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The Limits of “Transgression”: Black Women’s Sexual Labor and the Law in New Orleans, 1805-1860

Fri, Nov 14, 2:30 to 3:45pm, PRCC, 102-B


This paper explores the history of commercial sex in antebellum New Orleans in order to reveal the limits of “transgression” as a feminist historical framework. I show the ways that love, consent, and transgression enter the historiography as frameworks for understanding arrangements in which women of color sold sex and companionship to white men in exchange for money, housing, and status. I argue that “love,” “consent” and “transgression” act as alibis—in the archive and in the historiography—for the ubiquity of violence in slavery, and smuggle in a notion of agency that occludes the complex ways that black women sexual laborers negotiated power. This paper challenges this constellation of terms by uncovering the legal apparatus that effectively suspended the categories of rape and consent for women of color, throwing the poles of rape and consent (pain and love, normativity and transgression) into crisis.