Blaming the Victim or Counseling Prudence?

John Kasich, when asked by a female college student what policies he would promote as president that would help her “feel safer and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment and rape,” made some general remarks about confidential reporting and rape kits, but then ended with this:  “I’d also give you one bit of advice. Don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol. OK?”  As a result, he was accused of blaming the victim.

Just prior to making that remark, Kasich made reference to his two sixteen-year-old daughters.  The idea was to show that he had empathy for young women like the one that asked him the question.  But that was undoubtedly what led him astray.  He was thinking about the advice he likely has already given his daughters regarding parties they are invited to in high school, and it is only charitable to imagine that in giving that advice he is counseling prudence, not blaming his daughters in advance if they are raped.  So, part of Kasich’s problem lies in confusing his role as a politician hoping to become president of the United States with his role as a father trying to protect his daughters.

In like manner, President Obama confused his roles regarding the Morning-After Pill.  Although his administration eventually quit blocking the sale of that pill to minors without a prescription, his administration resisted for some time, as noted in an article in The New York Times:

Mr. Obama had expressed personal concern about making the drug more broadly available last year and offered support to Kathleen Sebelius, his secretary of health and human services, when she blocked a decision by the F.D.A. that would have cleared the way for nonprescription distribution to all girls and women regardless of age. He said that as the father of two young girls, the idea of making the drug available to them without a prescription made him uncomfortable.

I never was sure what to make of that.  Did Obama expect his daughters to come to him and say, “I had sex last night without a rubber.  Could we go to the doctor and get a prescription for the Morning-After Pill?”  Let’s face it.  It was not the availability of the drug that made Obama uncomfortable, but the thought of his daughters having sex.  And this brings us back to Kasich, who said, “I have two 16-year-old daughters and I don’t even like to think about it.”  Of course, Kasich was thinking about his two daughters being raped, not merely having consensual sex, which is what bothered Obama.  But they had this in common:  they were both confusing their roles as fathers with their roles as president.

Another thing they had in common was voluntarily bringing their families into the subject of public policy.  Sometimes consideration of a politician’s family will be forced upon him in the context of a discussion about public policy, as when Bernard Shaw, the moderator in a presidential debate in 1988, asked Michael Dukakis if he would favor the death penalty for a man who raped and murdered his wife Kitty.  Unlike Obama, who allowed his personal feelings about his daughters having sex to influence his public policy regarding the Morning-After Pill, Dukakis made the opposite blunder of insisting that even the rape and murder of his own wife would not change his feelings about the death penalty.  With the wisdom that comes from hindsight, most people believe that Dukakis should have first said how he would have felt personally in such a case, perhaps saying that though he would want to avenge his wife’s rape and murder by killing the man who did it, yet the death penalty is still a bad idea as a matter of public policy.  It is part of the social contract that the individual gives up the right to revenge in exchange for which the state takes on the responsibility to see that justice is done.

Separating one’s personal feelings from what would make for good public policy is not always easy.  I sometimes suspect that if Moses had been a bachelor, there would have been no commandment to honor one’s mother and father, and in its place would have been something like, “Thou shalt treat thy children with respect.”  After all, bachelors do not know what it is like to lose control of their willful children, but they do have painful memories of being mistreated by their parents.  In fact, it may have been Moses’s exasperation with his two sons that caused him to send them and their mother Zipporah back to her father (What a great return policy!).  On the other hand, had Jesus been married to a nagging wife who was always after him to get a job, he might have had more liberal views on divorce.

Returning to the present, it is clear that in the case of Obama, his personal feelings about his daughters led to bad policy.  One almost suspects he tried to block the availability of the Morning-After Pill in order to block the idea of his daughters having sex.  In the case of Kasich, however, his giving the same advice to women in general that he gives to his daughters led to a charge of blaming the victim.

Does it make sense to say that private advice given to daughters about how to avoid being raped is counseling prudence, while that same advice given to women in general is victim-blaming?  The difference in our feelings about the two different situations may lie in a presumption of intent.  We assume that a father loves his daughter and thus is only counseling prudence when he advises her on how to avoid being raped, whereas when a politician makes such a remark to women in general, there is no such presumption.

Even when advice on how to avoid rape is offered publicly, however, we can still distinguish that which is clearly victim-blaming, as in, “Don’t wear tight, revealing clothes that might provoke a man’s sexual appetite,” from that which is clearly counseling prudence, as in, “Don’t walk across campus by yourself late at night,” advice recently given out at a university where a young women was murdered, as reported by The Washington Post:

University and law enforcement officials have repeatedly warned students to be careful on campus and be aware of their surroundings. Students should walk in groups, especially at night, officials said. And they should stay vigilant and think twice about focusing on their phones or wearing headphones.

Surely, we wouldn’t want to say that the school officials were blaming the victim.

Part of the problem with Kasich’s advice is that it is not realistic.  A female college student may think she is going to an ordinary party and only later find out that it borders on an orgy.  But once there, she may hate to leave and be thought of as a party pooper.  So, rather than be rude, she figures she will just stick it out.  And in most cases, nothing bad will happen to her.  But what if Kasich had given the woman who asked him the question that same advice as that of the school officials:  “Be aware of your surroundings.  Walk in groups and avoid walking at night or while distracted with cellphones or headphones.”  I suspect he would still have been accused of blaming the victim by those that take an absolutist position in this matter.  One wonders if that advice just sounds better coming from school officials than it would from a politician, especially a pro-life conservative.

Kasich eventually tweeted, “Only one person is at fault in a sexual assault, and that’s the assailant.”  Had he said that to begin with, he would have avoided the mess he got himself in.  However, by insisting that there is no fault on the part of the victim, we may be inadvertently suggesting that there is nothing women should do to try to protect themselves.  If it is legitimate for the school officials to advise women to avoid walking at night, to walk in groups, etc., then does it not follow that a woman who ignores such advice and ends up being assaulted is partly to blame?

Part of the problem in sorting this out is that what one says to a woman who wants to be safe from sexual assault must be distinguished from what one says to a woman that has already been raped.  Once a woman has been raped, it is rude to tell her that she acted imprudently.  It is precisely in that case that we should insist that she is not to blame, in an effort to make her feel better.  After all, she can probably figure out for herself that it was a bad idea to walk across campus at night alone.  Unfortunately, public statements, whether by politicians or school officials, cannot selectively deliver their message only to women that have never been attacked, while sending a more consoling message to those that have.

Ultimately, politicians like Kasich should leave the counsels of prudence to parents and school officials acting in loco parentis, while sticking to public policies that will reduce the likelihood of sexual assault on campus.  Whatever advice they might give their daughters, however wise and caring it may be, that same advice given out publicly to women in general is going sound like blaming the victim.