Consent in the Presence of Force

Sexual Violence and Black Women's Survival in Antebellum New Orleans

By Emily A. Owens

244 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 halftones, 4 maps, notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7213-7
    Published: January 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7051-5
    Published: January 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7052-2
    Published: December 2022
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5596-1
    Published: December 2022

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Awards & distinctions

2023 Gloria E. AnzaldĂşa Book Prize, National Women's Studies Association

Finalist, 2024 Association for the Study of African American Life and History Book Prize

In histories of enslavement and in Black women's history, coercion looms large in any discussion of sex and sexuality. At a time when sexual violence against Black women was virtually unregulated—even normalized—a vast economy developed specifically to sell the sexual labor of Black women. In this vividly rendered book, Emily A. Owens wrestles with the question of why white men paid notoriously high prices to gain sexual access to the bodies of enslaved women to whom they already had legal and social access.

Owens centers the survival strategies and intellectual labor of Black women enslaved in New Orleans to unravel the culture of violence they endured, in which slaveholders obscured "the presence of force" with arrangements that included gifts and money. Owens's storytelling highlights that the classic formulation of rape law that requires "the presence of force" and "the absence of consent" to denote a crime was in fact a key legal fixture that packaged predation as pleasure and produced, rather than prevented, violence against Black women. Owens dramatically reorients our understanding of enslaved women's lives as well as of the nature of violence in the entire venture of racial slavery in the U.S. South. Unsettling the idea that consent is necessarily incompatible with structural and interpersonal violence, this history shows that when sex is understood as a transaction, women are imagined as responsible for their own violation.

About the Author

Emily A. Owens is David and Michelle Ebersman Assistant Professor of History at Brown University.

For more information about Emily A. Owens, visit the Author Page.


"In Consent in the Presence of Force, Owens exactingly demonstrates the gaping and lingering question in the historiography of gender and slavery—how do we read sexual relations between enslaved women and white men beyond the failing dichotomy of consent and coercion? This question has been raised, theorized, and analyzed without a satisfying resolution that approximates the actual legal, social, and affective conditions of female-gendered enslavement. Owens offers completely new ways to account for Black women's subtle, but not less violent, vulnerability to sexual danger in the antebellum South."—Marisa J. Fuentes, author of Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive

"A necessary and highly anticipated work that dramatically upends current conceptions of sexual violence. Owens has given us a book that both crucially advances the historical literature and supersedes that historiography with broader scholarly and political reverberations."—Sarah Haley, author of No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity