American History Slavery Race Gender Sex Rape Power American Slavery Abstract There is ample evidence of sexual relations, from rapes to what appear to be relatively symbiotic romantic partnerships, between white slave masters and black women in the Antebellum South. Much rarer were sexual relations between white women and black slave men, yet they too occurred. Using an intersectional socio-historical analysis, this paper explores the factors that contributed or may have contributed to the incidence of sexual encounters between elite white women and slave men, the power dynamics embedded in them, and their implications in terms of sexual consent.
The paper demonstrates how upper-class white women who engaged in these relationships used sex as an instrument of power, simultaneously perpetuating both white supremacy and patriarchy. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents.
If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped and starved into submission to their will. Although it is impossible to know exactly how many black women were sexually assaulted under slavery , such abuse was widespread.
Not all sexual encounters between masters and female slaves would be considered rape according to most definitions of the term. The enormous imbalance of gender and racial power between the two parties problematizes the notion of a truly consensual romantic relationship between a slave master and his female slave.
These so-called consensual sexual partnerships can be seen, like rape, as an exercise in white patriarchal authority. Why these women chose to sexually abuse slaves probably varied by situation.
Perhaps some of them were simply bored or sexually frustrated. But perhaps, at least on a subconscious level, sexually exploiting slaves was a means of compensating for their lack of power in other aspects of their lives. But what of sexual relations between planter-class white women and slave men?
Under what conditions did they occur? How should they be described in terms of power, agency, and consent? Answering these questions involves analyzing historical records through the lens of power relations, parsing through the complexities of racial, class, and gender hierarchies.
They also allow us to observe the processes by which social hierarchies are sustained. In the case of white women and black men, we can use an intersectional analysis to better understand the ways in which elite Southern white women used oppressive, gendered notions of female purity and sexual subservience to maintain racial hierarchy. As such, they were valued for their homemaking abilities, maternal instinct, and, perhaps above all else, their virtue.
Women were seen as physically and intellectually inferior to men, but much more pious, pure, and moral Firor Scott, , 4; Varon, , pp. This trope is expressed by Rev. Leave men to themselves without the intermixture of female society and the softening influence of female modesty, gentleness and affection, and they would infallibly become rude, harsh, coarse, quarrelsome, and in their quarrels cruel and unrelenting.
The world would resemble an amphitheatre of wild beasts. Then there will be no concealment; and you will see and hear things that will seem to you impossible among human beings with immortal souls. Adultery was considered a greater offense for women than for men, and was punished more harshly. The Southern way of life, and the institutions that defined it—white supremacy, slavery, and the planter aristocracy—were inextricably linked with the sexual regulation of women, especially upper class women; the purity of white women, when contrasted with the sexually lascivious black Jezebel archetype, served to highlight the alleged superiority of white womanhood, and by extension, whiteness Brooks Higginbotham, , p.
Framing women in this way served as a means of patriarchal control. The resulting child might have been sold into slavery, but infanticide was not an uncommon means of avoiding scandal Indeed, planter-class women were considered the property of their husbands Hodes, , p.
Their freedom and mobility was severely limited; for example, they were generally not allowed to travel without an older male chaperone Clinton, p. Spousal abuse was often considered a legitimate method for men to control their wives Hodes, p. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but the fact remains that upper class white women, whatever luxuries their privileged race and class status afforded them, faced a unique set of limiting patriarchal dicta.
Indeed, in private, many plantation women were unhappy with their lack of freedom and the expectation that they remain dutiful, obedient, pleasant, and cheerful while their husbands had affairs with or raped female slaves.
Southern women, who generally married at a younger age than those in the North—not infrequently at fifteen or sixteen years old Clinton, pp. The life of a plantation mistress was often lonely and sad. An Overview The fact that affairs between planter-class women and slaves were relatively uncommon is unsurprising; white women in the South were sexually restricted as compared to their male counterparts, and nineteenth-century contraceptive techniques were not nearly effective or accessible enough to ward off the possibility of pregnancy.
Still, sexual contact between white women and black men did occur in slaveholding societies, more often than perhaps many are aware. The following is a list of factors that did or may have contributed to the incidence of such relations. First, even though the sexuality of Southern white women was, as stated, heavily regulated, women were not as entirely sexually repressed as one might assume. The dangers of having sexual relations with a black man rather than a white man were enormous in terms of the possibility of producing a mixed-race child.
However, although birth control and abortion methods in the nineteenth-century were not as widely used, safe, or accessible as they are today, they existed. Condoms made out of animal skin, membrane, oiled silk, and rubber were used along with other contraceptive techniques to prevent pregnancy Caron, , p. For much of the nineteenth-century, abortion was largely unregulated, and it was not limited to poor, immigrant, or black women; upper- and middle-class white women, too, had abortions Caron, pp.
This would have allowed white women to have affairs with black men with some level of confidence that they would not be caught. There is also a possibility that affairs between white women and slaves were simply not noticed or recorded as often as they occurred.
While it may have been expected, to a certain extent, that white men would transgress morally e. Because black men like black women were seen as inherently lustful and prone to sexual vice, for an elite woman to have illicit sex with a black rather than a white man might have been a slightly safer bet; it was easier to blame a black man of rape than a white man.
Perhaps some of them were simply bored or sexually frustrated It is possible the sexual exploitation of slaves by women who had little power in relation to white men was a source of enjoyment that created a feeling of power. White women whose affairs with slaves were made known faced varying degrees of public humiliation. The resulting child might have been sold into slavery, but infanticide was not an uncommon means of avoiding scandal Hodes, pp. Of course, scandal was not always avoided.
This is in keeping with both the standard feminist conceptualization of rape as a tool of patriarchal oppression3 as well as the traditional un-feminist notion of women as too weak, emotionally and physically, to commit serious crimes, let alone sexual abuse, and the idea that men cannot be raped Bourke, , pp.
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that women, too, are capable of committing sexual offenses and using sex as a means of domination and control Bourke, pp. Indeed, there is considerable documentation of white women coercing black men into having sex.
According to Captain Richard J. One former slave told Hinton that his mistress ordered him to sleep with her after her husband died Hodes, p. These are just two examples of the many stories abolitionists like Hinton told to prove the immorality of slaveholding.
They know that the women slaves are subject to their father's authority in all things; and in some cases they exercise the same authority over the men slaves. I have myself seen the master of such a household whose head was bowed down in shame; for it was known in the neighborhood that his daughter had selected one of the meanest slaves on his plantation to be the father of his first grandchild.
She did not make her advances to her equals, nor even to her father's more intelligent servants. She selected the most brutalized, over whom her authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure. Even if the young white woman in this story did not consider herself a sexual assaulter which she probably did not , this is clearly sexually predatory behavior.
The kind of relationship described here, which Jacobs suggests was not uncommon, cannot be classified as consensual in any meaningful sense of the word, and in fact constitutes a form of sexual abuse, if not rape. We thus see that plantation mistresses and elite women, like their male counterparts, were able to sexually control and abuse their slaves. Another way in which white women were able to exercise sexual control over slaves was by threatening to accuse them of rape or attempted rape if they did not agree to sex Hodes, pp.
Instead of attempting to dismantle the white patriarchal hegemony that oppressed both slaves and to a lesser extent white women, predatory white women who coerced slaves into sex through threat of rape opted to perpetuate both white supremacy and patriarchy, by reinforcing paternalistic notions of female sexuality. Again, planter-class women were considered the property of their husbands and lacked considerable sexual agency relative to men.
It is possible the sexual exploitation of slaves by women who had little power in relation to white men was a source of enjoyment that created a feeling of power Bourke, p. This is not to excuse the actions of sexually abusive white women, nor is it to suggest that female sexual abuse of slave men would not have occurred had women enjoyed a higher status in society. However, just as slave-owning white women often took out their frustrations on slaves through excessive cruelty and violence, they probably also used sex as a means of domination and control in a society in which they were relatively powerless.
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University of North Carolina Press, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South. Yale University Press, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by Maria Fairchild. Published for the author, Accessed online at http: Sex, Power and Consent: Youth Culture and the Unwritten Rules. Cambridge University Press, From Pedestal to Politics, University of Chicago Press, We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia.