Slavery in America–horrific work conditions, physical abuse, and lack of power come to mind; rarely do we consider the rape of black women by white men. White fathers and their sons regularly engaged in sexual violence against enslaved black women, often purchasing them for this purpose. This sexual exploitation was frequently allowed by white parents, if not encouraged. Because this behavior was normalized, and permitted by the U.S. legal system, it is no wonder the rape of enslaved black women was commonplace during slavery. Historians have described the rape of enslaved women by white men as a “routine feature” of most Southern slaveholdings. In When Rape was Legal: The Untold History of Sexual Violence during Slavery, I analyze this routine rape, focusing on the role of white men and women in sustaining oppression.
White masculinity has evolved over time and is shaped by a variety of factors including class, region, and the institution of slavery. In particular, those traits admired in white men were generally those which whites claimed contrasted with enslaved men and women. For example, dominance, independence, honor and sexual prowess served as standards for white masculinity. Identifying as the “master of others,” including being served by enslaved people and ordering them around, was particularly important for the status of wealthy white men in the South. In this sense, sexual violence against enslaved black women offered a legally accessible and socially acceptable way for white men to achieve many of the traits upheld by white society at the time.
White men experienced many social and legal incentives to engage in the rape of enslaved black women. As opposed to viewing this sexual violence as merely the result of sexual desire, demonstrations of power, or racial domination, it is best to understand this rape as an outcome of all of these components working together as part of the identity of white masculinity during this time period.
Many white boys and men were encouraged to engage in sexual violence against enslaved black women through social norms and parental guidance. For instance, a formerly enslaved man, “Bird” Walton described the experience of a woman Ethel Jane, with whom he was enslaved. Walton explained that the master of the household brought his son, Levey, to one of the cabins where,
They both took her [Ethel Jane]-the father showing the son what it was all about—and she couldn’t do nothing ‘bout it.
White women also had a role to play in encouraging their sons to sexually violate enslaved women. In some cases, they would purchase enslaved women for their sons, such as the example Tirrell notes in 1844 of a white mother in Virginia who purchased three attractive mulatto females, and placed them in a cottage near the family mansion, for the exclusive use of an only son—assigning as a reason why she did it, that it would “make Charley steady!”
The term “mulatto” in this passage, which was commonly used in the 1800’s to associate mixed-race individuals with mules, reflects the way enslaved women were dehumanized in the minds of whites and were thus able to be exploited for the benefit of whites without social or legal repercussions. Moreover, this quote reflects the role that some mothers played in creating a context which encouraged white boys and men to engage in sexual violence of enslaved women.
This is not the only role white women played in the sexual violence against enslaved black women. As mothers, but also as wives, white women played an intricate and noteworthy role in sustaining the oppression of black women under slavery. As a group with an intermediate degree of power and status, white women did not have the financial independence or legal power to fully resist their husbands’ behavior without consequences to themselves. However, their position within an intersectional hierarchy often afforded them some power to punish and blame enslaved women who were subjected to rape and sexual violence, or to ignore the violence altogether, as I describe in a previous post and in more detail in the book. White women’s intermediate status and power highlights the way intersectional oppression functions and is sustained, incentivizing various groups to uphold oppression of those beneath them within the hierarchy even if this also requires sustaining their own repressed status.
Today, a legacy of white male entitlement to the bodies of women and the derogatory white racial framing of black women continues. For instance, Brittany Slatton’s research demonstrates the way many white men today still view black women in terms of their sexual value, as exotic and degraded simultaneously, and as an opportunity for white men to explore their sexuality. Peggy Reeves Sanday has also documented the use of gang rapes by men as a male bonding activity on college campuses, practicing the sexual exploitation and violation of women as a means to foster masculinity. These practices are deeply embedded in the foundation of U.S. society, occurring throughout slavery as a regular, socially and legally accepted behavior for white men for hundreds of years.
Sadly, the lack of legal protection for those who experience sexual violence today continues in a modified form as well, with many white men convicted of sexual violence receiving lenient sentences and many black women being blamed, or even criminalized, for their victimization.
In addition to shedding light on the routine sexual violence against enslaved black women that is foundational to U.S. society, and the legacy this has left behind in terms of white male entitlement and the derogatory white racial framing of black women today, When Rape was Legal offers theoretical insight into the mechanisms that help sustain intersectional oppression broadly.
Rachel Feinstein received her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University in 2014 and is currently teaching in the Sociology Department at California State University Fullerton. Her book, When Rape was Legal: The Untold History of Sexual Violence during Slavery was published in August 2018.