Sex & Relationships

Rubbing Up On Strangers For Sexual Satisfaction: Inside the Subculture of ‘Frotteurs’

Grinding can generate a lot of sexual heat.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

A few years ago, I was riding the subway in Madrid, Spain. Bodies were slammed together, smells were exchanged and too much eye contact was made. I was a little weirded out when I felt a hand sweep across my crotch, and I was completely bummed out when I saw the hand belonged to a haggard old man. But I accepted it as an accident. No one knows where to put their hands when tangled up in a web of bodies.

Then we hit the city center, and the car started to empty out. When the old man didn’t take a step back, I thought, creepy. When he took aim at my crotch again, I upgraded the insult to pervert. Turns out, there’s some other recognized vocabulary I could have used instead. As I later learned, not all of them are gross perverts: some public grinders have developed a fascinating sexual subculture.

Who Is This Guy And Why Does He Keep Touching Me?

Frotteurism (commonly called “toucherism”) refers to a “specific paraphilia that involves the non-consensual rubbing of another person to achieve sexual arousal.” In essence, it’s a term assigned to people who get off on grinding up on those around them. The term comes from the French verb frotter, meaning, “to rub.”

The majority of frotteurs are male, and the majority of targets are female. But that’s not to say female on male, female on female and male on male frotteurs don’t exist. 

Most of the incidents occur in public. That way, the frotteurs can claim that the touching was accidental, and they have an easy escape route should things turn ugly. Vincent F. Berger, who started the website Psychologist Anywhere Anytime, told me, “There are very few experts in paraphilias. We don’t know how prevalent [frotteurism] is; there are very few cases. Frequently people like that are not caught, and if they are caught, they’re not the people to typically come in and say ‘I need help.’”

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) lists the following diagnostic criteria for frotteurism: “The person experiences intense, recurrent, sexual urges and sexually arousing fantasies involving touching and rubbing against a nonconsensual person. The person also experiences significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning because of the fantasies, urges, or behaviors, or the patient has acted on the sexual urges.”

The DSM’s list of paraphilias also includes exhibitionism, fetishism, masochism, sadism and voyeurism. In keeping with some of the other conditions on this list, no one cause exists for frotteurism. The only scientific consensus that exists on the subject is that it has to be looked at on a patient-by-patient basis. Maybe the patient accidentally rubbed up on someone years back. Maybe they liked it. Others may have been baited into the condition due to circumstances that transcend any one incident.

But if there are so few reported cases, how has frotteurism made its way into the DSMS? How has it been accepted as a core paraphilia? Dr. Berger answered this question with another question. He asked me, “Where do you live? When I told him, New York City, he explained, “Ok, so when you go down to the subway you see the sign: “Touching Is Not Ok.” And they have that up for a reason. It’s very easy to rub up against someone in the subway, you get thrown around, lose your balance. And if you have your hand out, it’s very easy to grab someone.”

He continued, “This is a situation some people will take advantage of to gain sexual satisfaction. I mean if you or I got thrown up against somebody in the subway, we wouldn’t experience any kind of climax or sexual gratification, probably we’d feel more embarrassed than anything else.”

But there are those who will take advantage of the situation—those who take the opportunity to grope, and get off. Dr. Berger says, “That’s all too common. They know from enough people that this is a psychiatric problem. That’s why they have the signs up.”

“We just don’t know frequency…. sometimes you get thrown up against a man and you don’t slap him, it’s just an awkward situation,” he added. Essentially he’s saying, a lot of times, we just let it go, that when it comes to frotteurism, a lot of incidents go unreported.

Frotteurism also falls under the umbrella of “courtship disorders.” One of the first individuals to assign such a title to sexual deviances was Havelock Ellis, who in 1933 referred to exhibitionism as a “symbolic act based on a perversion of courtship.” A few years later, Freud and his colleagues stepped in to dress up the definition. They identified “four general examples of courtship disorder,” the third of which related to tactile interaction. That’s where frotteurism gets introduced.

In a lot of cases, these paraphilias can overlap in patients. Kurt Freund and Michael C. Seto write, “Previous research has demonstrated that voyeurism, exhibitionism, and frotteurism are relatively likely to co-occur.” But frotteurism is unique from the other paraphilias in one very distinct way, and it relates to matters of consent.

Living in a city, it’s all but impossible to avoid touching other people, even when you’re least in the mood for unwanted contact. So frotteurs have a pretty big playground to act on. But Berger helped contextualize this for me when he said, “We know masochism, sadism are much more common. We know, because those behaviors are consensual. Part of the diagnosis of frotteurism is that it’s not consensual. I could go on the Internet and find people who wanted to have masochistic or sadistic sexual interactions. If I’m that kind of person, and they’re that kind of person, we can get together. However, if it’s consensual by nature, it’s not frotteurism.”

The insight is interesting. But can we determine the prevalence of this paraphilia by how organized the "community" is? It’s not like we’re going to stumble upon a “frotteurs anonymous” meeting. My Google search yielded zero results. Groping a stranger without her consent is a criminal act, and there are very real legal consequences. So most people probably don’t want to go incriminating themselves online.

Frotteurism Gets a Facelift

The principles of frotteurism have been bent and borrowed by some in the gay community. Going “frotting” is now a far cry from being a frotteur.

Frottage, as it applies to the gay community, refers to rubbing, grinding, dry humping and other non-penetrative contact between two willing partners. Clothes are optional. Some guys are into “bumping butts.” Others opt to rub their penises together. There are a lot of ways to frot, but most have the same end goal in mind: climax. 

There are websites that provide frotting enthusiasts a place to get together with like-minded partners. Participants engage in “phallus-to-phallus, face-to-face and heart-to-heart” sex. Others choose to start with frotting, before going further. On one forum, a user writes, “I love the sensation that this type of rubbing between two men gives… it makes a great way to get ready for either oral sex or anal sex.”

But why has the trend taken off? Isn’t frotting just one big tease? Isn’t penetrative sex, in any of its forms, always preferable to non-penetrative stimulation? In short, no.

When asked about frotting, one friend tells me, “Imagine if you have two tops, if neither wants to be penetrated, where does that leave them? Plus, friction does lead to pleasure. It’s mental, too.” 

Carrie Weisman is an AlterNet staff writer who focuses on sex, relationships and culture. Got tips, ideas or a first-person story? Email her

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