Editor’s Note: This post includes a graphic description of gang rape.
I’m not a big fan of Michael Avenatti, the media-hungry lawyer to the most prominent porn star in America. I hope Democrats aren’t foolish enough to turn to him the way Republicans turned to Donald Trump just because they’ve bought into the myth that Avenatti is a supposed fighter. And I believe his most recent high-profile client, Julie Swetnick, has done more harm than good with the flimsy and ever-changing claims that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh may have participated in gang rapes.
So I get why many may want to move beyond those salacious charges. But before we do, we need to grapple with an ugly reality: that gang rape was and is a real phenomenon, that many women who were victimized by such attacks have never gotten justice, have never even been heard, and that it illustrates, like little else, the struggles women have had to face when it comes to their fight to be believed.
Lindsey Graham, the senior U.S. senator from my native state of South Carolina, wanted to move on as well, but for nakedly political reasons and because he seemed incapable of imagining that such awfulness actually exists in the world.
Here’s two of his tweets from Sept. 26 as he was reacting to the Swetnick news:
“I have a difficult time believing any person would continue to go to—according to the affidavit—ten parties over a two-year period where women were routinely gang raped and not report it,” he tweeted.
“Why would any reasonable person continue to hang around people like this?
Why would any person continue to put their friends and themselves in danger?
Isn’t there some duty to warn others?”
Graham has a difficult time believing in such things—likely because he’s never taken the time to ask or think beyond his privilege as a man. If he really wants to know, all he has to do is pick up a copy of Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man In America. It was written in the 1990s, just a few years after Anita Hill was treated horribly by the Senate Judiciary Committee that heard testimony last week from Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of trying to rape her when they were in high school.
Graham doesn’t even have to read the entire book to get a glimpse of the reality of gang rape. All he has to do is flip to a chapter in Makes Me Wanna Holler simply titled “Trains.”
In those 12 gut-wrenching pages, Graham’s question is answered again and again by author Nathan McCall’s brutal honesty about the gang rapes in which he participated when he was a teenager. McCall was a reporter for The Washington Post when he wrote Makes Me Wanna Holler. It was one of the first books I read about being a black man in the journalism world as I was getting my start in media. McCall is now a faculty member at Emory University in Atlanta. I have emailed him a few questions about how he views his seminal work today given the prevalence of the #MeToo movement. If I hear back from him, I’ll update this post.
Here’s how awful the reality of gang rape is: A male Washington Post reporter confessed to his role in multiple gang rapes—putting it in black and white in a book that became a national bestseller—and his star rose, not faded, as the praise about his reflections on race as a black man in America far outshined any reflection about those horrific crimes. I don’t know if the book would be received the same if it had been published for the first time this year, given that #MeToo has (thankfully) forced everyone to rethink these issues, but its existence speaks volumes about how cavalierly we’ve viewed sexual assault for far too long. Graham’s tweets in service of Brett Kavanaugh—even though Republicans and Democrats have said his primary accuser is credible—suggests we have a lot more evolving to do.
Here is a taste of what readers and reviewers had to grapple with in the “Trains” chapter of a book that has long been hailed as a seminal work about race in America:
I think most girls gave in when trains were sprung on them because they went into shock. They were so utterly unprepared for anything that wild that it freaked them out. By the time they realized that they’d been set up, they were stripped naked, lying on a bed or in the backseat of a car, with a crowd of crazed-looking dudes hovering overhead. … Afterwards, most girls were too ashamed and freaked-out to tell. … Most girls seemed to lose something vital inside after they’d been trained.
Sen. Graham, you understand a bit better now? That there are countless women who have endured sexual assaults and rapes, including the non-gang style, who have spent years, decades even, burying their pain, telling no one about what they had endured. And many of those women, for a variety of complex reasons, have a variety of relationships with some of the men who hurt them.
There are literally millions of rape survivors in the U.S., most of whom are women. And even when they come forward, they are often ridiculed and not believed, and that’s after submitting to extremely sensitive exams to let investigators gather evidence—only to have the rape kits go untested for years. Maybe that’s why victims are reluctant to come forward? Maybe that’s where you and your fellow legislators should focus your energy—make justice more attainable for those who report assaults—if you are serious about the issue?
But back to your cluelessness about the reality of gang rapes. Here is McCall describing in ugly detail a gang rape—or “train”—in which he participated:
I went back to the room and joined the dudes trying to persuade Vanessa to let us jam her. She wouldn’t cooperate. She said she was a virgin. That forced us to get somebody to play the crazy-man role, act like he was gonna go off on her if she didn’t give it up. That way, she’d get scared and give in. That’s how the older boys did it. We figured it would work for us.
Vanessa seemed in a daze, like she couldn’t believe what was happening to her. She looked up at Buzzard, glanced at the doorway, then looked back at Buzzard. I stood off to the side, studying her. I could see the wheels turning in her head. She knew she was cornered. She had never been in a situation like this before and she didn’t have a clue how to handle it. ... Then a look of resignation washed over her face. It was a sad, fearful look.
Sen. Graham, I’ll recap the scene for you: A young girl feels absolutely trapped and powerless in one of the scariest situations imaginable. Maybe that’s one of the many reasons victims have a hard time perfectly processing such an event either during or after it?
She looked so sad that I started to feel sorry for her. Something in me wanted to reach out and do what I knew was right—do what we all instinctively knew was right: Lean down, grab Vanessa’s hand, and lead her from that room and out of that house; walk her home and apologize for our temporary lapse of sanity; tell her, “Try, as best as possible, to forget any of this every happened.”
But I couldn’t do that. It was too late. This was our first train together as a group. All the fellas were there and everybody was anxious to show everybody else how cool and worldly he was. If I jumped in on Vanessa’s behalf, they would accuse me of falling in love. They would send word out on the block that when it came to girls, I was a wimp. Everybody would be talking at the basketball court about how I’d caved in and got soft for a bitch. There was no way I was gonna put that pressure on myself. I thought, Vanessa got her stupid self into this. She gonna have to get herself out.
Turkey Buzzard put his hand on her shoulder and said, “What you gonna do, girl? You gonna let one of us do it?”
Did you catch that, Sen. Graham? The young men involved knew what they were doing was awful, knew they should rescue the woman about to be attacked, but instead decided it was better to save face. Given the way Republicans responded to sexual assault charges against their preferred Supreme Court nominee—doing everything they could to scuttle any real investigation while playacting real concern for the victim—I’m sure you understand.
When Vanessa tried to get up after the first guy finished, another was there to climb on top.
... Then Lep said, “Nate, have you gone yet?”
I said, “Naw, man. I’m getting’ ready to go now.” …
... She stayed silent and kept her hands cupped over her eyes, like she was hiding from a bad scene in a horror movie. With my pants still up, I pulled down my zipper ... After a few miserable minutes, I got up and signaled for the next man to take his turn.
While straightening my pants, I walked over to a corner, where two or three dudes stood, grinning proudly. Somebody whispered, “That shit is good, ain’t it?”
I said, “Yeah, man. That shit is good.” Actually, I felt sick and unclean.
Sen. Graham, McCall, looking back years later about what he had done had the good sense to feel sick and unclean. If you have any decency left, years later when you look back on your performance during the Kavanaugh debate, you’ll feel sick and unclean, too.