Rape: The Legislation of Racial and Sexual Morality in 19th Century Virginia
Historically, rape laws in Virginia have been most concerned with punishing black men who raped or attempted to rape white women. In the eighteenth century, the punishment for rape was death, but in 1796, Virginia abolished the death penalty for free persons for all crimes except murder. This marked the emergence of race-specific anti-rape statutes. Given the separatist climate of Virginia in the nineteenth century, whites regarded interracial rape as an intolerable attack against both slavery and white supremacy.
An 1823 Virginia statute specified that free blacks and slaves would be hung for raping a white woman. The statute placed an inordinate amount of power in the hands of the white woman, who could condemn a black man to death with her claim of rape. The courts largely ignored issues of consensual sex. The rape statutes reveal a lack of concern with the actual crime of rape and a real paranoia regarding maintaining strict color lines and protecting white women from black men.
A related set of stereotypes led to another pattern that occurred several times in the Virginia court system. After a black slave was convicted of rape, petitions from whites to spare his life appeared if either the white woman was not virtuous or the sex was consensual. A white woman's credibility could be diminished if she associated with blacks.
The rape statutes passed in Virginia in the 1820s were not concerned with the protection of women. The law offered no protection from sexual violence for black women. Rather the primary function of these laws was to preserve racial purity and white superiority. Furthermore, the laws promoted the stereotypes that black men were animalistic sexual beings who were prone to raping white women.
Files in this item
MetadataShow full item record
Showing items related by title, author, creator and subject.
Social and familial context of prenatal genetic testing decisions: are there racial/ethnic differences? Learman, Lee A.; Kuppermann, Miriam; Gates, Elena; Nease, Robert F., Jr.; Gildengorin, Virginia; Washington, A. Eugene (2003-05-15)