The impact of slavery on the sexuality of African-American women has been largely overlooked for many years. In addition, the negative manner in which African-American Women are portrayed in the media has been a topic of debate in recent years.
The purpose of this discussion is to explore how the experience of slavery shaped the development of African-American women's sexual identity and self-esteem. In addition, we will examine how the larger American public views and portrays black women in the media.
How the experience of slavery shaped the development of African-American women's sexual identity and self-esteem
How slavery impacted the Family Unit
The Slavery in America is one of the most heinous events in history.
What many fail to realize is that the experience of slavery has fashioned the way that African-American women view their sexuality and body image. Before we can fully understand the impact that slavery had on African-American Women, we must understand what slavery did to the African-American family structure as a whole.
One impact of slavery was the breakdown of the traditional family unit. Many look at the problem of single African-American mothers as a new phenomenon but the fact of the matter is that there has been a disproportionate amount of single African-American mothers since the 19th century. An article entitled "Slavery and the Black Family" explains that it is difficult to even define what a family was during slavery. The article asserts, man, woman, and child might live together at the moment they are counted, but it is not clear that they are a family in any meaningful social sense. The man may have begat the child, but in what sense was he a father and a husband? He had no exclusive sexual claim on the mother, he could not provide for her materially, and he had no right to prevent a slave sale from ending their union or from wrenching their child from them. Even Gutman's own statistics suggest that many slave children were raised in single-mother families. In 1865-66, Gutman found that between 21 and 28% of all black households containing children were headed by an unmarried mother. After slavery ended, Gutman's 1880 census data shows that in urban areas such as Mobile and Richmond, around one-fourth of all African-American families were headed by females. Many of these women described themselves as widows, but many claimed that status only to avoid the criticism that was attached to being unmarried... (Wilson)
The article also points out that the institution of slavery kept black men from being fathers or husband. (Wilson) A black male slave could not give the mother of his children security, a name, a status or an identity.
The article points out that "The male slave was placed in an impossible situation, "one bound to reduce him to a state of chronic jealousy and insecurity about women...And even if he managed somehow to overcome these legal barriers, he often had to live apart from the mother of his child." (Wilson)
Slavery and Sexuality
Now that we understand more about the way that slavery impacted African-American women's sexuality. One of the major issues that arose out of slavery was the disproportion of African-American men to African-American women. It is reported that in 1850 the proportion of Black men to Black Women between the ages of 20 to 29 was 857/1000. (Wilson) By the time slavery was abolished in 1870 the ratio was 866/1000. (Wilson) Many historians and sociologists believe that this disproportion meant that some black women would simply not marry or have uncommitted sexual relationships. (Wilson)
Additionally, during slavery many male slaves would have to travel to other cities to work or they were sold to other owners. (Wilson) The author of "Slavery and the Black Family" asserts that this created an environment that "made men sexually more predatory and women sexually more casual." (Wilson) This casual attitude towards sex still exists today and as we can see that this mentality was created by the systemic functioning of slavery.
Another issue that arose out of slavery was the rape of female slaves by those who transported slaves and subsequently slave owners. Indeed, the rape of slaves began during the middle passage and in some cases before the slave even left the shores of Africa. An article from The Birmingham-Pittsburg Traveler points out that the crews on the slave ships were allowed free access to the female slaves and were encouraged to exploit them sexually. ("The Matrix of Domination...") In fact, the constant raping of women was used as a weapon to create submission among all the slaves. ("The Matrix of Domination...") The article asserts that rape kept the female slaves helpless and left male slaves powerless to protect them. The crews also felt that this type of intimidation would keep the slaves from staging an insurrection. ("The Matrix of Domination...") The article quotes Angela Davis saying, the institutionalized pattern of rape, as it entered the framework of the slaver, provided the means to destroy the women's will to resist and, by corollary, to demoralize their men. A curious irony of this tactic, Davis points out, is that despite slaveowners' attempt to render women unequal to their male counterparts by increasing the intensity of their brutality - for they were not only raped but whipped and mutilated as well - the oppression was still equally distributed over both males and females. This indeed rendered black women's positions equal within the slave community and formed the groundwork upon which their resistance to slavery occurred with a passion equal to their men's."("The Matrix of Domination...")
There is absolutely no doubt that the sexual exploitation that occurred during the middle passage still has an effect upon African-American women today even though we are a few generations removed for the actual event. It seems that many African-American women view their sexuality as something that they have no control over -- this could easily be attributed to the sexual exploitation of women before and during slavery.
Of course many of the sexual exploits that occurred during the middle passage also occurred on the plantation. Quite often slave owners or their male sons would rape female slaves. The slaves were totally helpless in this situation because they were considered "property" and they didn't have any legal rights. The abolitionist Harriet Martineau and Frederick Douglass asserted that,
Every man who resides on his plantation may have his harem, and has every inducement of custom, and of pecuniary gain, to tempt him to the common practice."(63) Martineau ultimately believed that all harms of slavery arose from the master's desire to possess the sexuality of female slaves.(64) Frederick Douglass likewise pleaded with his old master to prevent overseers from raping his sisters.(65) This issue was not merely the concern of a few abolitionists; even the art and poetry of the time demonstrate concern with slave rape.(66) In fact, by the late 1850's many abolitionists were arguing that rape of slaves should be a crime.(Kaytal)
As you can see the sexual exploitation of female slaves has contributed greatly to the sexuality of African-American Women. Rape and Slavery had the effect of dehumanizing black women. This dehumanization has created subsequent generations of black women who view themselves as worthless victims. This feeling of worthlessness has translated into a life of promiscuity for generations of African-American Women.
Slavery and Body Image
Although slaves suffered great sexual exploitation during slavery, African-American Women have a more positive body image than do their Caucasian counterparts. Much of this is due to the fact that as a result of the treatment the slaves received they wanted and were able to create a culture that was/is separate and apart from European culture. As a result African-Americans tend to have a different standard of beauty than Caucasian people. (Molloy)
For instance, an article in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research explains that African-American Women believe the African-American men prefer full figured women. (Molloy) As a result Black women tend to not be as self-conscious about their weight as Caucasian women. Additionally, the article points out that there are variations concerning body image within the African-American Community. (Molloy)The article asserts that African-Americans that identify more with the middle class culture are more succpetible to poor self-esteem and body image. (Molloy) The article entitled, "Body Image and Self-Esteem: A Comparison of African-American and Caucasian Women" explains,
Racial identity and identification with the dominant middle class culture may explain the variation within groups of African-American and white women. As Pyant and Yanico (1991) stated, racial identity attitudes can predict self-esteem, well-being, and depression in female African-Americans. To the extent that African-American women identify more with their racial/ethnic culture than with the dominant culture and to the extent that they interact mostly with other African-Americans, they may be "protected" from white norms regarding body styles. (Molloy)
For instance studies have found that African America women form lower socioeconomic backgrounds are usually heavier but do not have poor self-esteem or a poor…