12-step programs, group therapy, relapse prevention, and/or medications. Antiandrogens such as Depo-Provera are used to lower the sex drive. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Zoloft may be prescribed to treat associated compulsive sexual disorders and/or to gain benefit from libido-lowering sexual side effects. Chemical castration may be achieved by shots of Leuprolide which dramatically decreases testosterone levels; this may completely abolish deviant sexual tendencies.


What is most pathetic about frotteurs is the underhandedness and sneakiness of their actions.  Additionally, women are reluctant to come forward with reports of frotteurism.  In India, frotteurism is called “Eve Chasing”, and is considered “a little rape”.  Unfortunately, victims can do little to protect themselves from this form of molestation/assault.  Vigilance related to your surroundings and vulnerability is your best defense.  In Japan women are encouraged to carry a small pin to stab whatever offending appendage a frotteur presents them with.  

Victims of any sexual assault often experience a number of common effects. These may include:  flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger and rage, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilence , anxiety and panic, self-blame, guilt, and shame, emotional numbing.

Go ahead and give your significant other a love tap or a little squeeze if they are willing….  However, any unwanted touching, groping or rubbing represents a sexual assault to a citizen on your beat.  They deserve to be protected and served.


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About The Author:

Pamela Kulbarsh, RN, BSW has been a psychiatric nurse for over 25 years. She has worked with law enforcement in crisis intervention for the past ten years. She has worked in patrol with officers and deputies as a member of San Diego's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) and at the Pima County Detention Center in Tucson. Pam has been a frequent guest speaker related to psychiatric emergencies and has published articles in both law enforcement and nursing magazines.