Monday, August 24, 2009

Thomas Jefferson a rapist?

I just read an interesting post over at feministe denouncing Thomas Jefferson as a rapist. (The title of the post is even, “Thomas Jefferson: The Face of a Rapist.”) The author contends that because Sally Hemings was his slave, she had no ability to give or deny consent. Therefore, she’s a rape victim and Jefferson a rapist.

Here’s the opening paragraph:
Americans look at Thomas Jefferson and see the one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, a statesman, a former president and one of the founding fathers,’ however; when I look at him, I see the face of a rapist. When Jefferson first met Sally Hemings, his slave through inheritance, she would have been no more than 15 or 16 years old. It is rumored that when she returned from France with him, that she was already pregnant with his child.
It’s an incredibly interesting post to read so I definitely recommend it to everyone. I actually found the comments to be the most thought provoking and though you may have to wade through some bullshit, there are definitely some gems in there.

But I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it overall.

I do think it’s a bit disingenuous to think of 18th century 15 and 16 year olds in the same way we think of modern teenagers, but I do agree that since a slave was considered property, they did not have the ability to consent. We all know there can be no consensual sex without consent. So following that logic Jefferson would be a rapist, but so would many many many other people.

I guess that’s my problem with this topic – I just don’t see the point.

It seems like an attempt to be purposely shocking and the author’s claim (which she makes in the comments) that any relationship where there is an unequal balance of power should be considered rape, regardless if the two parties are both consenting, makes me a bit uncomfortable.

I thought this comments by Alara Rogers was particularly interesting:
I think what’s hanging people up is the changing perception of the term “rape” as we slowly claw our way out of patriarchy:

- Rape is a heinous act of violence committed by violent, cruel men against innocent virginal women.

- Rape is any sexual use of another human being against their will, or any sexual use of a human being who cannot freely give consent because of their age, their condition, or the power differential between them and the person using them for sex.

The first is only a tiny, tiny subset of the second… but it’s been the operational definition of rape for *thousands* of years. The current definition, which posits that all human beings have autonomy over their bodies and have the moral *right* to say no, is new. Possibly only about forty years old, in fact, because spousal rape exemption laws were on the books everywhere that recently.
Was Jefferson a violent, brutal, depraved man who forced himself viciously on Sally Hemings? Most likely not. If that is your only definition of rape, he wasn’t a rapist. But then, if that’s your only definition of rape, then adult men who have sex with 13-year-old girls who have crushes on them are not rapists.

I think the reason people don’t want to follow Renee’s logic through to its conclusion, even if under other circumstances they *would* agree with definition 2 for rape, is that, as other posters have pointed out, IT MEANS THAT MOST MEN HAVE BEEN RAPISTS THROUGHOUT HUMAN HISTORY.

A 13 year old girl might want sex with her handsome 27 year old teacher. That doesn’t mean it’s not rape if he takes her up on it. A slave *could* in theory find her master attractive. That doesn’t mean it’s not rape, given that she is not allowed to say no. By *definition* sex with a slave is rape, whether they would have been willing if they were free or not, for the same reason that sex with a willing 13 year old is rape. Because when there is a power differential so huge that no meaningful consent is possible, any sex falls into definition 2.

Most clients of prostitutes are rapists, because most prostitutes are forced into being prostitutes and cannot say no. (I do understand that some sex workers freely choose their work. Their clients would therefore not be rapists. But I’m not sure how clients could tell the difference, since prostituted people are probably also forced to claim that they are doing this freely.) Most men, throughout history, were rapists, because they were married and their wives had no legal right to say no. This is *why* it’s so hard to prosecute rape, why it’s so hard to take date rape and spousal rape seriously, why rapists can justify their crimes with “but she wanted it” — because throughout human history, the status of women in general has been so low that what we see today as rape was simply seen as normal sex.

We can go one of two ways with this fact. We can use it to say “Well, rape can’t be all that bad, because it used to be seen as normal sex and probably every woman on the planet used to have to put up with it, so how bad could it be?” Or we can say, “We take as axiomatic that rape is horrific, because people who have been raped say so, so we must be appalled at the fact of human history that most women who have ever lived were raped, that most men who ever lived were rapists, and we must work to ensure that that situation ends for all people worldwide and that we never fall into that situation again.”

Being that I am both female and have more empathy than a common sea slug, I take door number 2. I would like for those who are fighting so hard to say “But maybe Jefferson wasn’t a rapist!” or “Okay, he was, but was that so bad? He wasn’t a *mean* rapist” to consider that they are making the first argument, and consider what that implies about their belief about women’s humanity.

You cannot have consensual sex with a slave, because to be able to give consent you must be able to deny. By definition, Jefferson raped Hemings. It doesn’t matter if he loved her; lots of men who love women beat, rape and murder them, all over the world. It doesn’t matter if she loved him; he had so much power over her that she wasn’t free to say no, and therefore she wasn’t free to say yes. There is no point to arguing that *maybe* she wanted it, because it doesn’t matter if she did, any more than it matters if a 13 year old girl wants sex with an adult man. it is STILL RAPE. And I can acknowledge the debt this country owes to Jefferson and consider him a great man while still understanding that he, by definition, was a rapist… and probably so were the majority of men living in that time.

Does it do us any good to think of almost every man in history as rapists? (And does that definition of what rape constitutes include all women of power as well?) I just can't see the benefit in generalizing every relationship throughout history in such a way.

But I'm still unsure. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

-I want to point out that I do agree that a slave cannot give consent (because they cannot refuse consent) to a slave holder, so any sexual move on the slave owners part is by definition rape. Why that is so much worse than the fact the slave owner can have a slave tortured or killed I’m not quite sure.


  1. That is a very interesting article and is something that i have thought about in the past. The slave Master relationship etc.

    By some of her definations tho, my Mrs is a rapist lol

  2. You're funny! lol

    The slave relationship is the easiest aspect of the author’s assertions for me to accept though. The idea that most men throughout history are rapists is a little difficult for me to accept and I feel like it’s almost disrespectful to some of these women.

  3. That view is extreme..... but i would argue that we would never know... because relationships are a very personal thing between two people and you will never understand the hegemonic relationship between the two fully from the outside. And especially from what is said in books etc....imo


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