Breaking Spirits: Sexual violence and slavery

The practice of slavery is one of the most abhorrent things mankind has brought unto itself. Slaves were treated as less than people (and in many cases officially not counted as human). Masters consistently established dominance in many different ways, one of the most prevalent being the use of sexual violence. These offenses were specifically used to target women in most cases, but the profound effect it had on men broke the collective spirit of all in the slave communities. Men, women, and children were taught to fear the masters because they could use you as they wished and there was nothing you or your family/friends could do about it.

Attacks on slaves via masters were all about physical domination. The slaves had to be the lesser at the end of it all. Any back talk could earn a whipping. Running away could get you dragged through the fields in chains (Jacobs, 17). Sexual violence on the other hand had a very mental component to it. For women it was the constant threat of the master. They were there to be used, like a tool at the masters’ will. This did a lot to inspire fear within slave women especially. Harriet Jacobs experienced that first hand before her master even touched her. “He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things” (Jacobs, 30). Her master would frequently impart sexually demeaning words upon her to try and lower her own thinking about herself and her world.

This physical violence took a toll on the women, as any rape or assault would, but it left scars mentally no matter the situation. Some slaves would have partially white children that left the reminder of their treatment with every look at the mulatto child. Even in such situations masters would not bestow kindness upon the child or mother. But sometimes they did treat their “mistresses” in special ways. But this has a different way of breaking the mind. “A woman being a slave don’t stop her having genteel ideas… They know they must submit to their masters; besides, their masters, maybe, dress ’em up, and make ’em little presents, and give ’em more privileges… This breaks down their spirits dreadfully, and makes ’em wish they was dead” (“Slave Can’t Be a Man”, 144). This special treatment could make the women feel even worse because their community will suffer no matter, and they are still simply property to be used and thrown away if necessary.

Men were not as commonly physically sexually violated, but they were not spared from the damage it caused. Men are deemed the protectors in society. In a slave system the men are relegated to simply being observers. To stand up and fight is to die or risk more punishment towards the one you stand up for. This is mentally crippling for men as Lewis Clarke sums up, “Who among you would like to have your wives, and daughters, and sisters in such a situation?” (“Slave Can’t Be a Man”, 145).

The sexual dominance of slavery had a profound physical and mental impact of all slaves involved. Men and women alike are relegated to being playthings and watchers as their family and friends are used and abused and thrown away. While the spirit of the community was so key to keep people wanting to live for something, in slave communities this spirit was attacked constantly by sexual abuse by the masters.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the life of a slave girl. London: Penguin Books, 2000

“Fugitive Slave Lewis Clarke Explains Why ‘A Slave Can’t Be a Man,’ 1842.” In Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, edited by Kathy Peiss, 143-145. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

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