Rape and Sexual Power in Early America

Rape and Sexual Power in Early America

Rape and Sexual Power in Early America

Rape and Sexual Power in Early America

Synopsis

In a comprehensive examination of rape and its prosecution in British America between 1700 and 1820, Sharon Block exposes the dynamics of sexual power on which colonial and early republican Anglo-American society was based.



Block analyzes the legal, social, and cultural implications of more than nine hundred documented incidents of sexual coercion and hundreds more extralegal commentaries found in almanacs, newspapers, broadsides, and other print and manuscript sources. Highlighting the gap between reports of coerced sex and incidents that were publicly classified as rape, Block demonstrates that public definitions of rape were based less on what actually happened than on who was involved. She challenges conventional narratives that claim sexual relations between white women and black men became racially charged only in the late nineteenth century. Her analysis extends racial ties to rape back into the colonial period and beyond the boundaries of the southern slave-labor system. Early Americans' treatment of rape, Block argues, both enacted and helped to sustain the social, racial, gender, and political hierarchies of a New World and a new nation.

Excerpt

John Adams. Olaudah Equiano. Benjamin Franklin.
Thomas Jefferson. Cotton Mather. Thomas Paine.
Mercy Otis Warren. George Washington.

Elizabeth Allen. Nancy Cobb. Sabina Cole. Sarah Langly.
Amy London. Ann Mitchell. Hester Osborn. Dolly Walden.

What does a list of well-known historical figures have in common with a collection of unfamiliar names? All of these early Americans left records about rape. The textbook figures usually wrote about rapes in which they were rather tangentially involved. They were lawyers or witnesses, condemned a criminal or a crime, and used rape as metaphor or humor. In contrast, the figures on the nondescript list experienced rape more intimately. They were women and girls who each accused a man of a sexual assault.

These divergent lists highlight a central incongruity: rape in early America was both pervasive and invisible. On the one hand, early Americans spoke authoritatively about rape in public and private settings alike. In the abstract, they agreed that rape was a heinous act unworthy of civilized society and worthy of serious punishment. For assaulted women and girls, however, rape was the most intimate of violations, a private trauma that often did not translate into a believable public wrong.

I originally chose the topic of rape because it had the potential to provide me with roughly equal numbers of male and female historical actors, but I quickly learned that a body count does not equal a body of evidence. I may be able to recite the names of as many women as men involved in recorded instances of sexual coercion, but I can offer little information about the thoughts of these individuals. We know nothing of what nine-year-old Elizabeth Allen thought of rape or of the man who sexually assaulted her. And we do not even know the name of the woman who accused Robert Holeman of a sexual assault in New Jersey in 1752, or of the slave who was sentenced to death for raping Sabina Cole in early-nineteenth-century Georgia. Yet outside commentators regularly recorded their views of rape. Cotton Mather associated fornication with rape and worried about the threat of African American rapists. Thomas . . .

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