You Are Allowed to Take Breaks from the Fight—An Interview with Kate Harding

April 20, 2017

Kate Harding may not be from Green Bay, but her grandmother was born and raised here, staying until the 1920s. Harding, who will be appearing at UntitledTown for an author reading and book signing on Saturday, April 29, 3:30 p.m. at the Brown County Library, is excited to spend a few days in her ancestral homeland.

UntitledTown Blogger Ami Irmen interviewed Harding about her work.

UntitledTown (UT): There are many people who have recognized the existence of rape culture, but who have not taken the step you did in writing a book about it. What was the inciting incident that sent you on the journey to take on researching and writing Asking for It?

Kate Harding (KH): I don’t know that there was a single incident – it was more the cumulative effect of reading news items that were routinely shared in online feminist circles. With sexual violence and intimate partner violence, there are such clear patterns that repeat again and again, but culturally, we act like it’s all brand new every time. I wanted to try to spell that out in a non-academic, non-intimidating way for an audience that wasn’t necessarily steeped in gender studies courses or feminist literature.

UT: You mention that you could have kept writing the book because rape culture continues to unfold. How might the book be different if you were still writing it in today’s context – where we have someone in the role of president, our highest office, who has admitted openly that he feels entitled to women’s bodies?

KH: I will never get over the fact that our first female major party nominee faced a man who bragged about sexual aggression – to say nothing of the multiple allegations of nonconsensual sexual touching – and that guy won. On the plus side, when people say, “What do you mean by ‘a rape-supportive culture?’” I now have an incredibly simple answer. On the minus side: everything else about it. I honestly don’t know if I could write a new version of this right now. The anger might actually consume me.

UT: Your book does a great job at demonstrating just how pervasive and intricately woven rape culture really is – and there is movement in the yes means yes movement. What do you see as the most important next step?

KH: We’re still working on getting people to understand that consent needs to be affirmative and ongoing. So many folks still seem to think that if neither person was screaming “No!” and trying to claw the other’s eyes out, it couldn’t have been rape. But as for next steps, I’m really interested in what Melanie Boyd is doing at Yale (and which some amazing people are trying to replicate at Cornell, where I work) on using small environmental changes to set the stage for changing social norms. How do you make the frat party a little bit less rape-friendly, without making students feel like The Man has come to ruin all their fun? (One example I always use is an idea Cornell students had: putting a coat rack on the first floor of parties in winter, so drunk people don’t have to go upstairs to a bedroom to find their coats when they want to leave.) How do you help students meet potential romantic partners outside of alcohol-fueled parties, without demonizing the people who enjoy drinking, dancing, and consensually hooking up? How can you tweak the way things have always been done to create positive change and reframe the way people expect certain interactions to play out?

UT: What words of encouragement do you have for people who are starting to feel that this is an insurmountable fight – who are tired of having to keep fighting just to be heard and believed?

KH: One: You are allowed to take breaks from the fight. Taking care of yourself and checking in with all the things that are still good about humanity is important for sustaining this work over time. Two: It really is getting better. Progress is slow, and it can be depressing and infuriating to think of all the things that haven’t changed in twenty or forty or 100 years, but each generation really is a little bit better than the last, in terms of understanding how common rape is, and how a culture that encourages male aggression, dominance, and entitlement allows it to keep happening. I work with young people every day who are so much savvier about these things than I was when I was their age in the nineties. They’re fired up and ready to carry on the fight, in directions people my age might not even have predicted. When you’re despairing, I highly recommend talking to student activists.

UT: In many of your interviews, you make sure to note that it’s not only men who rape women even though that is the rape narrative that exists today – and given today’s gender policing for hyper-masculinity in men, men who are assaulted are seen in an even lesser light. What more can we do to continue changing this narrative, thereby giving men the support they need to report and survive their own assaults?

KH: Changing the narrative that adds insult to injury for male survivors involves not only acknowledging that they exist, but changing narratives about gender roles and gender identities, about sexual orientations, about who is “asking for it” and who isn’t. We have to change the underpinnings of that stigma to eliminate it. As long as we still collectively believe that masculine is better than feminine, straight is better than gay, “purity” is better than sexual expression, etc., changing the way we talk and think about male survivors will be an uphill battle.

UT: Switching gears, there has been some pretty great movement in the body-positive movement for all people – especially for women. How has reception been for Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere? Have you seen more support for it in the last few years?

KH: There is absolutely so much more support for body positivity and acknowledging/reducing discrimination against fat people than there was ten years ago when I started writing about this subject. It’s been really heartening to see so many young women, especially, get involved in standing up for their right to be treated as full human beings, regardless of what their bodies look like.

UT: As you know, this is a conference for both readers and writers. What advice do you have for writers? What advice do you have for readers?

KH: For writers: Read as much as you can, and then read some more. At the risk of jeopardizing potential future employment as a writing teacher, reading is how you learn to write, the end. For readers: Once you’re out of school, you are allowed to abandon books you don’t find captivating. I hear so many friends say things like, “I’m 200 pages into this book, and I hate it, but everybody says it’s great. What am I missing?” And I’m like, “You’re missing that taste is subjective, and you don’t have to finish every book you start.” The way I see it is, there are so many books in the world already, let alone new ones being published every season, I can’t justify spending hours on books that don’t captivate me. Do I occasionally miss a book I might have loved because I gave up after twenty pages? I’m sure I do. Oh well.

UT: If there were one book that you think everyone should read, what would it be? Who or what are you reading right now?

KH: Right now, I’m reading Katie Kitamura’s A Separation, which is great so far. The last two books I loved so much I couldn’t stop talking about them were Dan Chaon‘s Ill Will and Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life. I would never prescribe one single book for everyone to read, but here are three forthcoming essay collections I’m excited about: Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Megan Stielstra’s The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, and Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

Also, wait, I would prescribe one book for everyone, actually! Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an anthology I’m co-editing with Samhita Mukhopadhyay, which will be out in October. (See, publicists? I did my job.)