Author: Thomas Foster

a historian of gender and sexuality at Howard University and author of "Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men" (2019).

Sexual Exploitation of the Enslaved

The sexual exploitation of enslaved people was a facet of enslavement in Virginia that took many forms for both women and men. Enslavers sexually assaulted and abused enslaved individuals, demanded reproduction from them to enhance their own bottom lines, and otherwise used the bodies of the enslaved for monetary gain, pleasure, and punishment. Western culture’s objectification and sexualizing of Black bodies exacerbated the sexual vulnerability of enslaved men and women. In addition to being detrimental to the well-being of enslaved people, sexual exploitation strained marriages and other interpersonal relationships valued by enslaved people. The historical record speaks to the ubiquity of mixed-race sexual relationships in the era of slavery: Virginia had the largest number of mixed-race enslaved people of all the southern states, totaling approximately 44,000 in 1850. While some of these sexual relationships were long-term and some enslaved men and women navigated sexually intimate relations with their enslavers and other white people in an effort to survive and secure better treatment, historians question whether any relationships under such an unequal power dynamic can be considered consensual.