The Biopolitics of Sexual Consent | Lucia Hodgson

by Lucia Hodgson

Independent Scholar
Paper presented at the MLA 2022 Roundtable: The Biopolitics of Childhood
Washington DC, January 8, 2022

[Please do not circulate or cite without permission of the author.]

Comparative work on the sexual abuse of free and enslaved girls runs the very real risk of eliding substantive differences in the vulnerability, exploitation, and maltreatment of the two groups. But studying the phenomena separately obscures the encompassing biopolitical strategy that manages male sexual access to girl populations.

The “racial polarization” of sexual innocence in the mid-nineteenth century documented by Robin Bernstein denied Black girls the sexual purity accorded to white girls and simultaneously endowed white girls with “a state of deflection: a constantly replenishing obliviousness that causes sexual matters to slide by without sticking” (41). In this framework, Black girls were always already sexual and inviolable, while, I argue, the truly racially and sexually pure could not be successfully assaulted because their own bodies deflected predation. The truly pure found protection in fathers, brothers, and would-be assailants. I call this logic the cult of true girlhood. The same strategy of racializing sexual purity rendered Black and white girl bodies sexually available by holding girls biologically accountable for their sexual victimization. Black girls were essentially always consenting; whereas white girls who did not avoid violation confirmed their lack of purity and became always consenting.

American sentimental fiction and law worked together in the nineteenth century to root the capacity to withhold sexual consent in the body, as a racialized biological capacity to restrain sexual impulses and to repulse sexual overtures. Black girls were born incapable of refusing sexual advances. White girls became constitutionally incapable of doing so after their first illicit sexual experience. Laws against sexual violence were mediated by the “chastity requirement,” the legal understanding that sexual experience conditioned consent in that prior sexual experience rendered voluntary consent as a given (Anderson 53-54). In the eyes of the law, once a girl had given her consent to an illicit sexual encounter, she would never again be physiologically capable of withholding it.

In nineteenth century evolutionary race science, as Kyla Schuller argues, “sexual restraint” is “an overdetermined criterion of civilization”: “Sexual desire, in the evolutionary view, represents a primitive inability to temper impulses to touch with reflective thought. The trope of black sexual voraciousness precisely captures the immersion in the impulsive grasp allegedly characteristic of the less evolved” (84). Science, like sentimental fiction, positions white and Black girls at opposite poles of the hierarchy of impressibility that determines “[t]he body’s relative capacity for receiving and regulating impressions” (41). Black girls inhabit “unimpressible bodies [that] merely react to sensory impressions.” They are “captive to whatever stimulations crossed their paths” (13). By contrast, civilized white girls are cast as hyperimpressible (80). They are born “freed . . . from the impulses dictated by immediate sensation” (18) and capable of self-control.

Not despite but because of the racialized polarization of girlhood impressibility, many white girls themselves become unimpressible after illicit sexual relations. White girls’ “Heightened impressibility” made them capable of advanced civilization and of dramatic degeneration into the primitive. Their “highly responsive natures and a correlated delicacy . . . frequently threatened weakness” (40). Once engaged in illicit sexual activity or even immersed in a milieu where such activity took place, their capacity to regulate their feelings and to evolve eroded.

As Schuller recounts, Charles Loring Brace believed that girls growing up in the Bowery were “too primitive” to be reformed, “and lacked the self-control necessary to resist sexual temptation” (148). His Children’s Aid Society would not assist girls over twelve because they were presumably already sex workers and, in Schuller’s words, “too thoroughly saturated with the impressions of others” to be helped (148). Illicit sex ruins white girls, turning them into promiscuous bodies without sexual restraint. For example, sex work transforms the impressible seduced heroine of the story “Rosenglory” by Lydia Maria Child into an unimpressible body. When she converses with a co-worker, their “voices were without inflexions, rough and animal in tone, indicating that the speakers led a merely sensual existence” (257). The ruined girl loses the sexual and racial purity that underwrites her biological categorization as civilized.

In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman argues forcefully against commonalities in the statuses of free and enslaved with regard to sexual violence. She asserts that “Kinship and captivity designate radically different conditions of embodiment”:

what is at issue is the difference between the deployment of sexuality in the contexts of white kinship—the proprietorial relation of the patriarch to his wife and children, the making of legitimate heirs, and the transmission of property—and black captivity—the reproduction of property, the relations of mastery and subjection, and the regularity of sexual violence. (83-84)

This “radical difference” does not include the white girl’s freedom from sexual exploitation. Sexual violence is inherent in the patriarch’s proprietorial relations with his daughter, ward, and servant, and the patriarchal traffic in chastity produces a surplus of the unemployable unchaste to meet the voracious market for illicit sex with girls. 

This “radical difference” does include the denial of the capacity for sexual restraint to any Black girl no matter how young. The implications of this difference were profound in a culture that commodifies sex with inexperienced children and associates illicit sexual experience with contamination, degeneration and animal appetites. The age of consent for free girls was low, between ten and twelve depending on the state, but it did create a population of girls with whom sex was always against the law regardless of the character of the victim. Legally, an enslaved woman could not be raped, and there was no age of consent for enslaved girls. In evolutionary race science, law and sentimental literature, Black girls are always already consenting sexual partners, and white girls have the capacity to become perpetually consenting if they are impressed by an illicit sexual milieu and experiences early in life. The lack of an age of consent establishes one form of subordination that results in sexual access while extension of the capacity to consent to the ten-year-old establishes another. 

I end with the suggestion that the “radical difference” between enslaved and free is connected to the intentions and behaviors of the attackers. As Sharon Block writes, “Both African American and Native American women were far more likely than white women to be the victims of sadistic and horrific sexual violence that went beyond the gratification of men’s sexual desires and starkly expressed relations of subordination through intentional sexual cruelty” (80). But I maintain that we can better understand the biopolitics of sexual consent if our frame includes free and enslaved girls. The discourses that deny Black girls the capacity for nonconsent stabilize those that render that capacity easily and irrevocably lost so that girls of both colors are subsumed into the population of the always willing and accessible.

Works Cited

Anderson, Michelle J. “From Chastity Requirement to Sexuality License: Sexual Consent and a New Rape Shield Law.” George Washington Law Review 70 (2002): 51–162.

Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York UP, 2011.

Block, Sharon. Rape and Sexual Power in Early America. University of North Carolina Press, for Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2006.

Child, Lydia Maria. “Rosenglory.” In Fact and Fiction: A Collection of Stories. Boston: Munroe & Francis, 1846. 241–60.

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Schuller, Kyla. The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century. Anima. Duke University Press, 2017.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.