Kate Harding knows she could lead an easier life. Instead, she writes about rape.
The task requires a degree of fearlessness, given the anger, denial, backlash and passion that the topic inspires. But “rape culture” — a term from the 1970s — not only isn’t abating, but is thriving, prompting Harding to press the issue of how to change this situation.
Sitting in a coffee shop, picking at a blueberry muffin, she doesn’t appear particularly fearless. But she has this level gaze, as flat and formidable as the Stone Arch Bridge, even as she’s making one of the wry, often sardonic, observations that set her new book, “Asking for It,” apart from similar books.
Take her concept of “one free rape.”
On her website, she mused how it’s easier on our sanity to think that accusers lie and that not acting on reports actually protects the innocent.
“In reality, only a small percentage of those reports are proven false, but we’ve essentially created a situation in which everyone gets at least one free rape,” she wrote. “Unless there’s evidence beyond the victim’s word that any sex between two parties wasn’t consensual, chances are excellent that the perpetrator can get away with it.”
As a reviewer of “Asking for It” noted, Harding can “alternately make me crack up and want to jump out a window.”
The level gaze tells you that Harding is mad as hell, but she conveys this in a voice so downright reasonable, so book-club chummy, that certain cultural truisms about rape end up sounding ridiculous.
“I could have written a somber examination, or: ‘Are you kidding me; we still don’t get this?!’ ” she said. “I don’t feel the need to persuade people. I’m illuminating problems.”
Harding, who moved to Minneapolis this year, has been a blogger, is an author, is at work on a doctorate in fiction and teaches at the Loft Literary Center. She has championed fat acceptance (her 2009 book “Lessons From the Fat-o-Sphere”), and her newsletter offers a roundup of “the week in rape culture” (tinyletter.com/KateHarding).
Paula Cisewski, a local poet who met Harding at graduate school in Vermont, said that absence of easy invective makes her voice more difficult to ignore.
“She’s both intellectual and approachable, and if we’re laughing at times, it’s because she’s taking on the issue with us — not at us or for us,” Cisewski said. “She’s saying that we should all be equally enraged, because this can get unbelievable and surreal.”
Fresh eyes on Minneapolis
Harding arrived in Minneapolis because of her husband, a native Minnesotan. She’d lived amid the sprawls of Chicago and Toronto and was so delighted with the relative ease of crisscrossing the metro area that she’d tell people, “I love how small this city is!”
The ensuing tight-lipped smiles inspired an essay for the Star Tribune in which she said she meant no harm, but explained that Minneapolis is “not too big, overwhelmingly big, exhaustingly big, like Chicago felt by the time we moved.”
Perception is a funny thing. But clearly, there was a woman with a new level gaze in town — one who wasn’t apologizing.
Harding’s public profile first rose through a blog, Shapely Prose, that she began in 2007 and shuttered a few years ago, having made her point. She didn’t intend to be known as a blogger because, as she once blogged, “Everyone knows I’m a novelist!”
But her blog drew eyes, as she wrote about being fat and healthy in a body-conscious culture. Inclusion in a New York Times story about fat acceptance turned her blog into a book deal and a job at Salon, an online news site.
Although “Lessons From the Fat-o-Sphere” didn’t burn up the bestseller lists, she sees advancement “in the way we talk about fat acceptance now in the social justice community.” She takes no credit. “There just wasn’t a lot of critical thinking at the time.”
Feminism, once again
Harding, 40, always wanted to be a writer, through stints as a bank teller and in a day care center. (An offer to drive the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile across Canada was tempting, but ill-timed.)
Her father worked in a manufacturing plant, and her mother raised their family of four. “I think a lot of my feminism came from seeing how frustrated she was when she had me” at age 38 in 1975, making her mother a contemporary of feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
She grapples with feminism’s success being measured by less awareness of its work.
“It’s been a couple of generations since people have seen women dying of illegal abortions, so we’re removed from that,” she said.
“I mean, young feminists are great. But I totally relate to the feeling of, ‘You don’t know how good you have it. Do you understand that women your grandmother’s age couldn’t have credit cards in their own name?’ ”
A renewed sense of anger
“Asking for It,” subtitled “The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do About It,” is a deeply researched slog through attitudes about sex, violence, denial and blaming. Reading it is no less a challenge than it was to write. “Sometimes it would just get to me and I would need to take a break for two weeks,” she said, through a weary smile. “I just wanted kitten videos.”
Cisewski said that Harding’s research shows respect for people whose stories she tells, but also helps disarm the inevitable backlash, especially since she wrote, in the last chapter, about her own rape.
“If she seems like a workhorse about facts,” Cisewski said, “it’s because she doesn’t want to make more work for those defending it, or her.”
Robin Marty, a local feminist writer, said that Harding’s frank, fearless voice is needed today, not only for millennials, but Gen Xers, as well.
“We grew up in a really privileged time,” said Marty, 38. “We were going to college. People embraced women’s rights. Our mothers were the ones who fought for basic rights. We came of age when things were settled for us.”
Today, she said, “we’re watching what we’ve always known being taken away from us. Girls in college right now, they’ve never seen a time in their reproductive lives when they’ve had to fight for the Pill. They’re angry again, and they have a right to be.”
“Asking for It” has been well reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, Slate and the Guardian. Rolling Stone magazine interviewed Harding in August, prompting a woman at a book signing to ask with shocked concern, “Did you read the [online] comments?”
“I don’t read comments,” Harding said, again with the level gaze. “I got so much exposure monitoring them as a feminist commentator — when I had to read them — that I’ve read all they can say.”
She does value useful critiques, “like, I could have done more with race in the book, or there wasn’t enough about queer rape.
“But ‘bitches are liars’ is not enough for me.”