By Olivia Cooley
At a town hall in Watertown, New York last week, republican presidential candidate John Kasich responded to a female college student’s concerns about sexual assault in a way that stirred some controversy.
The student asked Kasich what he would do as president “to help [her] feel safer and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment and rape.”
After Kasich detailed his views on the importance of rape kits, confidentiality and the victim’s ability to pursue justice, the presidential hopeful said, “I’d also give you one bit of advice: don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol.”
Kasich’s comment drew criticism for promoting the view that women are responsible for taking precautions to avoid being raped and that those who fail to take these precautions are partially or completely to blame if they are harassed or assaulted.
Kasich defended his comment last week, noting that “when alcohol is involved, it becomes more difficult for justice to be rendered, for a whole variety of reasons.” This is not a good enough reason for women to avoid the same college experiences that men can enjoy, but it is unfortunately true.
Kasich’s response to the student’s question can be seen as having two separate parts. The first part of his answer detailed his political commitment to addressing the systemic issue of sexual assault, whereas the second part was an added expression of personal concern for the student who posed the question.
While one could argue it was unwise to include this remark in his comments on protecting girls and women from widespread sexual harassment and violence, it is important to note that this type of personal concern and advice is not inherently a bad thing.
A friend, parent or loved one advising you not to go to parties with heavy drinking or walk alone at night is doing this out of care and concern for your well-being, and not saying that you deserve to be attacked if you do not take this advice. It may be unrealistic advice that puts an unfair burden on women to take extra precautions for fear of sexual assault, but this type of advice takes into account the current reality women face.
It is also worth noting that there is a distinction to be made between cautionary advice and victim-blaming. While cautionary advice is rooted in personal concern for someone’s health and safety, victim blaming — such as “she should not have been wearing that short skirt” or “she should not have been walking alone that late” — reflects a desire to shift blame from the attacker to the survivor of a sexual assault and is therefore never acceptable. Although there is a case to be made that cautionary advice paves the way for victim-blaming later, the two are not one in the same.
If the alcohol comment was Kasich’s only response to women’s concerns about sexual violence, it would be troubling. While advice is not necessarily a bad thing, it should not be treated as a systemic solution to the problem of sexual assault and harassment. But Kasich first addressed the issue of survivors having access to rape kits, confidential reporting and the ability to pursue justice, and his cautionary remark came after the student expressed that this is an issue that she personally worries about.
It is okay to offer cautionary advice as long as your understanding of sexual assault is the blame never falls on the survivor of an attack and that cultural and legal change needs to take place to reduce the occurrence of sexual assault. If you can work toward eradicating widespread sexual assault while simultaneously expressing care and concern for those who are most vulnerable to it, you do not deserve to be vilified.
Olivia Cooley, FCRH ‘16, is a women’s studies and Spanish double major from Meriden, Connecticut.