Rethinking Sexual Violence and the Marketplace of Slavery: Free Women, the Slave Market and Enslaved Women’s Sexualized Bodies in the Nineteenth-Century South

Friday, January 3, 2014: 11:10 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, University of Iowa
Scholars have long discussed the sexual exploitation of enslaved women by white southern men. They have similarly described white southern men’s commodification of enslaved women’s capacity to reproduce and their purchase and sale of particular groups of enslaved women, namely light-skinned, typically racially-mixed females, also known as “fancy girls,” for sexual purposes. In much of this literature, scholars describe white men as sexual perpetrators with unfettered access to enslaved women’s bodies. Conversely, historians describe free women as either a victimized group that must endure their menfolk’s interracial liaisons with enslaved women, or as brutal and even murderous perpetrators of physical violence against these men’s enslaved objects of affection. Sometimes, free women do not figure into these studies at all.

This paper attends to some of the ways that southern women committed acts of sexual violence in the nineteenth-century. It contends that enslaved people characterized slaveholding women’s complicity in white men’s sexual violation of their bodies, which manifested in both passive and violent modes, and their involvement in forced breeding practices, as acts of sexual violence. It shows how some women sought to profit from these acts of sexual exploitation and elucidates how these choices allowed them to profit from the slave market economy and contribute to slavery’s perpetuation. It contemplates how gender biases in law and in custom (and our reliance upon these laws in our studies), as well as ideologies about racial difference, have shaped our understanding of sexual violence in this period and foreclosed the possibility of recognizing female perpetrators and delivering justice to their victims. And finally, by seeking to understand how enslaved African-Americans defined sexual violence beyond nineteenth-century legal discourse and outside the halls of southern courtrooms, it challenges the masculinization of sexual exploitation and commodification.

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