Commentary Media

Harassment Is the Problem, Not Grinding

Amanda Marcotte

A recent New York Times piece on grinding manages a miraculous combination of inciting panic over fairly harmless teenage behavior while minimizing the very real problem of young men mistreating young women. 

In a few short weeks, I will be turning 34 years old, which means that roughly 18 or 19 years have passed since I first stepped on the floor of a high school gymnasium and found myself gleefully grinding up against some boy to thumpa-thumpa dance music and hip-hop. Many things have happened in the years hence, including the gradual growing out of the age where you can still grind and get away with it: three presidential administrations, two official and half a dozen unofficial wars, the shift from rock to hip-hop as America’s number one favoritest music, the rise of reality TV, the invention of the blogosphere, 90s fashion becoming “retro”, and Nirvana getting played on the oldies station. 

So why on earth is the New York Times running an article that treats grinding like it’s some new things the kids are doing these days?  Many of the kids interviewed for this weren’t even born when people my age first were shocking our elders by grinding on the dance floor.  I’m sure the majority of the people actually teaching them in school have gleefully backed it up to a thumping bass line in their adolescence.  What’s next in the New York Times trend story hopper?  A hand-wringing report on how the kids these days are watching something called “music videos?”  An alarmist story on how analog music is giving way to digital forms like CDs and MP3s?  Will I log on to the Times website to discover a story about how this thing called the “internet” is being used by people seeking news and commentary?

But the New York Times pretending that adolescent sexual provocation and experimentation is some new thing isn’t even the most offensive aspect of this story.  No, just to make it all the worse, this article conflates the existence of grinding with the issue of young men grinding up on young women who didn’t consent to it.  The former isn’t a problem, and adults would be better off remembering that we did it, too, and there appears to be no real harm for it.  The latter, however, is sexual harassment and indicates a very real problem that has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with sexism.  Let me repeat: that kids these days like to experiment with sexual displays isn’t really the issue.  That some young men don’t respect their female peers enough to obtain consent before invading their personal space, however, is. 

Look, one of these things is not like the other:

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“Grinding is exactly what it sounds like,” said Tom Rosenbluth, head of the middle school at Francis W. Parker, a K-12 independent school in Chicago, who says he has had so much experience with this style of dancing among his seventh and eighth graders that he cannot help but refer to himself as a “grinding expert.” He added: “It’s basically sex with your clothes on in public.”

Or:

How to combat a grinder? Just telling the offender to walk away won’t work, she says: “They don’t care. They hear stuff like that all the time.”

The first quote is clearly just sexual hysteria aimed at young people that is so over-the-top that it might as well be a parody. (As someone who has done some grinding in her time, I promise you that it is not sex with your clothes on, in much the same way that riding the stationary bicycle at the gym is not the same as racing in the Tour de France.) The second quote describes a very problem of young men refusing to take no for an answer.  The second quote also indicates the overall tone of the piece, using the term “grinder” when the writer, Jennifer Conlin, actually means “non-consensual grinder”.  Obviously, someone who only grinds with women who want to grind with him is also a grinder, but he doesn’t need to be fought off, because, duh, he takes no for an answer. 

The weirdest part of this is by conflating consensual grinding with young men manhandling non-consenting young women is that it ends up minimizing young women’s very real concerns about bodily autonomy.  Concerns about consent get rolled up into generic sexual panic about young people, making it easier to dismiss young women’s problems as just more prudery.  But that some young men are not bothering to get a young woman’s buy-in before invading personal space, and that some even refuse to take no for an answer, indicates a much deeper and widespread problem than that kids are play-acting sexuality in public, something that they’ll do anyway in different (and eventually more subtle) forms for the rest of their lives. It indicates that many young men are buying the message that young women aren’t full human beings deserving of respect, but are instead treating them like objects whose feelings don’t matter.

It’s a real shame that Conlin decided to conflate irrational panic over youthful sexuality with actual concerns about consent and respect.  If she started with the assumption that grinding itself isn’t the problem, she could have written a genuinely interesting story about the problem of guys grinding up on girls who don’t consent, and how young women are reacting.  Within this atrocious story are the actual voices of young women, who make it clear that their concern isn’t the style of dancing so much as young men rejecting their right to say no.  Not one girl quoted complains about other people doing it because they want to, just that guys are literally pushing it on them through emotional manipulation or even force.  Getting rid of consensual flirtatious behavior doesn’t solve the problem of young men who feel entitled to push young women around like this. 

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