History Podcasts

Was sexual abuse/assault a unique feature of American Slavery or was there similar abuse in previous slave systems?

Was sexual abuse/assault a unique feature of American Slavery or was there similar abuse in previous slave systems?

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

In reading about Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings I learned how he basically took her on as a concubine when they lived in Paris. It seems that this sort of thing was commonplace in the antebellum south.

I wonder if institutionalized sexual abuse was a feature of previous slave systems.

Did slaves in Ancient Rome suffer as much sexual abuse? How about in Athens? Were the Spartans sexually abusive to the Helots?

Without going into nauseating detail, slaves by definition have no freedom, and no freedom of choice. From Johnston's The Private life of the Romans

  1. Legal Status of Slaves. The power of the master over the slave, dominica potestās (§ 26), was absolute. The master could assign to the slave laborious and degrading tasks, punish him even unto death at his sole discretion, sell him, and kill him (or turn him out in the street to die) when age or illness had made him incapable of labor. Slaves were mere chattels in the eyes of the law, like oxen or horses.

The book The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Volume 1; Volume 7 By Junius P. Rodriguez mentions specifically Athens, Rome, of course, the Visigoths, and the Hebrews as cultures which had laws concerning sexual behavior with slaves or concubines. A Wikipedia page also covers both modern and Historical sexual slavery and includes info on Asian and Arab slavery. Another wiki page discusses the Bible and its references to slavery and rules concerning selling daughters as concubines.

So yes, slaves have been used sexually throughout the history of slavery.

Child Sexual Abuse: Guidelines on Prosecuting Cases of Child Sexual Abuse

These guidelines are designed to set out the approach that prosecutors should take when dealing with child sexual abuse cases. The guidelines are intended to be inclusive and should be applied to cases where a sexual offence has been committed against a child or young person, unless there are good reasons why not in a particular case and these reasons are noted clearly by the prosecutor. The guidelines also include cases of adult survivors of sexual abuse in childhood.

The guidelines should be read in conjunction with other relevant guidance. These include the CPS Rape and Sexual Offences (RASO) Legal Guidance which sets out the approach to be taken in cases involving allegations of rape and sexual assault and the Safeguarding Children as Victims and Witnesses Legal Guidance.

Of particular relevance are:

    , which sets out the principal offences of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 , which deals with the issue of consent , which discusses some of the myths and stereotypes around rape and sexual violence , section Sexual Offences and Child Abuse by Young Offenders and , which sets out detailed advice on trafficking related issues.

Virginia Indians

In 1600, Tidewater Virginia was occupied by 15,000 Algonquian-speaking Indians. They lived mainly along the James, York, and Rappahannock rivers in a land they called Tsenacomoco . Led by a paramount chief named Powhatan (Wahunsonacock) , they farmed in small villages during the summer and, during the winter, traveled deep into the forests to hunt deer and gather nuts. They supplemented their diets by diving for oysters , fishing for sturgeon, and wading into the freshwater marshes to pull tuckahoe, a carbohydrate-rich edible plant.

Powhatan likely inherited the leadership of six Indian groups: the Powhatans, the Pamunkeys , the Arrohatecks, the Appamattucks, the Youghtanunds, and the Mattaponi . Through a combination of violence and persuasion, he then expanded his territory so that by 1607 he controlled twenty-eight to thirty-two groups covering about 8,000 square miles. Each group (as anthropologists prefer) or tribe (as present-day Indians prefer) occupied one or more riverside towns and was ruled by its own weroance, or chief. Like the paramount chief Powhatan, these lesser chiefs inherited their positions through the female line. They accumulated wealth through tribute—usually in the form of deer skins, pearl and shell beads, corn, and copper—that they then redistributed. Accepting gifts from the weroance created obligations on the part of the receivers. These obligations were crucial to Indian political and economic relationships.

Powhatan traveled with a bodyguard of Tsenacomoco’s fifty tallest men and kept his capital in a town called Werowocomoco. He was the wealthiest and most powerful of all the chiefs, but he was not an absolute ruler. He made few decisions without the advice of his council, and many important actions, such as making war, required the approval of his priests , called kwiocosuk. These were the most important men in Powhatan society because they communicated with spirits, usually by way of a trance. They divined the spirits’ intentions and advised the chief or paramount chief accordingly. With their bodies painted black and their heads shaved except for a tuft of hair in the front and a Mohawk-style crest, the priests resided in temples and cared for the remains of dead chiefs. The kwiocosuk also sometimes acted as physicians.

Like people everywhere, Indians married and divorced , cooked , played games , named their children , and educated their young. Boys were initiated into manhood through a frightening process called the huskanaw , which involved a ritual death and rebirth . And although there were no written laws , Virginia Indians punished wrongdoers according to their own traditions and customs.

When the English arrived in 1607, they encountered a people whose lives were completely different from their own. For instance, the English did not fully understand how hard the Indians worked. Powhatan’s people had no metal tools to help them chop down trees for building houses instead, they used fire. They had no domesticated animals to help them drag large tree trunks and to plow fields instead, they used their own muscle power. Without horses, news spread much more slowly, and war was much more personal. Land, meanwhile, was not fenced in, which led the English to assume that the Indians made no claim to it. Such misunderstandings, while perhaps inevitable, were tragic and, for the Indians, ultimately proved to be disastrous.

The History of Black Girls and the Field of Black Girlhood Studies: At the Forefront of Academic Scholarship

Harriet Jacobs and her autobiography, The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), has become a fixture in courses on American slavery. Her enslavement, sexualization, concealment, and escape are widely recognized as emblematic of the gendered aspects of slavery and how it was “far more terrible for women.”[1] As the title suggests, Jacobs devotes considerable attention to “the trials of girlhood.” She revealed the ways her enslaver, Dr. Flint, corrupted her youth at age fifteen when he “peopled [her] young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of.”[2] Jacobs was one of the first black writers in the United States to formulate articulations of black girlhood so clearly, yet she was part of a legacy and evolving discourse. Black women became founding contributors of what has developed into an entire field devoted to the life and meaning of black girlhood.

In many ways, black women and girls are responsible for the recorded history of African American childhood in early America. Lucy Terry Prince produced a record of life as an enslaved girl and woman in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in the eighteenth-century. Prince witnessed an attack on colonists in Deerfield by Native Americans in 1746 while in her teenage years. Terry’s “Bars Fight,” an oral ballad of the event, depicted the violent conflict and paid particular attention to the child-victims. The poem was the first record of a composition created by a person of African descent in the British colonies and was subsequently published in 1855.[3] Phillis Wheatley’s poems also blended the enslaved girlhood experience with that of whites in ways that critiqued and exposed inherent contradictions of religion, race, and colonial identity. “On Being Brought From Africa” gestures to her childhood innocence at the moment of capture at around age seven and follows her ascendency to adulthood.[4] It is notable that many of her poems in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773 when she was twenty years old, were written when she was a young girl and subversively reflect her life as an enslaved, black girl.[5]

Throughout the nineteenth-century, black writers exposed the particular ways African American children, especially those who were enslaved, were deprived of their humanity and protection as children. In 1855, Fredrick Douglass argued, “Children have their sorrows as well as men and women and it would be well to remember this in our dealings with them. SLAVE children are children and prove no exception to the general rule.”[6] Despite Douglass’ claim, enslavers stripped children of childhood protection by physically and sexually abusing black girls with impunity.[7]

The existence, exploitation, and sale of enslaved children became a visible reminder of the horrors of slavery, particularly for the abolitionist movement. African Americans advocated on behalf of their children by exposing contradictions in the treatment of their children and ideas of childhood by appealing to the universal qualities of childhood. Many of the earliest representations of black children demonstrated their exclusion from the social category of childhood and their occupation of liminal social spaces in the United States and African Diaspora in the slave narrative genre. Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince, and Harriet Jacobs each represented their enslavement through the violent losses of their childhood innocence and, for Prince and Jacobs, sexual violations of girlhood in the world of slavery.

The writings of African American activists and intellectuals on black girlhood informed the development of the black literary tradition. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was one of the most influential black speakers and writers of the nineteenth century, and notably much of her writing was either to children or about children. She opens her poem, “The Slave Auction” (1854), with a heartbreaking portrait of black girls on the auction block: “The sale began—young girls were there, Defenseless in their wretchedness, Whose stifled sobs of deep despair, Revealed their anguish and distress.”[8] And her meditations on girlhood and childhood were circulated in anti-slavery lecture circuits, periodicals, and read to African American children. African American parents and abolitionists made clear that the issue of the abolition of slavery was not only about enslaved children but about the future of all African American children. This in turn was an integral element of the politicization of white juvenile readers and parents to the abolitionist cause.[9]

Black children’s marginalization extended beyond the slave South. In the antebellum North, African American children were subsumed within systems of indentured servitude that were established following gradual emancipation as a way to mediate the population’s transition from enslavement to freedom. This placed northern black children somewhere between slavery and freedom, childhood and adulthood, as they could legally be considered dependent and indentured maturity. Black girls could be indentured until as old as twenty-eight.[10] The North continued to rely upon black girls’ labor, particularly in the domestic sphere.

In this context, black children, especially girls, faced criminalization in the earliest manifestations of criminal disciplines and prison practices. The youngest child ever executed in the United States was a black girl. Hannah Occuish, of African and Pequot heritage, was only twelve years of age when she was hanged in Connecticut in 1786. More executions of black girls occurred in the early nineteenth-century, including two in New Jersey, Jane Huff (15) in 1837 and Roseanne Keene (16) in 1844.[11] Black girls received extreme criminal convictions beyond execution including lifetime imprisonment and were disproportionately represented in juvenile reformatories.[12] These cases illustrate that there was an alarming association between black girlhood and crime in the Early Republic.

Harriet Wilson critiqued the treatment of black girls enslaved in the antebellum North in her 1859 novel Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. Our Nig features a young northern black girl, Frado, who endures violence and abuse that complicates presumed geographic and ideological division between the “free North” and “slave South.” Harper’s novel, Of Trial and Triumph, highlights the particular plight of black girls in the North. The production of such literature for northern audiences and black children permeated and nourished the sphere of black print culture, which began to reach out directly to young, black readers. Some of these readers may or may not have been privileged enough to receive formal education offered to northern black children, who were educated through the African Free Schools—schools responsible for both black advancement and discrimination.[13] Black girls and adolescents in northern cities who had access to forms of education and mobility recorded representations of their lives in their diaries and albums, beautiful archival records that reveal through artistic expression the lives and friendships of northern black girls.[14]

In the wake of emancipation in the South, whites also used African American children and girls as a way to mediate the transition from slavery to freedom by seeking to continually exploit their labor. Similar to the post-emancipation North, whites forced black children into coercive indenture and apprenticeship contracts. In the wake of the failures of Reconstruction, African American children were incarcerated at disproportionate rates and used in prison labor chain gangs.[15] Black girls’ gender did not shield them from their exploitation in the development of the carceral state of the Jim Crow Era.[16] Black children and girls were, in fact, born into prisons and penitentiaries with little regard to their status, position, or care.[17] They were excluded from the child-welfare reform of the late nineteenth-century and Progressive Era. The treatment and criminalization of African American children in juvenile reformatories and prisons promoted activism from the black community. Black girls were sometimes caught between the cross-hairs of notions of respectability and crime, particularly as it related to sexualized crimes that were often the result of assault.

African American children and girls who were alive during emancipation reflected back on their experiences at the turn-of-the-century. In this context, African American children, parents, and the community established a rich literary and activist tradition that recognized both the black girls’ unique oppression and the potential of childhood as a unifying force. By the turn-of-the century, Du Bois published Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920), both of which offered sophisticated theoretical reflections on issues of race and childhood. In Darkwater, Du Bois meditated on the “transfiguring soul of childhood.” For W. E. B. Du Bois, the concept and conditions of black childhood possessed “the Power and the Glory” capable of pushing the world beyond racial boundaries.[18] Du Bois theorized the visionary qualities of black childhood. He and Jessie Fauset’s editorial voice in magazines centered black children in photographic form in The Crisis Magazine and as a targeted audience in The Brownies Book (1919-1921).[19] African American parents continually instilled racial pride in their children, and gendered ideals of citizenship and character in their girls.

In the early twentieth-century, black girls fought fiercely to create new expressions of freedom in the face of Progressive Era, and lives of early twentieth-century black girls were documented during the Harlem Renaissance through authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Dorothy West. Their writings on the potential of black girlhood were reflected in the lives of black girls whose self-expression took on newly liberated forms. Black girls occupied spaces that were not designed for them in new ways. They navigated the streets of the Jim Crow South and confronted assaults on their bodies, character, respectability, and lives.[20]

Throughout the twentieth century, African American children continually faced threats to the typical protections granted to children. Education, and black girls’ schooling in particular, was an important element of the modern civil rights movement. The Brown v. Board of Education decision hinged in many ways on the play of children, and of girls, especially. The Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll study showed the pervasive impact of racism on the playful preferences of children.[21] Black girlhood, and the threat of loss of black girls’ life and innocence, played an important figurative and physical role in the civil rights movement. The bombing and murder of four black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, both propelled the movement’s media coverage to new heights and revealed the grotesque nature of white supremacist violence. African American children marched during the Children’s Crusade, and the images of physical violence, particularly when directed at girls such as Ruby Bridges, helped make real and visible the stakes of the movement.[22]

Contemporary studies of black girlhood make clear that African American girls continually face disbarment from ideas of childhood and girlhood. From the late twentieth century to today, studies of black girlhood highlight their particularly marginalized status in the United States, particularly in schools. They resist this process by fugitively and subversively creating new spaces of social recognition through artistic expression in literature, poetry, art, and dance.[23] Most notably, the 2017 report produced by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality revealed “data showing that adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers” resulting in harsher schooling disciplinary practices.[24]

This history of black girls demonstrates the ways both the inner lives and material conditions of black girlhood offer richly complex additions to our understanding of American history. Scholars are increasingly turning towards developing a theoretical framework to understand the historical and contemporary lives of black children, especially black girls’ unique and intersectional experiences. As the secondary literature cited in this essay on the historical and literary representation of black girls indicates, the subject is expansive. Prior to the establishment of black girlhood studies, African American women’s history has led the field.[25] Historical monographs on African American children broadly such as Wilma King’s foundational Stolen Childhood and Marie Jenkins Schwartz Born in Bondage examined black childhood broadly. New studies of black girlhood specifically include Nazera Wright’s Nineteenth Century Black Girlhood, Lakisha Simmons’ Crescent City Girls, and Marcia Chatelain’s South Side Girls.[26] Additionally, scholars increasingly engage the concept of age as a category of analysis in the period of slavery, most recently by Daina Ramey Berry in The Price for their Pound of Flesh. The history of black girlhood and children is supplemented by critical works on the theory of childhood.

Studies of black girls have been enriched by the theoretical turn towards children as historical actors and childhood as a social construct. This work has been led by the field of childhood studies and the groundbreaking work of Robin Bernstein, who introduced the concept of “racial innocence.”[27] Through current scholarship emerging out of the History of Black Girlhood Network, scholars are coming to terms with the significance of race, gender, and age as categories of analysis. Theoretical projects have worked to unearth even more of the experiences of black girls in the archive including Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” Saidiyah Haartman’s Wayward Lives, a roundtable of leading scholars published in “The History of Black Girlhood: Recent Innovations and Future Directions,” Anna Mae Duane’s edited Who Writes for Black Children, and Aria Halliday’s edited Black Girlhood Studies Reader.[28]

As papers, panels, conferences, special issues, books, graduate programs, and tenure-track positions demonstrate, the field of black girlhood studies has reached new heights as it moves towards institutional recognition and support.[29] As an emerging field and concept, it has the power to transform academic scholarship and theory on large-scale terms in three major areas: 1) theory, 2) teaching, and 3) public humanities. The intersectional forces of oppression that black girls experience cross lines of race, gender, and age. The theoretical work of the history of the lives of black children is revealing and generative. The authors who contribute to this significant history are doing intricate theorizing and conducting complicated research. These frameworks and methodologies should be taught as foundational theories alongside black feminist theory and historical categories of analysis as part of the groundbreaking work of Kimberle Crenshaw and Joan Scott.[30] Students are drawn to courses that feature children generally, as a category and concept to which they can relate. Black girlhood studies introduces theoretically rich ways to analyze the history of childhood and youth, from discussions of their representation in the archive, to assumptions about race and age. Finally, black girlhood studies has the potential to reach the public in meaningful and accessible ways. These issues are contemporary and relevant—efforts to reclaim the significance and beauty of black childhood have been powerfully articulated through movements and hashtags of #blackgirlmagic, #blackboyjoy, and #hairlove. These trends demonstrate that black childhood and girlhood is still under siege but also fiercely defended. The field is undergoing an incredible moment of transformation and influence of which scholars of American history should take note and contribute.


Crystal Lynn Webster is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas, San Antonio. She was previously a Mellon dissertation fellow at the Library Company of Philadelphia and her research has been supported by the American Antiquarian Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, and Historical Society of Pennsylvania. She is currently completing her first monograph, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North.


[1]Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), 119.

[2]Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 44.

[3]Josiah Gilbert Holland, History of Western Massachusetts: The Counties of Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire. Embracing an Outline Aspects and Leading Interests, and Separate Histories of its One Hundred Towns (1855), 360.

[4]Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).

[5]Lucia Hodgson, “Infant Muse: Phillis Wheatley and the Revolutionary Rhetoric of Childhood,” Early American Literature, 49 (no. 3, 2014), 663–82. Tara Bynum, “Phillis Wheatley on Friendship,” Legacy, 31 (no. 1, 2014), 42–51.

[6]Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1857), 40.

[7]Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (1998).

Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Born in Bondage: Growing up Enslaved in the Antebellum South (2000).

[8]Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Maryemma Graham, Complete Poems of Frances E.W. Harper (1988).

[9]Katharine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane, eds., Who Writes for Black Children? African American Children’s Literature before 1900 (2017).
Mary Niall Mitchell, Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery, American History and Culture (2008). Martha S. Jones, All Bound up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830–1900 (2009). Chanta Haywood, “Constructing Childhood: The ‘Christian Recorder’ and Literature for Black Children, 1854–1865,” African American Review, 36 (Nov. 2003), 417–28. Crystal Lynn Webster, “In Pursuit of Autonomous Womanhood: Nineteenth-Century Black Motherhood in the U.S. North,” Slavery & Abolition, 38 (April 2017), 425–40.

[10]Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual emancipation law declared African American children be placed into indentured servitude until age 28. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860 (1997), 72.

[11]Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005), 223.

[12]Crystal Webster, "Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: Northern African American Children's Cultural and Political Resistance, 1780–1861" (Phd Diss., 2017), 1071. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations_2/1071.

[13]Anna Mae Duane, Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation (2020)

[14]Britt Rusert, Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (2017). Nazera Wright, Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century (2016).

[15]Geoff K. Ward, The Black Child-Savers: Racial Democracy and Juvenile Justice (2012). Tera Eva Agyepong, The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicago’s Juvenile Justice System, 1899–1945 (2018).

[16]Lindsey Elizabeth Jones, “‘The Most Unprotected of All Human Beings’: Black Girls, State Violence, and the Limits of Protection in Jim Crow Virginia,” Souls, 20 (Jan. 2018), 14–37.

[17]Talitha L. LeFlouria, Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, Justice, Power, and Politics (2015), 98.

[18]W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920), 204

[19]Michelle H. Phillips, “The Children of Double Consciousness: From ‘The Souls of Black Folk to the Brownies’’ Book",’” PMLA, 128 (no. 3, 2013), 590–607.

[20]Lakisha Michelle Simmons, Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (2015).

[21]Gerald Markowitz, Children, Race, and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s Northside Center (2017).

[22]Katharine Capshaw, Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks (2014).

[23]Aimee Meredith Cox, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (2015). Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games (2019).

[24]Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia Blake, and Thalia González, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” Center of Poverty and Inequality, Georgetown Law (2017), 4.

[25]For texts that examine black girls as part of studies of black women’s history see Stephanie M. H Camp, Closer to Freedom Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004). Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, Society and the Sexes in the Modern World Series (2008). Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (1997). Sasha Turner, Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing and Slavery in Jamaica (2017). Jennifer L Morgan, Laboring Women Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2011). Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (2016.) Deborah G. White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1999).

[26]LaKisha Michelle Simmons, Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (2015). Marcia Chatelain, South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration (2015). Wright, Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century.

[27]Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011).

[28]Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, 17 (Summer 1987), 64–81. Saidiya V. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019). See also Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (2016). Corinne T. Field, Tammy-Charelle Owens, Marcia Chatelain, Lakisha Simmons, Aboseded George, and Rhian Keyse, “The History of Black Girlhood: Recent Innovations and Future Directions.” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 9 (no. 3, 2016), 383–401.

[29] "Special Issue: Gendering the Carceral State: African American Women, History, and Criminal Justice," Journal of African American History, 100 ( Summer 2015). Global History of Black Girlhood Conference, University of Virginia, 2017. Childhoods of Color Conference, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sept 2019.

[30]Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140 (1989), 139–67. Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” The American Historical Review, 91 (no. 5, 1986), 1053–75. A number of scholars are working in this field but have yet to publish. Their research contributed to the production of this essay including: Julia Charles, Kelli Racine Coles, Crystal Donkor, Jacinta Saffold, Sam White, and scholars of the History of Black Girlhood Network.


Children and adolescents Edit

The diagnosis of PTSD was originally developed for adults who had suffered from a single-event trauma, such as rape, or a traumatic experience during a war. [12] However, the situation for many children is quite different. Children can suffer chronic trauma such as maltreatment, family violence, dysfunction, and or a disruption in attachment to their primary caregiver. [13] In many cases, it is the child's caregiver who causes the trauma. [12] The diagnosis of PTSD does not take into account how the developmental stages of children may affect their symptoms and how trauma can affect a child's development. [12]

The term "developmental trauma disorder" (DTD) has been proposed as the childhood equivalent of C-PTSD. [13] This developmental form of trauma places children at risk for developing psychiatric and medical disorders. [13] Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains DTD as numerous encounters with interpersonal trauma such as physical assault, sexual assault, violence or death. It can also be brought on by subjective events such as abandonment, betrayal, defeat or shame. [14]

Repeated traumatization during childhood leads to symptoms that differ from those described for PTSD. [14] Cook and others describe symptoms and behavioural characteristics in seven domains: [15] [1]

  • Attachment – "problems with relationship boundaries, lack of trust, social isolation, difficulty perceiving and responding to others' emotional states"
  • Biology – "sensory-motor developmental dysfunction, sensory-integration difficulties, somatization, and increased medical problems"
  • Affect or emotional regulation – "poor affect regulation, difficulty identifying and expressing emotions and internal states, and difficulties communicating needs, wants, and wishes"
  • Dissociation – "amnesia, depersonalization, discrete states of consciousness with discrete memories, affect, and functioning, and impaired memory for state-based events"
  • Behavioural control – "problems with impulse control, aggression, pathological self-soothing, and sleep problems"
  • Cognition – "difficulty regulating attention problems with a variety of 'executive functions' such as planning, judgement, initiation, use of materials, and self-monitoring difficulty processing new information difficulty focusing and completing tasks poor object constancy problems with 'cause-effect' thinking and language developmental problems such as a gap between receptive and expressive communication abilities."
  • Self-concept – "fragmented and disconnected autobiographical narrative, disturbed body image, low self-esteem, excessive shame, and negative internal working models of self".

Adults Edit

Adults with C-PTSD have sometimes experienced prolonged interpersonal traumatization beginning in childhood, rather than, or as well as, in adulthood. These early injuries interrupt the development of a robust sense of self and of others. Because physical and emotional pain or neglect was often inflicted by attachment figures such as caregivers or older siblings, these individuals may develop a sense that they are fundamentally flawed and that others cannot be relied upon. [10] [16] This can become a pervasive way of relating to others in adult life, described as insecure attachment. This symptom is neither included in the diagnosis of dissociative disorder nor in that of PTSD in the current DSM-5 (2013). Individuals with Complex PTSD also demonstrate lasting personality disturbances with a significant risk of revictimization. [17]

Six clusters of symptoms have been suggested for diagnosis of C-PTSD: [18] [19]

  • Alterations in regulation of affect and impulses
  • Alterations in attention or consciousness
  • Alterations in self-perception
  • Alterations in relations with others
  • Alterations in systems of meaning. [19]

Experiences in these areas may include: [7] : 199–122 [20]

    , including experiences such as persistent dysphoria, chronic suicidal preoccupation, self-injury, explosive or extremely inhibited anger (may alternate), and compulsive or extremely inhibited sexuality (may alternate).
  • Variations in consciousness, such as amnesia or improved recall for traumatic events, episodes of dissociation, depersonalization/derealization, and reliving experiences (either in the form of intrusive PTSD symptoms or in ruminative preoccupation).
  • Changes in self-perception, such as a sense of helplessness or paralysis of initiative, shame, guilt and self-blame, a sense of defilement or stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings (may include a sense of specialness, utter aloneness, a belief that no other person can understand, or a feeling of nonhuman identity).
  • Varied changes in perception of the perpetrators, such as a preoccupation with the relationship with a perpetrator (including a preoccupation with revenge), an unrealistic attribution of total power to a perpetrator (though the individual's assessment may be more realistic than the clinician's), idealization or paradoxical gratitude, a sense of a special or supernatural relationship with a perpetrator, and acceptance of a perpetrator's belief system or rationalizations.
  • Alterations in relations with others, such as isolation and withdrawal, disruption in intimate relationships, a repeated search for a rescuer (may alternate with isolation and withdrawal), persistent distrust, and repeated failures of self-protection.
  • Changes in systems of meaning, such as a loss of sustaining faith and a sense of hopelessness and despair.

C-PTSD was under consideration for inclusion in the DSM-IV but was not included when the DSM-IV was published in 1994. [7] Neither was it included in the DSM-5. Post traumatic stress disorder continues to be listed as a disorder. [21]

Differential diagnosis Edit

Post-traumatic stress disorder Edit

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was included in the DSM-III (1980), mainly due to the relatively large numbers of American combat veterans of the Vietnam War who were seeking treatment for the lingering effects of combat stress. In the 1980s, various researchers and clinicians suggested that PTSD might also accurately describe the sequelae of such traumas as child sexual abuse and domestic abuse. [22] However, it was soon suggested that PTSD failed to account for the cluster of symptoms that were often observed in cases of prolonged abuse, particularly that which was perpetrated against children by caregivers during multiple childhood and adolescent developmental stages. Such patients were often extremely difficult to treat with established methods. [22]

PTSD descriptions fail to capture some of the core characteristics of C-PTSD. These elements include captivity, psychological fragmentation, the loss of a sense of safety, trust, and self-worth, as well as the tendency to be revictimized. Most importantly, there is a loss of a coherent sense of self: this loss, and the ensuing symptom profile, most pointedly differentiates C-PTSD from PTSD. [7] : 199–122

C-PTSD is also characterized by attachment disorder, particularly the pervasive insecure, or disorganized-type attachment. [23] DSM-IV (1994) dissociative disorders and PTSD do not include insecure attachment in their criteria. As a consequence of this aspect of C-PTSD, when some adults with C-PTSD become parents and confront their own children's attachment needs, they may have particular difficulty in responding sensitively especially to their infants' and young children's routine distress—such as during routine separations, despite these parents' best intentions and efforts. [24] Although the great majority of survivors do not abuse others, [25] this difficulty in parenting may have adverse repercussions for their children's social and emotional development if parents with this condition and their children do not receive appropriate treatment. [26] [27]

Thus, a differentiation between the diagnostic category of C-PTSD and that of PTSD has been suggested. C-PTSD better describes the pervasive negative impact of chronic repetitive trauma than does PTSD alone. [20] PTSD can exist alongside C-PTSD, however a sole diagnosis of PTSD often does not sufficiently encapsulate the breadth of symptoms experienced by those who have experienced prolonged traumatic experience, and therefore C-PTSD extends beyond the PTSD parameters. [10]

C-PTSD also differs from continuous traumatic stress disorder (CTSD), which was introduced into the trauma literature by Gill Straker (1987). [28] It was originally used by South African clinicians to describe the effects of exposure to frequent, high levels of violence usually associated with civil conflict and political repression. The term is also applicable to the effects of exposure to contexts in which gang violence and crime are endemic as well as to the effects of ongoing exposure to life threats in high-risk occupations such as police, fire and emergency services.

Traumatic grief Edit

Traumatic grief [29] [30] [31] [32] or complicated mourning [33] are conditions [34] where both trauma and grief coincide. There are conceptual links between trauma and bereavement since loss of a loved one is inherently traumatic. [35] If a traumatic event was life-threatening, but did not result in a death, then it is more likely that the survivor will experience post-traumatic stress symptoms. If a person dies, and the survivor was close to the person who died, then it is more likely that symptoms of grief will also develop. When the death is of a loved one, and was sudden or violent, then both symptoms often coincide. This is likely in children exposed to community violence. [36] [37]

For C-PTSD to manifest traumatic grief, the violence would occur under conditions of captivity, loss of control and disempowerment, coinciding with the death of a friend or loved one in life-threatening circumstances. This again is most likely for children and stepchildren who experience prolonged domestic or chronic community violence that ultimately results in the death of friends and loved ones. The phenomenon of the increased risk of violence and death of stepchildren is referred to as the Cinderella effect.

Similarities to and differentiation from borderline personality disorder Edit

C-PTSD may share some symptoms with both PTSD and borderline personality disorder. [38] However, there is enough evidence to also differentiate C-PTSD from borderline personality disorder.

It may help to understand the intersection of attachment theory with C-PTSD and BPD if one reads the following opinion of Bessel A. van der Kolk together with an understanding drawn from a description of BPD:

Uncontrollable disruptions or distortions of attachment bonds precede the development of post-traumatic stress syndromes. People seek increased attachment in the face of danger. Adults, as well as children, may develop strong emotional ties with people who intermittently harass, beat, and, threaten them. The persistence of these attachment bonds leads to confusion of pain and love. Trauma can be repeated on behavioural, emotional, physiologic, and neuroendocrinologic levels. Repetition on these different levels causes a large variety of individual and social suffering.

However, C-PTSD and BPD have been found by researchers to be completely distinctive disorders with different features. Notably, C-PTSD is not a personality disorder. Those with C-PTSD do not fear abandonment or have unstable patterns of relations rather, they withdraw. There are distinct and notably large differences between BPD and C-PTSD and while there are some similarities – predominantly in terms of issues with attachment (though this plays out in completely different ways) and trouble regulating strong emotional affects (often feel pain vividly) – the disorders are completely different in nature [ citation needed ] . Most compellingly, C-PTSD is always a response to trauma rather than a personality disorder.

While the individuals in the BPD reported many of the symptoms of PTSD and CPTSD, the BPD class was clearly distinct in its endorsement of symptoms unique to BPD. The RR ratios presented in Table 5 revealed that the following symptoms were highly indicative of placement in the BPD rather than the CPTSD class: (1) frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, (2) unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation, (3) markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self, and (4) impulsiveness. Given the gravity of suicidal and self-injurious behaviors, it is important to note that there were also marked differences in the presence of suicidal and self-injurious behaviors with approximately 50% of individuals in the BPD class reporting this symptom but much fewer and an equivalent number doing so in the CPTSD and PTSD classes (14.3 and 16.7%, respectively). The only BPD symptom that individuals in the BPD class did not differ from the CPTSD class was chronic feelings of emptiness, suggesting that in this sample, this symptom is not specific to either BPD or CPTSD and does not discriminate between them.

Overall, the findings indicate that there are several ways in which Complex PTSD and BPD differ, consistent with the proposed diagnostic formulation of CPTSD. BPD is characterized by fears of abandonment, unstable sense of self, unstable relationships with others, and impulsive and self-harming behaviors. In contrast, in CPTSD as in PTSD, there was little endorsement of items related to instability in self-representation or relationships. Self-concept is likely to be consistently negative and relational difficulties concern mostly avoidance of relationships and sense of alienation. [39]

In addition 25% of those diagnosed with BPD have no known history of childhood neglect or abuse and individuals are six times as likely to develop BPD if they have a relative who was so diagnosed [ citation needed ] compared to those who do not. One conclusion is that there is a genetic predisposition to BPD unrelated to trauma. Researchers conducting a longitudinal investigation of identical twins found that "genetic factors play a major role in individual differences of borderline personality disorder features in Western society." [40] A 2014 study published in European Journal of Psychotraumatology was able to compare and contrast C-PTSD, PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder and found that it could distinguish between individual cases of each and when it was co-morbid, arguing for a case of separate diagnoses for each. [39] BPD may be confused with C-PTSD by some without proper knowledge of the two conditions because those with BPD also tend to suffer from PTSD or to have some history of trauma.

In Trauma and Recovery, Herman expresses the additional concern that patients who suffer from C-PTSD frequently risk being misunderstood as inherently 'dependent', 'masochistic', or 'self-defeating', comparing this attitude to the historical misdiagnosis of female hysteria. [7] However, those who develop C-PTSD do so as a result of the intensity of the traumatic bond – in which someone becomes tightly biolo-chemically bound to someone who abuses them and the responses they learned to survive, navigate and deal with the abuse they suffered then become automatic responses, imbedded in their personality over the years of trauma – a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. [41]

While standard evidence-based treatments may be effective for treating post traumatic stress disorder, treating complex PTSD often involves addressing interpersonal relational difficulties and a different set of symptoms which make it more challenging to treat. According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs:

The current PTSD diagnosis often does not fully capture the severe psychological harm that occurs with prolonged, repeated trauma. People who experience chronic trauma often report additional symptoms alongside formal PTSD symptoms, such as changes in their self-concept and the way they adapt to stressful events. [42]

The utility of PTSD-derived psychotherapies for assisting children with C-PTSD is uncertain. This area of diagnosis and treatment calls for caution in use of the category C-PTSD. Dr. Julian Ford and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk have suggested that C-PTSD may not be as useful a category for diagnosis and treatment of children as a proposed category of developmental trauma disorder (DTD). [43] : 60 According to Courtois & Ford, for DTD to be diagnosed it requires a

history of exposure to early life developmentally adverse interpersonal trauma such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, violence, traumatic losses of other significant disruption or betrayal of the child's relationships with primary caregivers, which has been postulated as an etiological basis for complex traumatic stress disorders. Diagnosis, treatment planning and outcome are always relational. [43]

Since C-PTSD or DTD in children is often caused by chronic maltreatment, neglect or abuse in a care-giving relationship the first element of the biopsychosocial system to address is that relationship. This invariably involves some sort of child protection agency. This both widens the range of support that can be given to the child but also the complexity of the situation, since the agency's statutory legal obligations may then need to be enforced.

A number of practical, therapeutic and ethical principles for assessment and intervention have been developed and explored in the field: [43] : 67

  • Identifying and addressing threats to the child's or family's safety and stability are the first priority.
  • A relational bridge must be developed to engage, retain and maximize the benefit for the child and caregiver.
  • Diagnosis, treatment planning and outcome monitoring are always relational (and) strengths based.
  • All phases of treatment should aim to enhance self-regulation competencies.
  • Determining with whom, when and how to address traumatic memories.
  • Preventing and managing relational discontinuities and psychosocial crises.

Adults Edit

Trauma Recovery Model - Judith Herman Edit

Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, in her book, Trauma and Recovery, proposed that a complex trauma recovery model that occurs in three stages:

  1. establishing safety,
  2. remembrance and mourning for what was lost,
  3. reconnecting with community and more broadly, society.

Herman believes recovery can only occur within a healing relationship and only if the survivor is empowered by that relationship. This healing relationship need not be romantic or sexual in the colloquial sense of "relationship", however, and can also include relationships with friends, co-workers, one's relatives or children, and the therapeutic relationship. [7]

Complex trauma means complex reactions and this leads to complex treatments. [need reference] Hence, treatment for C-PTSD requires a multi-modal approach. [1]

It has been suggested that treatment for complex PTSD should differ from treatment for PTSD by focusing on problems that cause more functional impairment than the PTSD symptoms. These problems include emotional dysregulation, dissociation, and interpersonal problems. [23] Six suggested core components of complex trauma treatment include: [1]

  1. Safety
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Self-reflective information processing
  4. Traumatic experiences integration
  5. Relational engagement
  6. Positive affect enhancement

The above components can be conceptualized as a model with three phases. Every case will not be the same, but one can expect the first phase to consist of teaching adequate coping strategies and addressing safety concerns. The next phase would focus on decreasing avoidance of traumatic stimuli and applying coping skills learned in phase one. The care provider may also begin challenging assumptions about the trauma and introducing alternative narratives about the trauma. The final phase would consist of solidifying what has previously been learned and transferring these strategies to future stressful events. [44]

Neuroscientific and Trauma Informed Interventions Edit

In practice, the forms of treatment and intervention varies from individual to individual since there is a wide spectrum of childhood experiences of developmental trauma and symptomatology and not all survivors respond positively, uniformly, to the same treatment. Therefore, treatment is generally tailored to the individual. [45] Recent neuroscientific research has shed some light on the impact that severe childhood abuse and neglect (trauma) has on a child's developing brain, specifically as it relates to the development in brain structures, function and connectivity among children from infancy to adulthood. This understanding of the neurophysiological underpinning of complex trauma phenomena is what currently is referred to in the field of traumatology as 'trauma informed' which has become the rationale which has influenced the development of new treatments specifically targeting those with childhood developmental trauma. [46] [47] Dr. Martin Teicher, a Harvard psychiatrist and researcher, has suggested that the development of specific complex trauma related symptomatology (and in fact the development of many adult onset psychopathologies) may be connected to gender differences and at what stage of childhood development trauma, abuse or neglect occurred. [46] For example, it is well established that the development of dissociative identity disorder among women is often associated with early childhood sexual abuse.

Use of Evidence-based Treatment and Its Limitations Edit

One of the current challenges faced by many survivors of complex trauma (or developmental trauma disorder) is support for treatment since many of the current therapies are relatively expensive and not all forms of therapy or intervention are reimbursed by insurance companies who use evidence-based practice as a criteria for reimbursement. Cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy are well established forms of evidence-based intervention. These treatments are approved and endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the Veteran's Administration.

While standard evidence-based treatments may be effective for treating standard post traumatic stress disorder, treating Complex PTSD often involves addressing interpersonal relational difficulties and a different set of symptoms which make it more challenging to treat. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges,

the current PTSD diagnosis often does not fully capture the severe psychological harm that occurs with prolonged, repeated trauma. People who experience chronic trauma often report additional symptoms alongside formal PTSD symptoms, such as changes in their self-concept and the way they adapt to stressful events. [48]

For example, "Limited evidence suggests that predominantly [Cognitive behavioral therapy] CBT [evidence-based] treatments are effective, but do not suffice to achieve satisfactory end states, especially in Complex PTSD populations." [49]

Treatment Challenges Edit

It is widely acknowledged by those who work in the trauma field that there is no one single, standard, 'one size fits all' treatment for complex PTSD. There is also no clear consensus regarding the best treatment among the greater mental health professional community which included clinical psychologists, social workers, licensed therapists MFTs) and psychiatrists. Although most trauma neuroscientifically informed practitioners understand the importance of utilizing a combination of both 'top down' and 'bottom up' interventions as well as including somatic interventions (sensorimotor psychotherapy or somatic experiencing or yoga) for the purposes of processing and integrating trauma memories.

Survivors with complex trauma often struggle to find a mental health professional who is properly trained in trauma informed practices. They can also be challenging to receive adequate treatment and services to treat a mental health condition which is not universally recognized or well understood by general practitioners.

Dr. Allistair and Dr. Hull echo the sentiment of many other trauma neuroscience researchers (including Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and Dr. Bruce D. Perry) who argue:

Complex presentations are often excluded from studies because they do not fit neatly into the simple nosological categorisations required for research power. This means that the most severe disorders are not studied adequately and patients most affected by early trauma are often not recognised by services. Both historically and currently, at the individual as well as the societal level, "dissociation from the acknowledgement of the severe impact of childhood abuse on the developing brain leads to inadequate provision of services. Assimilation into treatment models of the emerging affective neuroscience of adverse experience could help to redress the balance by shifting the focus from top-down regulation to bottom-up, body-based processing." [50]

Complex post trauma stress disorder is a long term mental health condition which is often difficult and relatively expensive to treat and often requires several years of psychotherapy, modes of intervention and treatment by highly skilled, mental health professionals who specialize in trauma informed modalities designed to process and integrate childhood trauma memories for the purposes of mitigating symptoms and improving the survivor's quality of life. Delaying therapy for people with complex PTSD, whether intentionally or not, can exacerbate the condition. [51]

Recommended treatment modalities and interventions Edit

There is no one treatment which has been designed specifically for use with the adult complex PTSD population (with the exception of component based psychotherapy [52] ) there are many therapeutic interventions used by mental health professionals to treat post traumatic stress disorder. As of February 2017, the American Psychological Association PTSD Guideline Development Panel (GDP) strongly recommends the following for the treatment of PTSD: [53]

    (CBT) and trauma focused CBT
  1. cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
  2. cognitive therapy (CT) (PE)

The American Psychological Association also conditionally recommends [54]

While these treatments have been recommended, there is still on-going debate regarding the best and most efficacious treatment for complex PTSD. Many commonly used treatments are considered complementary or alternative since there still is a lack of research to classify these approaches as evidenced based. Some of these additional interventions and modalities include:

Arguments Against Complex PTSD Diagnosis Edit

Though acceptance of the idea of complex PTSD has increased with mental health professionals, the fundamental research required for the proper validation of a new disorder is insufficient as of 2013. [69] The disorder was proposed under the name DES-NOS (Disorder of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified) for inclusion in the DSM-IV but was rejected by members of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) committee of the American Psychiatric Association for lack of sufficient diagnostic validity research. Chief among the stated limitations was a study which showed that 95% of individuals who could be diagnosed with the proposed DES-NOS were also diagnosable with PTSD, raising questions about the added usefulness of an additional disorder. [18] Following the failure of DES-NOS to gain formal recognition in the DSM-IV, the concept was re-packaged for children and adolescents and given a new name, developmental trauma disorder. [70] Supporters of DTD appealed to the developers of the DSM-5 to recognize DTD as a new disorder. Just as the developers of DSM-IV refused to included DES-NOS, the developers of DSM-5 refused to include DTD due to a perceived lack of sufficient research.

One of the main justifications offered for this proposed disorder has been that the current system of diagnosing PTSD plus comorbid disorders does not capture the wide array of symptoms in one diagnosis. [10] Because individuals who suffered repeated and prolonged traumas often show PTSD plus other concurrent psychiatric disorders, some researchers have argued that a single broad disorder such as C-PTSD provides a better and more parsimonious diagnosis than the current system of PTSD plus concurrent disorders. [71] Conversely, an article published in BioMed Central has posited there is no evidence that being labeled with a single disorder leads to better treatment than being labeled with PTSD plus concurrent disorders. [72]

Complex PTSD embraces a wider range of symptoms relative to PTSD, specifically emphasizing problems of emotional regulation, negative self-concept, and interpersonal problems. Diagnosing complex PTSD can imply that this wider range of symptoms is caused by traumatic experiences, rather than acknowledging any pre-existing experiences of trauma which could lead to a higher risk of experiencing future traumas. It also asserts that this wider range of symptoms and higher risk of traumatization are related by hidden confounder variables and there is no causal relationship between symptoms and trauma experiences. [72] In the diagnosis of PTSD, the definition of the stressor event is narrowly limited to life-threatening events, with the implication that these are typically sudden and unexpected events. Complex PTSD vastly widened the definition of potential stressor events by calling them adverse events, and deliberating dropping reference to life-threatening, so that experiences can be included such as neglect, emotional abuse, or living in a war zone without having specifically experienced life-threatening events. [9] By broadening the stressor criterion, an article published by the Child and Youth Care Forum claims this has led to confusing differences between competing definitions of complex PTSD, undercutting the clear operationalization of symptoms seen as one of the successes of the DSM. [73]

One of the primary arguments for a new disorder has been the claim that individuals who experience complex post traumatic stress symptomatology are often misdiagnosed, and as a consequence may be given inappropriate or inadequate treatment interventions. [ citation needed ]

The movement to recognize complex PTSD has been criticized for approaching the process of diagnostic validation backwards. The typical process for validation of new disorders is to first publish case studies of individual patients who manifest all of these issues and clearly demonstrate how they are different from patients who experienced different types of traumas. [ citation needed ] There are no known case reports with prospective repeated assessments to clearly demonstrate that the alleged symptoms followed the adverse events. Instead, supporters of complex PTSD have pushed for recognition of a disorder before conducting any of the prospective repeated assessments that are needed. [74]

Bad Stats Drive Bad Policies

Such changes were helped along by flawed research, which tends to perpetuate itself in the press and the legislatures even after scholars correct it.

Take the oft-made claim that recidivism is much higher for sex offenders than for other kinds of criminals. "Research has firmly discredited this claim—it is in fact the opposite of the truth—yet it has proven almost indestructible, the perfect factoid upon which to fix unnamable fears," write Levine and Meiners. In 2002, for instance, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a decision (for McKune v. Lile) that the recidivism rate for "untreated [sex] offenders" may be as high as 80 percent. The actual number is debatable, but it is clearly far lower. So how did Kennedy arrive at that figure? He got it from a U.S. Department of Justice guide, which in turn cited a 1986 Psychology Today article that included no supporting evidence or documentation for the claim. And the article wasn't even about national recidivism statistics—it was about a single prison counseling program in Oregon.

"The false 'facts' stated in the opinion have since been relied upon repeatedly by other courts in their own constitutional decisions, thus infecting an entire field of law as well as policy making by legislative bodies," write Ira Mark Ellman and Tara Ellman in Constitutional Commentary, the University of Minnesota's law journal. Notably, they are frequently offered to justify "the increasingly harsh set of post-release collateral consequences imposed on" sex offenders.

Similarly, the case for mandatory arrest in domestic violence situations rested largely on a small study that supposedly showed that arrest deterred future abuse. Those results received a lot of media attention and were cited on statehouse floors. The study's author, Lawrence W. Sherman, went on to conduct five more studies on the issue, following thousands of domestic abuse cases. These times, his research suggested just the opposite: Arrests often escalated domestic violence. With a wider sample, Sherman concluded in 1992, it became clear that mandatory arrests "make as much sense as fighting fire with gasoline." Yet well "into the 1990s," Gruber writes, "states and localities adopted proarrest policies as if the replication studies did not exist."

Today, nonsense statistics about sex trafficking and campus rape have likewise proved stubbornly indifferent to debunking, giving rise to revived panics about forced prostitution and ruinous sex.

The rhetoric harkens back to Progressive Era narratives about shadowy male traffickers forcing innocent women and girls into prostitution. These "new abolitionists, like their old counterparts, regularly depicted sex slavery through lurid and racialized narratives and then simply applied the label to all prostitution," writes Gruber. They tell eroticized, sensationalistic tales about unambiguous victims, then mix these with statistics about sex work more broadly to create a distorted picture of the problem's scope.

Lately, this has led to laws like the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), the 2018 legislation that made hosting online sex ads a federal crime, and the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, the 2015 law that broadened the type of activities that count as "sex trafficking," increased the penalties for these activities, lowered evidentiary standards, and otherwise made it harder for the accused to mount a defense.

From “Slaves of the State” to Imprisoned Citizens: Rethinking Civil Rights, Legal History, and Citizenship

At the heart of this untold narrative lies a debate over who deserved civic rights. This debate represented a major shift in American constitutional law. Prior to World War II the law considered inmates as slaves of the state, and courts at state and federal levels maintained a “hands-off” doctrine of nonintervention regarding the conditions of state captivity. The legal tradition that denied prisoners the ability to seek court-ordered intervention and relief has its origins in emancipation and the struggle over Reconstruction. While the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the private ownership of human beings, it expanded states' control over the lives and work of convicted criminals. This expansion was confirmed by the 1871 Virginia decision Ruffin v. Commonwealth, which ruled that convicted criminals are “for the time being a slave of the State…. He is civiliter mortuus and his estate, if he has any, is administered like that of a dead man.” Beginning in the 1960s, prisoner activists turned to section 1982 of the 1871 Civil Rights Act, which allowed citizens to sue states in federal court for violations of their constitutional rights. In their demands for constitutional protection, prisoners relied on the First Amendment's protection of free expression, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments' due process clauses, and the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The 1963 Illinois case over religious freedom for prisoners, Cooper v. Pate, found that prisoners could challenge the practices of prison officials in federal court. The 1964 Supreme Court decision on the case ignited a nationwide civil rights movement for inmates, doing for prisoners' rights what Brown v. Board of Education had done for education and civil rights ten years earlier. In the aftermath of Cooper v. Pate, the number of prisoners' rights suits dramatically increased from 218 in 1966 to almost 18,477 in 1984. Between 1970 and 1996 the number of prisoner civil rights lawsuits leaped an astonishing 400 percent. 9

Thanks to federal cases such as Cooper v. Pate, as well as escalating prisoner activism, southern state prison systems came under intense scrutiny after 1965. From 1965 to 1995, federal courts found that eight of the eleven states of the U.S. South had unconstitutional prison systems and ordered those state systems into federal receivership. Only four of the thirty-nine states outside the South (Alaska, Delaware, New Mexico, and Rhode Island) have been subject to a similar intervention from the federal courts. Individual prisons in nonsouthern states did come under court order, usually due to overcrowding, but federal courts declared few state prison systems outside the South unconstitutional. 10

Behind many of these landmark cases was a network of outside legal organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund ( naacp ldf ) and the American Civil Liberties Union, insisting that the struggle for prisoners' rights could not be separated from the civil rights movement. When forty-five freedom riders, including James Farmer, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and John Lewis, spent thirty-nine days incarcerated at Mississippi's Parchman Prison Farm, the link between civil rights and prisoners' rights was forged. Following the well-publicized incarceration of freedom riders at Parchman Prison, the naacp ldf and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under the Law formed what became known as the Farish Street Lawyers Group. From the confluence of civil rights and prisoners' rights came Gates v. Collier, a 1972 civil rights lawsuit for the prisoner Nazareth Gates filed by the attorney Roy Haber, who argued that Parchman Prison Farm was the “last vestige of state-sponsored slavery.” The federal court that heard the argument eventually dismantled the southern trustee system of Mississippi. Evaluating these cases as the bridge between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the prisoners' rights movement of the 1970s demonstrates that the civil rights struggle continued well beyond 1968 the cases also raise questions about post–civil rights era declension narratives. 11

Perhaps the most sweeping prisoners' rights case coming out of the South during the 1970s and 1980s was the Texas prisoner class-action civil rights lawsuit Ruiz v. Estelle. First filed in 1972, Ruiz v. Estelle was the culmination of an almost decade-long struggle between keeper and kept. It was a massive omnibus lawsuit demanding that Texas outlaw the practice of having inmates act as guards, and ordering the state to alleviate prison overcrowding, improve inmate health care, and grant inmates access to attorneys and legal representation. Central to the case, however, was the southern practice of dividing prison labor between those inmates who worked in the field and a group of select inmates who served the prison administration as convict guards, known as trustees or building tenders. The building tender (inmate trustee) system was a hierarchical labor regime that constituted a system of violence and domination relying on the economic incentives and deterrents of an internal prison economy, acts of sexual violence, and the power of racial hierarchy and brute physical force to maintain control, order, and discipline. It constructed a vicious sex trade in which building tenders were given the prison administration's tacit approval to use their power to rape other inmates and engage in the buying and selling of inmate bodies as a sexual commodity that signified cultural standing and societal power. 12

Building tenders drew their ranks from a racially segregated prison society, in which members of any of the three major racial classifications—blacks, whites, Mexicans—could become a building tender. White inmates, however, ruled the hierarchical building tender system in serving as lead building tenders: inmates with comprehensive power that derived from close working relationships with a top prison administrator. The prisoners' rights movement hoped to highlight, however, that the occurrence of state-orchestrated prison rape was accelerating because inmate trustee-guards were waging a social war of escalation with prisoners of color who rebelled against a white trustee–ruled prison. In a letter to Texas senator Chet Brooks the prisoner Michael Jewell explained how the accelerating power of inmate trustees created an atmosphere of sexual violence. “Every time I leave my cell,” he warned, “I do so with the feeling that I'm entering a jungle, and the beasts could spring from behind any bush. The building tenders here have created a situation wherein one cannot feel safe, where tension is so thick you can drive nails into it, where there is no peace, nor freedom from fear. We simply cannot live under such conditions.” When viewing such experiences through the lens of prisoners' rights and civil rights, historians should reevaluate prison rape as more than an expression of an individual's coercive power. By drawing on the voice of prisoners through legal testimonies and oral histories, historians can bring to light prisoners' claims that prison rape was a hidden but calculated political tool of the state used to silence the prisoners' rights movement and ensure comprehensive control. 13

Ruiz v. Estelle, which addressed state use of abusive convict guards, was at that time the largest and longest civil rights case in the history of American jurisprudence. The trial convened in October 1978 and adjourned in late December 1980, when Judge William Wayne Justice ruled in favor of the prisoners and declared the Texas prison system unconstitutional. At the heart of the case was a major shift in constitutional law and legal history. Ruiz v. Estelle also represented a social movement struggle over the internal and often-hidden world of prison society and its attendant powers of sexual rapaciousness, racial hierarchy, physical abuse, and prison labor.


Davis, David Brion. 1966. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

_______. 2006. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

El Hamel, Chouki. 2002. “Race, Slavery, and Islam in Maghribi Mediterranean Thought: The Question of the Haratin in Morocco.” Journal of North African Studies 7 (3): 29–52.

Eltis, David. 2000. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Hall, Bruce S. 2005. “The Question of “Race” in the Pre-colonial Southern Sahara.” Journal of North African Studies 10 (3–4): 339–367.

Ibn Butlan, Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Mukhtar b. al-Hasan b.‘Abdun. 1393/h-1973.“Risala Jami‘a li-funun nafi‘a fishira ’l-raqiq wa taqlib al-‘abid.” In Nawadir al-Makhtutat, N. 4, edited and with introduction by Abd al-Salam Harun, 2nd ed., vol. 1, 333–389. Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi and sons.

Lewis, Bernard. 1971. Race and Color in Islam. New York:Harper and Row.

_______1990. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lovejoy, Paul E. 2000. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Manning, Patrick. 1990. Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. Cambridge, U.K.:Cambridge University Press.

Miller, Joseph C., ed. 1999. Slavery and Slaving in World History: A Bibliography. 2 vols. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Williams, Eric. 1944. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Willis, John Ralph, ed. 1985. Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa. 2 vols. London: Cass.

Paul E. Lovejoy
Mariana P. Candido
Yacine Daddi Addoun

Stage 2: Legitimacy

Once a social group succeeds in turning a condition or behavior into a social problem, it usually tries to persuade the government (local, state, and/or federal) to take some action—spending and policymaking—to address the problem. As part of this effort, it tries to convince the government that its claims about the problem are legitimate—that they make sense and are supported by empirical (research-based) evidence. To the extent that the group succeeds in convincing the government of the legitimacy of its claims, government action is that much more likely to occur.


Berry, Dawn Bradley. 2000. The Domestic Violence Sourcebook: Everything You Need To Know. Los Angeles: Lowell House.

Buzawa, Carl G., and Eve S. Buzawa. 2003. Domestic Violence: The Criminal Justice Response. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Gosselin, Denise Kindschi. 2000. Heavy Hands: An Introduction to the Crimes of Domestic Violence. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC)."Domestic Violence." Available from http://www.ncvc.org/ncvc.

National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC). "Elder Victimization." Available from http://www.ncvc.org/ncvc.

National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). "Elder Abuse Prevalence and Incidence." Available from http://www.elderabusecenter.org/pdf/publication/FinalStatistics050331.pdf.

National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). "Trends in Elder Abuse in Domestic Settings." Availabler from http://www.elderabusecenter.org/pdf/basics/fact2.pdf.

National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). "Types of Elder Abuse in Domestic Settings." Available from http://www.elderabusecenter.org/pdf/basics/fact1.pdf.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "Child Maltreatment." Available from http://www.ncvc.org/ncvc.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "Children and Domestic Violence Facts." Available from http://www.ncadv.org/files/Children.pdf.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "Dating Violence Facts." Available from http://www.ncadv.org/files/DatingViolence.pdf.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "Domestic Violence Facts." Available from http://www.ncadv.org/files/DV_Facts.pdf.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence." Available from http://www.ncadv.org/files/SexualAssault.pdf.

Violence Against Women Act. Available from http://www.usdoj.gov/ovw/regulations.htm.

Wallace, Harvey. 2002. Family Violence: Legal, Medical and Social Perspectives. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.