Sexual Relations Between Elite White Women and Enslaved Men in the Antebellum South: A Socio-Historical Analysis

By J. M. Allain
2013, Vol. 5 No. 08 | pg. 2/3 |

Coupled with the notion of elite white female sexual virtue was that of white female vulnerability—the idea that plantation wives and daughters needed to be protected, defended, and sheltered. Framing women in this way served as a means of patriarchal control. As political scientist Iris Young (2003) explains, “the role of the masculine protector puts those protected, paradigmatically women and children, in a subordinate position of dependence and obedience.”

White women whose affairs with slaves were made known faced varying degrees of public humiliation. When a planter’s daughter or wife was discovered to be pregnant by a slave, great pains were taken to cover up the pregnancy. The resulting child might have been sold into , but infanticide was not an uncommon means of avoiding scandal

Indeed, planter-class women were considered the property of their husbands (Hodes, 1997, p. 51). Their freedom and mobility was severely limited; for example, they were generally not allowed to travel without an older male chaperone (Clinton, p. 136). Spousal abuse was often considered a legitimate method for men to control their wives (Hodes, p. 72). Clinton calls Southern plantation mistresses “prisoners in disguise” (p. 145). 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.

Plantation owners visit slave quarters

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.2 Knowing that the mixed-race slave children who surrounded them were their husbands’ offspring was both humiliating and heartbreaking.

Southern women, who generally married at a younger age than those in the North—not infrequently at fifteen or sixteen years old (Clinton, pp. 85-86)—were often left abandoned on plantations while their husbands travelled for business, pleasure, or military duty (Clinton, p. 103). The life of a plantation mistress was often lonely and sad.

Sex Between White Women and Male Slaves: 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 of Southern white women was, as stated, heavily regulated, women were not as entirely sexually repressed as one might assume. According to historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1998), “slaveholding emphasized control of female sexuality; it did not deny its existence.” She says that white women “had a striking lack of neurotic inhibition.” Like their husbands, Southern women had pre- and extra- marital sex (though not as often).

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, 2008, p. 16).

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. 22-23). 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.g. by having sexual relations with slaves), a white woman choosing to have sex with a black man might not have been considered a likely occurrence.

Additionally, an upper-class woman under suspicion of an affair with a slave could “readily invoke images of chastity in order to allay trouble for herself”—or in other words, accuse the slave of rape (Hodes, p. 135). 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.

Why these women chose to sexually abuse slaves probably varied by situation. Perhaps some of them were simply bored or sexually frustrated... It is possible the sexual exploitation of slaves by women who had little 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. When a planter’s daughter or wife was discovered to be pregnant by a slave, great pains were taken to cover up the pregnancy. The resulting child might have been sold into slavery, but infanticide was not an uncommon means of avoiding scandal (Hodes, pp. 136-137).

Of course, scandal was not always avoided. In his 1837 autobiography, former slave Charles Ball describes meeting “the daughter of a wealthy planter, in one of the lower counties of Georgia” who had given birth to a mixed-race son. The family considered sending her out of state until the birth, but instead “the girl was kept in her father’s house, until the birth of her child, which she was not permitted to nurse; it being taken from her.” She was “degraded from her rank in society” and her child was sold into slavery.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853) provides a comprehensive first-hand account of slavery that both corroborates and challenges Eugene Genovese’s argument in his later analysis of the... MORE»
Advertisement
As the lights dropped and I sank into my seat, I thought I was ready for 12 Years a Slave, the 2013 film adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 slave narrative. I was expecting a movie, a story told with images, music and sound. But, what I witnesssed was testimony, and I was not prepared. In our society of political... MORE»
Frederick Douglass’ statement about slavery concisely defines the effect that such an institution had on the entire shape of a nation: Without slavery, how does one understand freedom? For hundreds of years, the United States thrived economically at the expense of millions of men and women who were not permitted to realize... MORE»
The role of personal property in our lives is one that to a very great extent we take for granted. We, in a crowded country such as the UK, all clearly understand that some things are ‘ours’, some things &lsquo... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP

Latest in History

2016, Vol. 7 No. 1
Published by Clocks and Clouds
This paper investigates the influence of U.S. foreign policymakers' perceptions towards China on policy formulation during the Cold War. The influence of perceptions, especially perceptions surrounding the ideology of combatant states, is especially... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 03
World War II ranks among the deadliest military conflicts in history. From 1939-1945, the estimated number of casualties worldwide exceeded 60 million.[1] The United States suffered military fatalities in excess of four hundred thousand, and the... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 02
The ancient civilization of Ethiopia has captivated the West and served, across centuries, as an inspiration for much of Africa. As a regional power in Eastern Africa, the nation is a strategic pathway into the Horn of Africa and guiding force in... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 02
The Peruvian Communist Party (PCP) was founded as the Peruvian Socialist Party in 1928 by José Carlos Mariátegui after his analysis of the “semifeudal” Peruvian economic state, which did not strictly follow Marx’s... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 01
When it comes to social perceptions of sexuality, media portrayals cannot be ignored, and in most cases provide important insights into the ideologies present at a certain point in history. In terms of Toronto, in the late 1960s, mainstream media... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 8 No. 11
Following the end of the American Revolutionary War of 1776 to 1783, the U.S. government adopted an aggressive and expansionistic policy towards Native Americans on its frontiers. From the closing years of the 18th century to the end of the 19th... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 8 No. 11
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (more commonly known as “ISIS,” but also referred to as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” or simply “the Islamic State”) has been on a reign of terror in the Middle... Read Article »

What are you looking for?

FROM OUR BLOG

7 Big Differences Between College and Graduate School
Presentation Tips 101 (Video)
How to Select a Graduate Research Advisor