They Call That Dancing!?

Many parents don’t realize this, but high school students no longer dance. Instead, they “grind”: A boy approaches a girl by rubbing his genitals into her buttocks. She responds by grinding back, as both partners move their hips in a circular or figure-eight motion. While grinding, the girl may bend forward to touch her knees or the floor, bringing her genitals in more direct contact with the boys’. Sometimes a girl initiates grinding on a boy. Teens grind in a tight crowd, with the raunchiest grinding taking place at the center of the crowd.

Grinding happens en masse at high school dances through out the country. It happens at my niece’s Catholic school. It happens at my friend’s daughter’s Jewish camp. It’s probably rampant at your local high school, too.

Adults have objected to teen dance styles through out the ages. The waltz was considered indecent when it first appeared. Is grinding anything more than today’s version of Elvis’ swiveling hips? Yes, it is. Grinding is explicit rather than suggestive. It’s anonymous, rather than intimate. It reflects a lack of boundaries. Crowds of teens “dry humping” in public are a screaming declaration that nothing is private or personal.

Teens argue that grinding is harmless—no one gets pregnant or even catches a sexually transmitted disease from grinding. But sexuality is about more than bodies; it’s about feelings, and identity, and values, and, often, it’s about another human being.

When adults do nothing to curb grinding at high school dances, it sends unhealthy messages. To girls, it says, “You should be comfortable with being used this way, because no one else is objecting!” To boys, it says, “Approaching anonymously, from behind, genitals first, is a popular and completely acceptable way to treat girls!” Grinding creates a climate of predatory sexual harassment and dehumanization.

However, grinding has become so pervasive in teen culture, that many school leaders feel powerless to stop it. A high school principal recently told me that when he tells one couple to stop grinding at a school dance, they stop temporarily, but then they start up again as soon as he turns his back to tell another couple to stop grinding. And it’s not just established couples or troubled teens doing the grinding, he insists. It involves teens who barely know each other. It involves student leaders. It involves the majority of students attending dances.

Some high schools administrators have simply cancelled all school dances because grinding has gotten so out of control, and they don’t want to be complicit in this kind of behavior. Here’s a video of a beleaguered principal trying to address grinding:

Of course it’s a good idea to share with your own child what you think about grinding and why, but for some teens, hearing that their parents disapprove of something and knowing that all their friends do it, can feel like a gold-plated invitation to rebellion. The broader problem has to be addressed by school leaders. Here are some ideas to help minimize grinding at school dances that you may want to discuss with your child’s high school administrators.

1) Start by addressing substance abuse. Alcohol and drugs disinhibit teens and make grinding more likely and more extreme. Some high schools use breathalyzers to test for intoxication before admitting students to school dances. Others have chaperones greet students at the entrance to the dance and refuse to admit students who show signs of being drunk or high. It is impossible to reduce grinding at school dances without also reducing substance abuse.

2) Speak out frequently and consistently against grinding. Schools are public places. They have rules about appropriate behavior in hallways, in classrooms, and on school grounds. Administrators also need to create very clear rules against grinding at school dances, and they need to communicate these policies actively, through written notices, emails, and voice mails, as well as in-person announcements. Some high schools, such as the one in North Kingstown, RI, have no-grinding agreements that parents and students have to sign before students can attend school dances. To be effective, anti-grinding policies need to be enforced with real consequences for violations. For example, some schools give out two wristbands to all students attending a dance. If students grind once, they lose one wristband. If they grind twice, their parents are called, and they have to leave the dance.

3) Offer dance lessons. Sometimes teens grind because they don’t know any other way to dance. Consider hiring some “cool” dance instructors to teach hip hop, break dancing, salsa, or maybe even swing before or during the dance. A dance contest with desirable prizes could motivate participation.

4) Intersperse dancing with non-dancing activities, such as raffles or snacks, to quell a build up in grinding.

5) Persuade first the people who are most persuadable. Send messages against grinding to freshman students and their parents as well as older students and their parents. Cutting down on grinding and giving a voice to students who are not comfortable with that behavior could be an important goal of freshman peer group meetings. It could be part of a broader discussion of peer pressure, relationships, and sexuality. Offering “freshmen only” dances could start creating a non-grinding cohort.

6) Involve student leaders in curbing grinding. High school students have a reflex reaction against anything they perceive as impinging on their freedom, so it’s important to portray this issue as more than just “grown-ups being uptight and trying to control teens.” Tying anti-grinding messages to values and issues that students already care about, such as sexual harassment and disrespect, could help. Explaining to student leaders that the continuation of any school dances is at risk unless they come up with workable solutions for curbing grinding could be useful. Humor can make anti-grinding messages more palatable. Here are examples of anti-grinding videos created by students:

I’ve heard teens say, “Everyone knows there’s grinding at school dances. If someone doesn’t like grinding, they shouldn’t come to the dances.” I think that attitude is unacceptable. As a mental health professional, I am not at all naïve about “what teens get up to.” But I believe school dances should be safe–physically and emotionally–for everyone. Teens have a right to be able to attend school dances without risking being sexually molested. Maybe we can’t make the world safe for our teens, but making school dances safe for them seems like a worthy and achievable goal.

The principal I spoke with expressed concern that if school dances become “too wholesome,” students won’t want to attend. For important dances, such as prom, I think that is unlikely. Besides, the possibility of a somewhat lower attendance is a small price to pay for a safe dance.

It’s probably impossible to completely eliminate grinding at high school dances, but caring adults need to try to curb it. When adults don’t set clear standards for acceptable behavior, teens are left in a moral free fall.

Have your local high school administrators taken steps to curb grinding?

Do you think they should?


For further reading:

The anti-dirty dance: Teens say no to grinding.…


© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.