Opinion: The little things we learn

By Kate Hayden, khayden@charlescitypress.com
Reporter Kate Hayden
Reporter Kate Hayden

I, like many women, have laughed lightly at jokes that aren’t funny. Lately, I’ve stared blankly back at the joke-teller until they are just as uncomfortable as I am.

In college, I remember cutting across some strangers’ backyards on a jog because I was quietly uneasy about a car that seemed to trail me. When crossing a street, I’ve walked behind a car at a stop sign, instead of in the crosswalk, because the driver cat-called through a rolled-down window. I’ve ignored men on a subway by pretending to not hear them through my headphones.

As a young professional — Once, when I was leaving the office at 1 a.m., I called a friend because a strange car was idling by the front door, and I wanted someone on the phone to hear me. I have even once been asked to sit in a man’s lap — in the daytime. In a crowd. I quickly left that public event.

These are the things I have learned to do in situations that make me wary. Little, under-the-radar things to quickly end an encounter that put me on alert, however briefly. I’ve never been assaulted or abused, but I have been warned — by other women, by men, by news coverage.

I didn’t realize how surprising some of the comments were until a while ago, when I shared some of these experiences with my brother.

For every woman who recounts instances of sexual harassment, there’s a quiet chorus of us behind her — ”Me too. Me too.”

The women coming forward to speak about Harvey Weinstein are rightly receiving coverage for their courage — but the case that has had the most impact on me is the death of Swedish freelance journalist Kim Wall. Her story makes my hands shake.

I guess Kim was criminally curious, because 11 days before her death was announced, she boarded a submarine alone to interview an eccentric inventor, a Danish man who would feature in what could have been a beautiful print portrait.

Any journalist I know, male or female, would have stepped up for the challenge.

Kim’s headless body was found floating in late August, near Copenhagen. Her subject, Peter Madsen, is charged with murder. A community that I personally have sought online is still grieving — women who are writers, photographers, producers and editors, sharing the stories she wrote.

The stories of odd interactions, silent or outspoken intimidations are not as uncommon as we think. A writer I deeply admire, Joanna Goddard, opened her blog post on Harvey Weinstein by recounting her first job as a teenager. The male pizzeria owner kissed her neck as she was restocking ingredients.

I think about a friend of mine in college who never went to parties without a strong belt on her pants, because a belt may have saved her from rape in high school. I think of high school girls growing up today, and I wonder how many of these lessons they’ve already learned.

How do we teach our girls to be brave when they have all these other lessons to learn? How do we teach fearlessness and initiative when their female role models, their mentors or inspirations, are side-stepping men’s comments about their legs?

I’ve gotten that comment before, wearing a dress during work on a hot summer day here in town. I haven’t stopped wearing dresses, unlike in high school, when a boyfriend told me my new sweater looked slutty. That time, I gave it away.

This is a problem in every town, and your daughters and granddaughters are learning the same lessons I have. We will all react differently as we try to shut the situations down — but it isn’t always within our power to end.