Homoerotic Sexual Terrorism

This information and analysis was compiled elsewhere, not by me. The majority of the information comes from the thirteen-volume report of the Joint Select Committee established by Congress in 1871 to “inquire into the condition of affairs in the late insurrectionary states”.

“The Klan Report” contains dozens of accounts, many of them firsthand, of men and women of both races who were the objects of sexual terror. (If you are uncomfortable with descriptions and analysis of racial and sexual terrorism, you probably don’t want to read any further.)

The utility of the Report is further enhanced by the fact that testimony, substantial portions of which are confirmed by external sources, was elicited across a wide spectrum of southern society, from the humblest freedpeople to the most esteemed planters and politicians.

An illustrative example from one of South Carolina’s major Ku Klux Klan trials evokes something of the texture and meanings that may be gleaned from the historical record of these atrocities.

Arguing for the defense, Cyrus Melton seeks to vindicate his client by employing a familiar courtroom tactic – refuting guilt through emotive reference to the heinousness of the crime alleged. With studied disbelief, he queries “Was ravishing helpless women a part of this conspiracy?”

“We have had here, from women, details of the most disgusting character, put forward for the purpose of showing from this act that ravishing women was one of the purposes of this organization. Now, I ask you, do you believe it, and that there did exist upon the face of God’s earth an organization which would have among its purposes that of committing these gross outrages upon helpless women?”

While he plainly oversimplified the prosecution’s position for rhetorical effect, it is nonetheless true that the KKK and its imitators purposefully resorted not only to rape, but to an entire spectrum of sexual crime as a means of advancing their agenda. Whereas Melton depicts the “ravishing” of freedwomen as an unintended, even regrettable, consequence of klansmanship, I contend that sexual terror was in actuality among the KKK’s most starkly defining features, designedly effected to compromise the stability, resolve, and selfhood of the newly freed slaves at the same time it punished their white “accomplices” as traitors to their race, thereby denying them the privileges of color that would otherwise have accrued.

A. Group Sexualized Whipping

Of the thousands of physical assaults perpetrated by the Reconstruction-era Klan, whipping was by far the most commonplace.
Klansmen exercised little restraint in these attacks, subjecting men, women, and children of all ages and colors to brutal lashings that resulted in the deaths of many and serious injury to countless more.

While it would be an overstatement to assert that all, or even most, of these attacks were unambiguously sexual in nature, it is fair to say that even“ordinary” klan whippings often bore a distinctly sexualized cast.

Thus, when a Freedmen’s Bureau official describes a klan raid in which several freedpeople have been “taken from their beds at night and severely whipped and shamefully bruised,” there is every possibility that what is “shameful” is not merely the violence itself, but its implied sexualization.

Hannah Travis, an ex-slave intimately familiar with the ways of the Klan, describes an almost identical episode in which the nightriders pulled a pregnant woman from her bed and demanded that she dance while her husband helplessly looked on.’ Some attacks were more overtly sexual still. Thomas Settle provided testimony regarding an episode in which klansmen “took a young negro man who was in the house that night and whipped him, and compelled him to go through the form of sexual intercourse with one of the girls, whipping him at the same time,” all of this in the presence of the girl’s father.’

The sexualized nature of many klan whippings can be read most clearly by looking to the locus of punishment and the manner in which these chastisements were administered. Surveying what is known about the injured body, ample testimony suggests that klansmen frequently chose victims’ breasts and genitals as special targets of their enmity.” Exemplifying this method, Sally Hall and her two daughters were taken from their home and severely lashed, whereupon “one of them [was] made to exhibit her person whilst the fiends proceeded to inflict blows upon her private parts.”

In these and many other assaults, the objectives of chastisement were not realized through the generation of pain and fear alone; rather, the klans actively set out to degrade their victims, and regularly did so by employing methods laden with sexual overtones.

The category of whipping that is perhaps most indisputably sexualized involved forcibly stripping victims prior to or during a klan offensive, a tradition dating back to shaming practices in the plantation fields.

As the title of this thread suggestions, homo-erotic overtones overlayed these frequent experiences.

Caswell Holt, a North Carolina freedman, testified that a band of nightriders:

Q: I understood you to say that a colored woman was ravaged by the
Ku-Klux?
A: Yes. sir.
Q: Did you hear of any other case of that sort?
A: Oh, yes, several times. That has been very common. The case I spoke of was close by me, and that is the reason I spoke of it. It has got to be an old saying.
Q: You say it was common for the Ku-Klux to do that?
A: Yes, sir. They say that if the women tell anything about it, they will kill them.

In response to a question about the prevalence of rape in and around Rutherford County, North Carolina, state representative James M. Justice replied,

I was told by an old colored woman. and one entitled to credit. I think – her word, I think. would be believed by everybody who knows her – that some of her kinfolk who lived down in the country were in great trouble about things of that sort. She said that when the Ku-Klux had gone after a negro man in some places they had attempted, and in other places they had actually committed, rape upon colored women in the presence of their husbands. This old woman told it to me as a secret, for she said she was afraid to have it known, for fear they would kill her.’

A Freedmen’s Bureau agent thus recounted an extended KKK rampage in which participants traveled from Haysville, Georgia, towards Meriden, Louisiana, “stopping at all cabins on their route committing violence and maltreating women.”

In the intervening years, the klans conducted raids like this one throughout the former Confederacy, with freedwomen and girls their usual targets. Henry Willis provided testimony in an illustrative case involving a Klan-style attack on the homes of several freedpeople residing in Robertson County, Tennessee. After threatening sexual violence against Willis’s mother, the culprits turned instead to his twelve year-old sister, raping her “one after the other.”

Same-sex rape was common as well.

A Freedmen’s Bureau agent stationed in Columbia, Tennessee thus attested that one Mr. Thurman and his two sons had been taken from their home by “a squad of Ku Klux” and dragged deep into the woods “where they were shamefully abused, knocked about with pistols & clubs.”

The KKK likewise “maltreated” Preston Bush in the course of a raid upon the freedman’s home, and were said to have perpetrated a “similar outrage” against two other local freedmen.

Here, acts of same-sex sexual violence are best understood as occurring within a loosely heterosexual paradigm in which the victim is gendered female.

Treating other men “like women,” dominating them sexually, physically, and emotionally, was then, as now, a readily available means of humiliating a male enemy. Klansmen thus relied on rape and other sex crimes against men as a convenient and effective means of accomplishing their larger aims, but more clearly rape was a means of achieving group homoerotic sexual satisfaction.

C. Genital Torture and Mutilation

Whipping and rape were by no means the only forms of sexual terror employed by the klans; genital torture and mutilation also figured prominently among their methods.

Extant sources suggest that men and women, overwhelmingly black, were subjected to these abuses in roughly equal numbers.

Outrages of this sort persisted during the Civil War, when they were arbitrarily carried out by marauding soldiers from both camps and after, when they were executed with heightened intensity by the white supremacist klans.

It was with little hyperbole that Albion Tourgke’s “Fool” characterized Reconstruction as an era marred by:

“the mutilation of men and women in methods too shocking and barbarous to be recounted,” replete with tragic encounters that left freedmen “mutilated beyond description, tortured beyond conception,” some “mangled,” “despoiled of manhood!”

Numerous witnesses provided evidence of the klans’ peculiar fascination with the genitalia of freedmen.

…In multiple venues, he reported that a band of disguised men “gave [Trollinger] a thrashing and made him take out his privates and stick a knife through it. . . five or six times.”

…”The way they did him was, they tied him down on a log and took a buggytrace to him, and whipped one of his seed out and the other very nearly out.”

… the torture of a Jackson County freedman accused of cohabiting with a white woman:

“The colored man was taken out into the woods, a hole dug in the ground and a block buried in it, and his penis taken out, and a nail driven through it into the block; that a large butcher or cheese knife, as they call it, very sharp, was laid down by him, and lightwood piled around him and set on fire; the knife was put there so that he could cut [his penis] off and get away, or stay there and burn up. Doctor Swinney said that he cut it off and jumped out.”

A Georgia man recalled that klansmen had stripped, whipped, and genitally mutilated a number of poor whites of both sexes.

It may be tempting to dismiss so grotesque an attack as an isolated manifestation of personal depravity, but in reality it was a systemic homoerotic method carried out across the South during all of reconstruction.

D. Really Gay Lynchings

For all of its relentlessly sexual connotations, postbellum southern lynching has not traditionally been understood as a sex crime per se, but sexual transgressions, real and imagined, have been standard justifications for the crime since the antebellum era. Like other methods of sexualized violence purveyed by the Reconstruction klans, perpetrators as well as sympathetic bystanders could approach lynching as a sexual encounter.

These blood-drenched spectacles, with their defilement, desecration, and display of the oppositional body, are suffused with sexual meaning.

Though white men and black women were occasionally targeted by lynch mobs, the usual victim was a black man suddenly wrested from his home or, as often happened, forcibly removed from judicial custody.

He was frequently castrated by his assailants, reflecting what one southern historian has described as the “subconscious envy and sexual frustration” that animated the group homosocial practice.

In this respect, the lynch mob can be seen as enacting a metaphorical rape, one in which the feared black man is made to act “like a woman,” submitting to the superior will of his antagonists. As Trudier Harris perceptively argues, lynchings function as a “communal rape of the black man by the crowd which executes him. They violate him by exposing the most private parts of his body and by forcing him, finally, into ultimate submission to them.

A witness providing testimony in the lynching death of the freedman Nelson Harris conveyed that the victim had been castrated through casual reference to “the parts found.”

“He had been skinned. His skin was hanging over his neck, and his privates had been cut off and put in his mouth.”

When klansmen chose this method of lynching their antagonists, they became participants in the entirety of the spectacle, not just part of it, and that spectacle often included the studied exposure of the size, shape, and power of the mythological black penis. Let’s not forget the immense popularity of lynching postcards, photos, and souvenirs (including body parts).

Just as the prospect of sexual mutilation can be seen to permeate the entire exhibition, so too did sex itself, for in their quest to possess, inscribe, and finally obliterate the bodies of their victims, lynch mobs unwittingly revealed the awful coalescence of sexual rage, desire, frustration, and obsession that constrained them to act as they did.

E. Conclusions

In the immediate postwar years, and for some time thereafter, southern white men as a body underwent a crisis in masculinity that is essential to comprehending the seemingly irrepressible violence of Reconstruction.

That so much klan violence would assume a distinctly sexual cast is a reflection not only of the magnitude of these fears, but also of their deeply personal nature, driven as they were by a set of imperatives that included regenerating a white masculinity severely depleted by defeat in war, maintaining racial hierarchy in the face of freedpeople’s demands for access to the full benefits of citizenship, and, finally, reasserting the right of sexual property in women of both races.

Practices around the sexual control of people of color have continued to this day. We should look at the prison-rape epidemic as an extension of these practices – the control of black bodies and the sexual humiliation and torture that comes with white ‘judicial’ proceedings.

The mechanism that created white masculinity in Reconstruction, racialized punishment by homoerotic sexual torture, has fundamentally not changed but embedded itself in the systems of ‘justice’ practiced by the American state.

You have to understand the origins of the Prison system to see this in action. After Reconstruction, the prison system underwent a dramatic transformation, greatly increasing in size and population, and shifting in demographic to focus predominately on former slaves.

Prisons were built in the South as part of the backlash to Black Reconstruction and as a mechanism to re-enslave Black workers. In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the racial and economic relationship of slavery.

Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison illustrates this history best. In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working the land — a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.

The Wheel of’ Servitude: Black Forced Labor After Slavery by D.A. Novak:

Prison labor became a more significant part of modern capitalism during Reconstruction because the Civil War made immigration to America dangerous, left the U.S. economically devastated, and deprived capitalism of its lucrative slave labor. One of the responses to these crises was to build more prisons and then to lease the labor of prisoners, many of whom were ex-slaves, to labor-hungry capitalists.

The system provided revenue for the state and profits for plantation owners. In 1878, Georgia leased out 1,239 prisoners, and all but 115 were African American.

Much like the system of slavery from which it emerged, convict leasing was a violent and abusive system. The death rate of prisoners leased to railroad companies between 1877 and 1879 was 16 percent in Mississippi, 25 percent in Arkansas, and 45 percent in South Carolina.

When you realize that the Prison System is an extension of Slavery, then it makes sense that the system of punishment used to defend slavery (racialized punishment by sexual torture) would be integrated into the Prison system!

Black men are 1. profiled, 2. harassed, 3. arrested, 4. charged, 5. found guilty, 6. sentenced, and 7. denied parole at astronomically higher rates based on popular racist stereotypes and inequality.

They are then sentenced to prisons by white juries where rape is understood to be part of the punishment. Those rapes are often coordinated by white guards and ignored by white prison authorities.

In what way is that fundamentally different from a lynching?

In fact, this model has become so ingrained in white masculinity that almost all forms of white male violence recreate racialized punishment by sexual torture, including fraternity hazing and military campaigns.

The incidents at Abu Ghraib exemplify this trend. Male detainees were subject to vigilante sexual torture as ‘justice’ for their crimes against white society, including ‘Sodomy with a broomstick and chemical light, rape of men and women, humiliation and nude torture, stacking naked men against eachother in homoerotic display, and …

As Mr Mohamed told the UK Daily Mail, “they cut off my clothes with some kind of doctor’s scalpel. I was totally naked…. One of them took my penis in his hand and began to make cuts. He did it once, and they stood still for maybe a minute, catching my reaction.

“I was in agony, crying, trying desperately to suppress myself, but I was screaming…. They must have done this 20 to 30 times in maybe two hours…. They cut all over my private parts.”

This form of torture, Mr. Mohamed told David Cole of the Daily Mail, was repeated many times over the next 15 months.

How can we not immediately think of the lynchings and mutilations of the Reconstruction era, or the rape that occurs in American prisons every day?

One could argue that, similar to the fall of the Confederacy, 9/11 had the effect of socially undermining the superiority of White Men, who then had to re-affirm that superiority by feminizing and homoerotically torturing Arab men.

But, more importantly, it’s clear that ‘racialized punishment by homoerotic sexual torture’ has become one of the defining, accepted, popular characteristics of white male “justice” in America since it first came to popularity through the KKK.

If you have, against all odds, finished reading this and would like more background, this paper on sexualized racism and gendered violence is a good place to start.

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