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  • Introduction
  • Ramón A. Gutiérrez (bio)

This issue of the Journal of the History of Sexuality had its genesis as a conference hosted by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the University of California, San Diego, on 17 January 2009. The results of the conference, organized by the Center and the Journal of the History of Sexuality on the theme of race and sexuality, are the essays gathered here, with one addition. They explore the complexities of rape, the representation of desire among white colonial settlers, the anxieties and prejudices wreaked by miscegenation, and the social acceptance of and repugnance toward homosexuality by different racial communities.

The relationship between sex and power and its manifestation in racialized violence is at the core of the first two articles, those by Estelle Freedman and Thomas Foster. In "'Crimes which startle and horrify': Gender, Age, and the Racialization of Sexual Violence in White American Newspapers, 1870-1900," Freedman analyzes 752 stories about the rape of females in three American urban dailies-the New York Times, the Atlanta Daily Constitution, and the Los Angeles Times-and in one weekly-the National Police Gazette. Freedman found that in the waning days of the nineteenth century, African American men represented the largest proportion of reported rapists, but by the 1890s white men were increasingly found guilty of raping black and white women too. The racial representations of the culprits differed significantly, however. Whites were depicted as exceptional rapists. Blacks were deemed as natural predators. "By the end of the nineteenth century," Freedman explains, "the white press had helped to construct the archetypal sexual assault as the rape of a young girl by a brutal black man, an image that would long haunt American discourse on sexual violence and impede the quest for full citizenship for both African Americans and women." During these years, the focus of rape narratives shifted too, away from adult women to girls as the victims, reinforcing concepts of female dependency and, in particular, provoking white male fears that they could [End Page 439] no longer protect their womenfolk. Such thinking thus rationalized, if not justified, white on black violence, most often in the form of lynching.

Freedman's quantitative data show that white male rapists came from both ends of the social scale. At the bottom of the social order were strangers-usually tramps, desperados, and ex-convicts-who rarely knew their rural victims; at the top were elites-doctors, lawyers, clergymen-who knew the women they assaulted very well. The vagabond culprits threatened patriarchy rather than enforced it by constricting the ability of fathers and husbands to protect their womenfolk. The crimes of white elite men were usually described in moral terms such as "seduction" and "debauchery," thus lessening the popular meaning of the act and most likely its prosecution by the authorities. Unless elite men assaulted young girls, they were portrayed as Romeos rather than as predatory beasts. The proportion of black rape victims rose over time, but only because black on black violence was increasingly reported to emphasize the bestial nature of black men. The age of the white victims decreased in the same period, with black victims often at least three years younger than their white counterparts.

Thomas Foster's "The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery" flips the coin, so to speak, and asks us to consider not only the ways black men brutalized women but also how they themselves were often the victims of rape. We know a fair amount about the economics, politics, and erotics of the rape of female slaves. White masters routinely so punished their slaves, forced them to reproduce against their will, and made them the defenseless objects of desire with whom they, their sons, and men of every sort could satisfy themselves without remorse. Foster asks us to abandon such gendered assumptions about rape and to expand our moral vista to categorize as rape such things as forced coupling and involuntary homosexual sex. Why we have failed to call such violence against slave men rape has much to do with the ways in which whites generated stereotypes of black men as hypersexual predators fixated...


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pp. 439-444
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