Recently, presidential candidate John Kasich answered a freshman student's question during a town hall meeting in Canton, N.Y., on the campus of St. Lawrence University. I speak to the freshman every fall at St. Lawrence University about transforming culture into one of consent and respect.
The question asked by the student was related to how Kasich would help her "feel safer and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment, and rape" as president.
Kasich's answer is a reminder of how far we still have to go on this topic to get to a place where a college student does not need to fear being sexually assaulted and/or harassed on one's own campus.
Kasich's first response was proactive. CNN reported, "Kasich talked about efforts in Ohio to provide support for college students facing sexual harassment, such as access to confidential reporting, rape kits and the opportunity to 'pursue justice after you have had some time to reflect on it all.'"
Yes, more needs to be done to provide a safe way for students to report confidentially both immediately following and/or after a significant period of time. The trauma of sexual assault can make it very difficult for a survivor to come forward right away or ever. When that survivor is ready, we need to fully support the survivor.
Then Kasich turned the focus of his words onto the student asking the question.
Kasich's Words Can Lead to Victim Blaming
According to CNN, Kasich said, "I'd also give you one bit of advice. Don't go to parties where there's a lot of alcohol. OK? Don't do that." The audience then applauded.
The student's question was about how he would help her "feel safer and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment and rape" as president. How is telling her to focus on her own behavior making her feel truly safer and more secure? With his response, Kasich reinforced that the student should live in fear of going out in college. My guess is that Kasich went out to have fun in college without living in fear. Yet, he implied to this student that she should be afraid to go to parties with alcohol. You are not living in a safe environment when you have to give up your choice to live freely, especially when you are not the one doing harm to others.
Kasich ending his statement with "Don't do that" is telling her (the student) how to live -- putting the focus on her behavior. Such statements often lead to a society where victims blame themselves.
Example: Students go to a party to have fun with their friends and someone sexually assaults one of them. Afterward, survivors may think, "I was told not to go to parties with alcohol and so the fact I did makes the assault my fault." The only person responsible for a sexual assault is the assailant.
An Act of Power Against All Genders
Following the Town Hall Meeting, Kasich further explained what he meant by his comments. According to CNN Kasich said, "I just said be careful where there's alcohol, and the reason why I worry about that is, it obscures the ability of people to seek justice," he said. "It gets to be about he said, she said, and there's alcohol and it creates an inability to find the truth. That has nothing to do with saying that somebody who has been a victim is somehow responsible."
Whether alcohol is involved or not, sexual assault cases frequently come down to the testimony of the parties involved. "He said, she said" is not the way to describe that element of sexual assault cases. "He said, she said" can make it sound like a sexual assault was a misunderstanding and not an act based on an abuse of power. Plus, "He said, she said" perpetuates the idea that this crime only happens to heterosexual couples.
What could have Kasich or any politician have said? Discuss strategies for transforming culture so that sexual assault and harassment does not happen in the first place. Truly create a safe culture for all students on college campuses. That is the ultimate solution to helping end the fear students have concerning sexual assault and harassment. Taking a deep look at the long-term solution is the conversation we need politicians to be having.
Is Kasich's answer the exception to what most people think? No, and that is the problem. Many politicians and people throughout our country would have likely given a similar response. Why do I believe this? Because as a I travel sharing our mission, I see people of all ages continually focus on the victim's behavior instead of on the assailant's choices and actions. Kasich is a mirror of that portion of our society.
A Safer Future
If we want students to feel safer and more secure, we need to create a culture that is free of sexual violence and harassment in first place. Not just John Kasich. All of us!