Implications of a middle school pastime
San Diego, California. April 2014. 16 years old. The National Scholastic Press Association arranges a convention; a gathering of high school journalists from across America, brought together for lectures, presentations, Q&As. An occasion to forge the future of journalism around thousands of like-minded teens.
All I remember is the grinding.
Twenty feet in front of me, at an official “DJ Party” in the hotel ballroom. Shadows on a white wall. Looping, spinning rainbow spotlights; the kind you can track in the same circle forever. A boy and a girl, my age, rubbing themselves against each other, in front of everybody.
“Thank you,” the boy says to the girl as they wrap things up.
“No, no.” the girl says back. “Thank you.”
Why did we grind?
By grind, I mean the kind of grinding the kids started doing when we were thirteen. Not incidental grinding, the sort that happens in, say, salsa music, the type which results as the natural byproduct of dance, the kind that might feel sort of good, you know, sexually, but only incidentally, as a singular part of a coherent whole, as a piece of a kind of connected flow state between two charged individuals. You dance for that charge.
You grind to rub the front side of your pair of jeans against the backside of someone else’s pair of jeans. Grinding was about friction. Friction wasn’t a means to an end. Friction was the entire point of the operation. It was the end.
When Bar Mitzvahs started happening—when we were all between 12 and 13, when 5 was as near as 20—we stood in circles, all the boys, and talked about which of the girls, over there in that circle, would be worth grinding on. We never discussed what the girls were talking about, but there was an unspoken assumption that it had to do with who would come over and ask who to grind, right out there, in front of everyone. At least, that’s the unspoken assumption I was making, because I seriously would rather have died, really died, than trek across the dance floor, to the girl group, and ask a girl who had even a .0001% chance of rejecting my inquiry whether I could grind on her. Because I rarely talked to girls, I felt very confident that, had I approached any of them, there was at least a .0001% chance of rejection.
So I stayed in the circle with the boys, the most adventurous of whom would walk across the room, usually in pairs, and ask the prettiest girls to grind. Then the girl—it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I can’t ever remember a girl turning down a request to grind—would walk with the boy into the middle of the two circles, stand in front of him, and kind of bend over. The guy would try to figure out where to put his hands—hand placement played a crucial role in the whole thing back then—then he would lean his hips forward and begin rubbing himself against the backside of the girl who, a few minutes before, had been standing across the room with all her friends, not being grinded on.
Though there was clearly a lot that went into it, the only important detail for us about the grind was that it had happened. It was a binary thing, yes or no, grind or no grind, you did it or you didn’t. We didn’t ask what it felt like, think about ways to improve technique, or really discuss it at all after the act had taken place. All we knew was that it had happened. We had seen it done in front of everyone, and therefore it had been done. None of the details mattered. The guys who grinded were the ones who would be the first to hang out with girls alone at the mall and then maybe start doing things that weren’t just grinding, things that my pediatrician once called “below the belt stuff” in the context of warning me that I was to avoid “below the belt stuff” at all costs. But that stuff was all pretty vague, that which was to succeed grinding. For us, then, there was nothing more. The grind was all that counted. Did it count as below the belt stuff?
I always had crushes around this time, and at every point thereafter, from the time the grinding started to the time I graduated high school. I never told anyone about them, least of all the girls themselves, yet they dictated, to an absurd degree, the course of my entire adolescent experience. Without anyone else having the slightest clue, they consumed me. This was sort of the only way to get through the day intact at that time; it was like what Elif Batuman wrote about having to be in love in high school to get by: “It was like religion had been, for medieval people: it gave you the energy to face a life of injustice, powerlessness, and drudgery.”
One of my first crushes was on a really popular girl, who I even talked to sometimes, though our conversations were always so calculated, my chest so tight, the words came from such a shallow place in my throat, masked by so much fog, that I was rarely aware of even the general parameters of the conversation, much less of steering it in any particular direction. One time, because she asked, I told her my Facebook password, and was so mortified after class that I immediately rushed to the library computer to change it.
This was seventh grade, the year when I had no one to talk to at lunch and, instead, would go to my locker, barely hidden in a row next to the lunch tables, and pretend to be trying to open it. Really I just wanted lunch to end without anyone seeing me alone, but also I was praying for magic, because the code I kept spinning in, three to the right, two to the left, one to the right, was the same one that had guarded my locker the previous year, when I had been at my old school with my childhood friends and where the changing room with the lockers smelled like cocoa butter because of all the boys terrified of being bullied for having dry skin. So I would think about cocoa butter and spin the wrong code into my new locker and really, truly hope that if I squeezed my eyes shut just right I’d be transported back to my old friends at my old school, where kids sold Ziploc baggies filled with Kool-Aid and gummy worms for fifty cents.
It was the year I had that crush, longing on longing, and we talked like I described sometimes, maybe a few times a week, mostly in class. This was later in the spring, because soon the school year ended, and when they handed out yearbooks in our fancy homeroom I was too nervous to ask anyone to sign it. I didn’t give or receive many yearbook signatures even through high school, and I always told myself it was because I thought it was stupid. Really I longed for those signatures, every year, and was just too scared to ask. Seventh grade ended, and I took my yearbook home and turned straight to the page with her photo, and I swore I’d come back next year, after a big summer, and work up the nerve.
But things changed that summer, and things changed because at summer camp everyone was talking about plywood. I had first heard about girls who were “flat” a few years before, in sixth grade, when a girl who I thought was obviously the coolest and prettiest in the whole grade—she wore lace-up Chuck Taylors that reached her knees, and a black beret—was dismissed as a “Flat Stanley” by my friend who said it like it was a big shame. Converse girl was so far from my purview at that point—so utterly untouchable—that it didn’t mean anything to me when it was discussed then.
Now, though, they were talking about all the flat girls from my new school, the boys on the side of the court who had been hit by dodgeballs. I was still in the game, but wanted to hear what they had to say, so I crept up to the front of the court towards the boundary line, a precipitous position in any dodgeball game, and tuned into the conversation. They said her name—I had sort of known they would, but when it actually happened a shock rang out from a place I’m not sure I knew existed yet—and promptly described her as “flat as a board” amidst chuckles.
So it turned out that, after everything, she really wasn’t worth all the trouble. That feeling I had; it must have been wrong. I considered it a little and realized that everything I had thought must have been wrong; all the girls I had ever liked were flat like a board. My purpose changed. Instead of pursuing girls who were like boards, like I always had, I would henceforth start liking girls who weren’t flat. I came back the next school year determined to make the proper adjustments.
I can’t be sure about how clearly I grasped this idea then, but I had at least a subconscious understanding from that point on that who I myself had a crush on mattered much less than what the other boys thought. Eventually the two concepts became so muddled—who I liked versus who it was cool to like—that it was impossible to distinguish between the two at all. There was no such thing as liking someone on my own, independent from my social environment. It all morphed into me and I dissolved all into it, self and environment blended into one discerning being, and without thinking it was suddenly a fact, I just knew, that I’d need the consensus of the whole before I decided who I liked. And when there was a glitch—when I felt something foreign tugging at me, some unsanctioned crush beckoning, I pushed it down, to that place where it settled like cool and compressed sedimentary stone, never to be excavated. You can feel it there, now, can’t you?
I saw the girl, sometimes, the next year, but the feelings associated with those encounters became much different after the summer. I wasn’t rude to her face or anything—I honestly don’t remember anyone being rude to anyone’s face back then—but I entered each interaction with the implicit understanding that she was now less worthy of my time. It’s easy to think that if I just hadn’t heard that conversation at the dodgeball game, nothing would have changed about how I felt, but so much was in the air then, so many rumors and suspicions and speculative murmurs about that sort of thing, that it is impossible to know what other inflammatory whisper I might have latched onto that summer which would have uprooted my understanding of the universe in some other way.
Four years later, the summer before senior year, I was for some reason stuffed into a small bathroom with a group of boys, the way girls at that age often find themselves stuffed into small bathrooms. I had more secure friends at that point—I wasn’t doing things like going to my locker to intentionally jam in the wrong code, close my eyes, and think of cocoa butter so I’d careen through time and space—but anytime a group took on more than three or four people, I’d always drift to the background, a Darwinian recognition that the self was now better off deferring to the whole. I don’t remember why we ended up in that bathroom, but I was leaned against the door, and my friend might have been fixing his hair in the mirror, and suddenly someone started talking about her, the same girl who I’d liked all those years ago, and how attractive she’d gotten. If I had the aptitude to speak in moments like those, I would have said, yeah, I thought that the whole time.
But I would have been lying. Because for four years—the exact four years spanning two distinct conversations, one on the side of a dodgeball court and the other stuffed into a bathroom at a house party—I didn’t think that. I did before and after, but in the middle I didn’t. I couldn’t sleep for the rest of that summer. I kicked and squeezed my legs and pressed my hand into the side of my temple until it trembled. Every night. Something about what I had left behind, and how I couldn’t get any of it back.
Sometimes when you were 19 it would happen and then you’d tell someone and they’d give you a high five, just like you pictured it would go. I remember one such revelrous moment, in great detail, a thundering, overhead palm slap commenced almost instinctively after news of a particular conquest was shared. It was college, and below the belt stuff was happening, everywhere (my pediatrician had never initiated a follow up conversation at any point since her first below the belt warning—it was obviously her job, I felt, to initiate a revision of that topic—but I assumed I was now in the clear).
There was a particular art to the whole business at that time—the art of playing it cool. This marked a distinct break from the intentional extroversion of public hookups in high school, the flamboyance of the grind. Playing it cool meant not showing up to your dorm room that night, maybe not even providing a notice of absence, and rolling up to the dining hall the next morning, unannounced, looking slightly disheveled. It wasn’t cool—it was, in fact, distasteful—to brag about where you had been the night before, but that was almost never a problem because of the hooting and hollering and cooing which your friends would commence, with varying levels of bravado, immediately upon your appearance at the table. Then you’d shrug it off, say yeah, yeah, nice one, and sometimes you’d get asked who she was, and sometimes you answered, and maybe you’d get some approving nods from your friends, and then everyone would move on.
Though this entire interaction might last, in total, half a minute, the importance of the morning after meeting cannot be overstated. No one would have told you that it was the whole point—that would have been slightly rude—but really it was the whole point. Cachet bestowed, cachet withheld. No one was keeping score (actually, that’s not true; one time a guy showed me a list full of names, replete with placeholders like “Asian girl” for forgotten ones) but it was very, very important that your friends, the other guys, knew the broad strokes of what you were getting up to. At the same time, it was somehow obvious, instinctual, that oversharing—talking in too much, or really any, detail about what, exactly, had happened during these semi-private sexual encounters, was a big violation, and actually quite gross. Who wanted to know all that?
Complicating the whole thing was the fact that, by now, we had really good friends who were girls, and some of those girls were friends with the girls me or my friends might hook up with. Calculations went a little differently when discussing such conquests with these girl friends—primarily, you didn’t refer to them as conquests, out of respect. In these conversations, you’d share a little more, but not too much more, detail about what had happened the night before. This was always in a private setting, one on one, or maybe one on two, one guy and two girls, and you always had to weigh what you were revealing against the knowledge that, eventually, they would find out in great, even exaggerated, detail everything which had actually happened from the girl, because girls, we were quickly finding out, talked about everything. Why the transfer of such knowledge flowed in this particular fashion was never specified, or even really considered, but it was taken as fact. Because it was.
At the same time these rituals were ossifying, really troubling things related to sex were happening all around us, especially in the frats. By the spring of my sophomore year, guys I had heard about, and sometimes knew, were leaving their frats, and sometimes the school, under suspicious circumstances, without explanations. Girls I knew had gone to my frat and woken up the next morning with no memory of the previous night. A guy in another frat stood outside a bedroom and posted the noises a girl was making inside the room, punctuated by the background sound of a room full of howling men, on Snapchat.
The most confusing part about the whole thing was that at the same time so much hurt was in the air, most all of us kept going to parties. We arranged Monday frat meetings where young men shed actual tears over the pain that had been inflicted under our watch, then on Tuesday someone would post in our group chat that girls were on the way; we’d all head over, put “Plain Jane” on the big speakers, and start playing beer pong. Then a big group of girls would flood in and stand on the opposite side of the room until someone summoned the courage to break the ice.
All this was going on in 2018, around the same time as Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. I was on the other side of the country, far away from the east coast prep school culture everyone was blaming for his behavior. But I knew enough to know that I wasn’t that far. I sensed I was seeing with my own eyes the connection between the kind of guy Kavanaugh had been and the brand of masculinity I held responsible for the chaos unfolding around us. So, overcome one night by a specific concoction of shame and righteousness in the coffee shop attached to the undergraduate library in the fall of 2018, I wrote the following:
And, perhaps most immediately to our lives today, it is time to recognize that our mentality and behavior on nights out and at parties needs to change drastically and immediately. The culture of partying at this school, unquestionably fortified by the very Greek system which empowered Kavanaugh himself more than 30 years ago, explicitly encourages the sexual conquest of girls and young women on nights out. Period. Men are granted social cachet for each of these successful missions, a reward system which crucially leaves out any consideration for the female mind or body.
While I haven’t personally witnessed such extreme conduct, I don’t believe it is that difficult to imagine how the societal forces emboldened by this normalized behavior of men could lead a young man to think that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to bump a drunk young woman into a dark bedroom. Or, worse, to not think about it at all.
That whole thing I wrote, really, was about asking who should take responsibility, and when anyone is trying to figure out who should take responsibility what they really mean to ask is, Am I Responsible?
It felt like there was a right answer to that question—I was 20, and I knew there were right answers to everything. But I must have been confused. Because at the same time that I called on “us”—men—to do better (a clear admission of fault), I distanced myself from the worst of the acts which had occurred (“I haven’t personally witnessed…”). My answer was to accept the blame for the widespread, little stuff, which might lead to the really serious stuff (implying the little stuff is really the serious stuff), but also to deflect from the serious stuff, because I wasn’t there when it happened, and I’m not sure what I could have actually done, myself, to stop any of it in the moment, despite all those little things that I participate in really mattering quite a lot in setting the stage for the serious stuff.
This is what a right answer looked like when I was in college and I asked myself if I deserved absolution for Brett Kavanaugh and all the boys like him.
I had the school newspaper in mind when I started writing the piece. I never submitted it for publication.
If I went to a bar in New York City today with my male friends and called a girl flat chested, using any existing innuendo, they’d shame me out of the establishment. I have really great friends who understand that it’s not cool anymore to openly objectify women, like it was when we were thirteen. Now, talking about girls is more of a yes or no thing—yeah, I would, or no, I wouldn’t. That’s the extent of most conversations we have about girls we’re talking about in the context of whether we want to hook up with them. Sometimes they’re not even conversations. They’re swipes.
Right or left.
I still don’t know what it’s like for my friends who are guys when they have sex, or what they like, or what they think about it at all. They certainly don’t know any of those things about me. I know whether they did it, or whether they do it, and that’s about it. My friends with girlfriends must do it a bunch, and it can be comical when my single friends don’t do it for a while even though they really want to. But all we really know is whether it’s done or not.
Yes or no.
When you’re young, you think there’s going to be a gap—some cinching moment, a leap across the abyss, when you enter adulthood, become fully formed. I thought about this a lot in high school. When would my moment come?
Then you get a little older and you realize that, of course, there is no such moment. Existence is one continuous thing, meandering through heavy air, fuzzy static waves bobbing and weaving through the rusted antennae lining your grandmother’s living room. Sometimes this is really great, because sometimes you want to remember that you’re still basically a kid. Other times you remember that you’re the same person who once abandoned the first really sweet girl friend you’d ever made because she didn’t have the requisite chest size.