On a routine trip to the Coop, I happened upon a book called “Explore Harvard,” a photographic anthology of Harvard sights published by the university in the run-up to 375th anniversary celebrations. By and large, the brief commentaries are vaguely interesting, and the red brick scenes pleasantly familiar and closely reflective of life at Harvard as we know it today. In a send-up of the all-male glory days of Old Harvard, page 114 features an aerial snapshot, circa 1964, of Harvard gentlemen waltzing their dates across the wood-paneled floor of a dance in Annenberg Hall. But here’s where the dissonance cuts in: College students generally don’t dance any more, at Harvard or anywhere else.
In its place, our generation has taken up “grinding”—defined very euphemistically by Wikipedia as “a type of close partner dance where two or more dancers rub their bodies against each other.” When a friend arrives home in a veil of sweat to tell that he “danced with this freshman girl all night long”, it is safe to assume that he means: “I grabbed her waist and repeatedly pushed at her from behind with my crotch, and we may or may not have made eye contact.”
This radical redefinition of what it means to dance, almost comical when examined for what it actually is, calls into question the central role of grinding in contemporary college culture.
To be clear, I have no personal axe to grind with the grinding culture. I am neither a moral conservative, nor a fuddy-duddy, nor a dance prescriptivist. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve participated in the trend myself—sometimes enjoyably—but never without serious misgivings.
Many students who grind with ambivalence are made uncomfortable by the culture because it flies squarely in the face of all basic social norms of sexual contact. Brought up in a society that values explicit consent and mutual acknowledgment, most young people would not think to rub their clothed genitalia against strangers were it not for the culture of grinding ubiquitous on college campuses. Take away the music and turn on the lights, and grinding dances quickly turn into sexual assault charges.
The inevitable result for most young men and women is an awkward, mechanical initiation into this newfangled dance-floor culture. Men grapple, often in quiet embarrassment, with the question of how to deal with the anatomical results of intense sexual stimulation. Women are pressed with unspoken, front-to-back propositions by either aggressive veterans or awkward, groping neophytes.
Assuming they have no choice but to follow the example of more experienced practitioners, male and female students of all walks put aside their reservations and learn to grind. It’s a messy process, and the early, arrhythmic results are worth a good laugh. That is, until you realize that from now on, these first-timers will spend the rest of their party careers working to convince themselves that grinding is fun—at the expense of all other forms of dance-floor entertainment.
That is to say, the preponderance of grinding culture makes it aberrant—even inappropriate—to dance any other way in a normal party setting. Most women are conditioned, against the norms of any other continent or age group, to reject overtures that involve holding hands, moving in steps, or standing upright on the dance floor. These “classical” forms of dance are relegated to the occasional ballroom or salsa-themed exhibition and held in contrast with grinding, the unchallenged “business” end of dance.
Moreover, many men in the grinding culture feel uncomfortable initiating front-to-front dancing—instead defaulting to the easier, faceless paradigm of front-to-back grinding. Here is where grinding fundamentally departs from anything ever called dance: It removes any imperative for interpersonal contact beyond the physical. Dance has always been sexual at its core, but grinding takes things a step further by changing dance from a social activity to a mechanism for physical release.
Accordingly, the ultimate social problem of grinding is defined by its simplest mechanical feature: the front-to-back orientation of the dance pair. Unlike any face-to-face dance, grinding simply requires the man to initiate, exacerbating the alcoholic and institutional pressures behind the dance-floor gender disparity. Moreover, her face and personhood hidden (sometimes very deliberately) from the man’s sight, the woman is given no explicit means to consent to advances—and barring any attempts to break away physically, it is assumed that she complies. Anecdotally, men claim to enjoy grinding more often than women: it stands to reason that it’s because they’re the ones actually choosing to do it.
Despite these essential problems, grinding culture is entrenched as the party norm on most American college campuses. To some degree, it probably owes to the fact that grinding, for what it’s worth, is fun. College students want sexual gratification and human contact—natural things that I, as a sympathetic young person, don’t begrudge them one bit. And while grinding as a topic for moral pontification sounds amusing, its distortion of norms of consent and gender equality is downright ridiculous. If this resonates, challenge the culture. Show off your salsa moves at the Spee. Waltz your way across Annenberg.
Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Winthrop House.