"It's the rapists who should feel afraid"
"It hangs on my wall at home, what the coalition did for me," says Jessica Pounds, vocalist for Jax-based Canary in the Coalmine. She looks at her friend Christina "Kit" Kittle and says, "I don't think she knows this."
As Pounds adds, "This is the kind of thing she does," Kittle looks surprised, slightly embarrassed, but pleased. "She collected letters from several other rape survivors, 20 or 30 letters of support. When you go through this trauma, you feel so alone. So I strung them together with twine and hung them across my wall."
Sitting at a picnic table behind Bold Bean Coffee on Stockton Street, Kittle, who has been smiling as Pounds speaks, says, "I'm so happy to know that." You can see the feedback loop of inspiration that circuits between them.
Kittle is perhaps best known as the only woman of the Jax 5, the protesters beaten by police and arrested last April in Hemming Park, against whom all charges were dropped or reduced. Now Kittle and her action group, Coalition for Consent, are launching the "IF SOE" campaign, using an acronym to define consent: "Informed, Freely-given, Specific, Ongoing, Enthusiastic."
Pounds came to one of Coalition for Consent's survivor circles in October, shortly after publicly outing her rapist. She stayed silent at that first meeting, which Kittle emphasizes is perfectly acceptable.
"Being in a safe place with people sharing their stories, where people are open and ready for dialogue was powerful," Pounds says. About her silence during that first circle, and the difficulty of deciding to go public with her experience, Pounds says, "I firmly believe there's no right way to be a rape survivor. Nobody else can judge."
Kittle founded Coalition for Consent (CfC) two years ago, after coming to terms with her own sexual assault. One of the coalition's primary purposes has been offering support through survivor circles and consent workshops. She and Sarah Humphreys, of the Women's Center of Jacksonville, host regular classes on "Dismantling Rape Culture."
She's also made inclusivity a primary goal. One of the earliest events she hosted was a transgender education rally.
This focus on inclusion is the Kittle characteristic that St. Augustine activist Mary Cobb admires most.
"I see the Coalition for Consent dealing with sexual assault and harassment and transgender issues, and including people of color," Cobb says. "Christina Kittle embodies that intersectionality."
After all, it was black Civil Rights activist Tarana Burke who first deployed "Me Too" in 2006.
And groups like CfC and the "Me Too" Movement gave Pounds the courage to go public. So did knowing that the statute of limitations was almost up.
"I knew I'd regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't out him. I know he's a repeat offender, he has a criminal record, and there's other people he's hurt. I wanted to stop this cycle of abuse. I tend to be impulsive, but once I make a decision, I'm full-in," she says.
Both Pounds and Kittle believe "Me Too" marks a necessary shift in our culture.
"I wouldn't have been able to do it otherwise," Pounds says. "There were so many times when I thought, 'If people really knew ... if only I could say it, if I could name him ... I could shine a light on all this darkness."
Kittle says emphatically, "It's not right that survivors are the ones afraid to speak up. It's the rapists who should feel afraid."
THE GRAY AREA
When speaking with CfC members and feminist activists, the name Aziz Ansari comes up more frequently than Harvey Weinstein's.
"It's what many people call 'the gray area,'" says activist Maria Isabel Garcia. "The backlash to 'Me Too' was already going to happen, but the Aziz Ansari situation prompted such responses from men as, 'If that's assault, then all of my sexual encounters have been assaults.'"
She's referring to the January allegations by the pseudonymous "Grace," who alleged that Ansari pushed her into a sexual encounter when she didn't want it. Ansari recalled the encounter as "by all indications [...] consensual."
The so-called "gray area" lies between an understanding of consent as an affirmative "yes" and the assumption that consent means not saying "no."
In 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Bill 967, requiring the state's colleges to adopt "an affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by a complainant."
"Affirmative Consent" legally defined the word consent as "more than not 'no.'"
But the Ansari story points to an ingrained cultural misogyny more insidious than Weinstein's overtly baboonish actions.
Says Garcia, "When men say, dismissively, that if what Ansari did was assault, then [all] their sexual encounters were assaults, it's indicative of a culture in which women's consent is seen as not really that important."
When Cobb, organizer of St. Augustine's International Women's Day march, mentions Ansari, she says, "Almost every woman has been in that situation."
It's a situation for which men and women have been differently conditioned, Cobb says.
"She's with a guy and the guy's pressing really hard. If anyone can call it consensual, she was still bullied into it. You give in because it's expected. It's commonplace. You feel like you can't say no," she says.
If such a situation is "consensual," it's obviously not "affirmatively" so. However, consent, by definition, cannot be other than affirmative.
"Nobody should have to feel invaded, should be made to feel dirty, in exchange for consent," says Cobb. "If you have to nag somebody to death to get what you want, how consensual is that?"
Garcia points to common accusations that women who name their abusers are seeking attention or "making a power move."
"When you stand up in front of everyone and you out your abuser, you're reliving your trauma all over again. Then suddenly you're under a microscope. Everyone scrutinizes you. Who would do that for some kind of opportunism?" she asks.
As Pounds knows all too well, when you out your rapist, you stand up against a system that's designed against you.
The police often require survivors to make a "controlled call" to your rapist. "You're trying to get a confession from this 45-minute phone conversation with the most intimate and demeaning details," she says. "It's like taking on a monster."
Kittle wants the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office to train officers to better communicate with and respect victims. For example, Kittle says response times to domestic abuse calls are notoriously long and that officers frequently treat victims brusquely and inconsiderately.
But just as the Ansari story points out misogyny more subtle than many men might understand, common male responses to survivors' stories, even when meant to be supportive, often indicate a sexist substructure of thinking.
"It's such a common response," Kittle says, "when men hear these stories, for them to say, 'Who is he? Let's kill him. Let's beat him up.' Well, what happens when it's the guy you get beers with every night? These guys are your friends that you're not holding accountable for the ways they talk about women, look at women, treat women."
Not only does that bromantic bond preclude a more just understanding of women's rights and subjectivity, but male vindictive protectiveness demonstrates the hierarchical gendering at the root of the problem.
Kittle remembers her own situation at the University of North Florida. She was a broke college student, facing eviction from her apartment, when a male friend gave her a place to stay.
He "begged and begged" for sex, Kittle says, and she told him she wasn't interested. He guilted her, saying, "I gave you a place to stay," and continued to beg, "until I was at the point when I said, 'I guess so.' Then when I felt bad about it and told him I hadn't wanted it, he said, 'Well, you said yes.'"
In describing Ansari's sexual behavior, "Grace" called him "entitled."
It's what all men who carry a non-no, instead of an affirmative, standard of consent have in common, an assumption of being entitled to someone else's body.
And in that assumption, the bro at the bar who nods and says he'd like to "tap" or "destroy" "that ass" shares company with pedophiles and slaveowners. Nobody has the right to someone else's body.
Besides, the verb form of "ignorance" is 'ignore,' and as James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, "It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."
IF SOE, THEN IT'S A GO.
In her IF SOE video, Kittle explains, "A lot of people think consent is just 'no means no.' The problem with that kind of thinking is it eliminates this entire gray area that's actually a lot more realistic" in terms of normal interactions.
She refers to the five necessary categories of consent that Planned Parenthood lists on its website. As written there, "Consent is a clear, happy, excited 'yes!' Anything else is NOT consent."
Planned Parenthood's list says consent is 1) Freely given, 2) Reversible, 3) Informed, 4) Enthusiastic and 5) Specific.
Kittle wondered how the list might be made mnemonic. So she switched the order, made the acronym, and coined the slogan: "IF SOE, then it's a go."
Kittle says she expects continued backlash to "Me Too," but adds, "No progress ever happens without backlash."
Some people who think consent is "tricky," says Garcia, may not be explicit misogynists.
"It's internalized misogyny," Garcia says. "If people say, 'Oh, now I can't even talk to women,' that's not true. And it denies the fact that you can get consent and that it's important to get consent."
Kittle, who majored in anthropology at UNF, says she moved quickly from thinking in sociological and macro-view cultural models about why men frequently behave misogynistically to wondering, on an individual basis, "What are these men actually thinking?"
That shift led her to quickly conclude, "If everybody could know what consent really means, then there are no gray areas."
Find the Coalition for Consent on Facebook; for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.