College of Liberal Arts

Sexuality and Slavery

sexuality and slaveryBuck. Wench. These were actual names given to enslaved people in the antebellum south, and they signified the ways in which slaveholders saw enslaved people as sexual beings, and also the power of the slaveholding class. By contrast, enslaved couples participated in courtship rituals that often led to love, intimacy and marriage (although not legally sanctioned). 

The Institute for Historical Studies conference, “Sexuality & Slavery,” explores the critical but understudied subject of the meaning of sexuality in slave societies in the Americas. Sex and power are often intricately intertwined, and rarely more so than when the individuals involved are not sanctioned to make independent decisions regarding their bodies, their relationships and decisions to bear children.  The right to consensual sexual intimacy, as well as the right and ability to prevent sexual exploitation by the slaveholding class, comprised a core terrain of struggle between slaveholders and enslaved people.

"The conversation we hope to generate during this conference is an important one," says Daina Ramey Berry, conference co-convener and associate professor of History. "Issues of sexual exploitation, expression, repression and reform have always been central to studies of slavery, but they have not always been clearly addressed. We stand on the shoulders of several scholars who in the past and present are eager to move forward with this conversation. Our students are ready, we are ready, and I believe the University of Texas is poised to take this difficult subject to the next level."

Scholars studying sexuality and slavery in locations across the Americas will present their work. Sexuality was central to the definition of enslaved people as commodities in early capitalist systems in the Americas, as papers by Sowande’ Mustakeem, Trevor Burnard, and Kym Morrison explain.

Go to the Institute of Historical Studies website for the full feature story.