Sexual Relations Between Elite White Women and Enslaved Men in the Antebellum South: A Socio-Historical Analysis
Volume 5, Number 8 (2013)
Jacqueline M. Allain
University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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.
According to former slave Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), “The slave girl is raised in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. 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.” Jacobs’ account of the sexual violence endured by slave women is merely one of many. 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. Concubinage-type arrangements and even long-term romantic partnerships, perhaps most famously that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, were known to exist. Yet, many scholars would agree that “even presumably affectionate and long-term relationships must be reconsidered given the context of slavery” (Foster, 2011, p. 459). 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.
But what of sexual relations between planter-class white women and slave men?…
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