Reporter Kari Harden: What I learned
It is impossible to work on a series like this and not think about personal experience. But what I thought about much more than sexual assault was sexual pressure.
I’ve only had one experience I would categorize as assault, and thankfully, I was able to escape it quickly. It was still terrifying and traumatic and shook me to the core.
However, it is the sexual pressure that feels much more pervasive in my life, especially my adolescent and young adulthood.
I didn’t grow up in Steamboat, but I grew up in a mountain resort town where money, a “perfect” female body and athleticism were overvalued. And I grew up wanting more male validation than I should have.
So as I spent time interviewing, researching, writing and thinking about issues related to sexual assault, it was this “sexual pressure” piece that nagged at me as an important part of the conversation.
A lot of it relates to self esteem and our culture, which shoves an unrealistic body image down the throats of young girls, growing girls and grown women.
Our culture is a highly superficial one, where women are judged first and foremost by what they look like.
As a teenager and young woman, I felt my self worth was defined by how desirable I was to the opposite sex. I needed attention from males to feel good about myself.
I wouldn’t say any of those coming-of-age sexual experiences weren’t consensual. I wouldn’t even say I have any regrets. It was part of growing up.
But I think there’s an important point to be made that many women have a battle they fight daily that goes far beyond what is defined as sexual assault.
If we feel pressured to have sex, blame cannot be put entirely on the pressuring party. Had I had better self esteem, I may have not felt — or been able to better resist — that pressure.
Boys — men — also have unhealthy societal pressure for sexual conquest as proof of masculinity.
Talking to a number of experts for this series, as well as friends, confirmed that self esteem is undoubtedly a big part of navigating healthy sexual relationships, especially when we are young.
This type of cultural shift in values may be much greater challenge than reducing instances defined as assault, but I think it a no less important one.
The objectification of women, and the notion that a woman’s body is available as a bargaining chip, is rampant across our society.
As a new mother, I want to make sure my daughter grows up confident and strong in knowing her body is hers alone.
If I have a son, I want him to know that sex does not prove masculinity, and that he must always respect the personal space of girls.
But I don’t have control of all those external pressures.
I hope as a society we can work to provide more images across all types of media and institutions that represent what women really look like.
I hope as women we can get better at saying “no,” consequences be damned.
I hope as women we can spend less time judging each other and cutting each other down.
I hope men can rise above “locker-room talk” and see that the need for sexual conquest comes not from a place of masculinity but one of pathetic insecurity.
I hope as parents we can teach our kids to value intelligence, humor, character and actions over looks. I hope we can steer our children to the right role models and use terrible role models as teachable moments.
We can do better, I know that.We can do better, I know that.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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