Collections > Electronic Theses and Dissertations > "A Sad Epoch in the Life of a Slave Girl": The Sexual Exploitation of Enslaved Women and its Impact on Slaveholding and Enslaved Communities
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When white men exploited enslaved women's sexuality and sexual reproduction, enslaved men and slaveholding women were forced to bear witness, creating a web of pain, insecurity, jealousy, and contempt that entangled both slaves and slaveholders. I argue that through these experiences, enslaved women and men developed a consciousness of enslaved women's vulnerability to this kind of abuse that shaped their everyday decisions regarding marriage, family, and personal safety. Slave narratives and interviews and court documents reveal that they demonstrated a heightened concern about the sanctity of their romantic and sexual relationships and their limited ability to shield enslaved women from sexual exploitation. White men's sexual relations with female slaves also proved disruptive to slaveholding households and marriages. Court records and slaveholders' personal correspondence reveal that because of their social status as patriarchs and heads of household, white men often felt entitled to absolution for their illicit sexual behavior with female slaves. Yet, despite constraints of patriarchy, some slaveholding women felt empowered to express their grievances against "illicit" relations between white men and female slaves. Utilizing their authority as household managers, these slaveholding women inflicted physical violence and emotional abuse on enslaved women in retaliation. Divorce petitions also reveal the strife interracial sex caused within these marriages. Examining southern society's shared experience with enslaved women's sexual exploitation provides new perspectives on gender, race, and power in the antebellum era.