Practices of Sexual Terrorism in the Reconstruction South


Lisa Cardyn, read by Catherine Clinton


Not long ago audiences worldwide were shocked to learn of the grotesque tortures perpetrated by American military and civilian personnel on inmates at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Especially provocative was the powerful photographic and testimonial evidence revealing the extent to which those involved relied on sexualized techniques to dominate their captives. Curiously, at a time when we as a nation are more acutely aware than ever of out vulnerability to terrorist attacks from abroad, recognition of this abiding and insidious domestic peril is slight at best and appreciation of its historical antecedents practically nonexistent. Yet from the European "conquest" of Native America to the staggering rates of child molestation in the present day, examples of homegrown sexual terrorism are abundant. None, however, better exemplifies its profound consequences and enduring implications than the white supremacist klans that emerged in the predominantly Christian South from the ashes of the U.S. Civil War. These groups employed disparate methods-most prominently whipping, rape, lynching, genital torture and mutilation-to wield sex as an instrument of terror designed to traumatize a despised population into submission. Assailing freed people and their allies on the basis of alleged sexual, social, or political transgressions, klansmen thus endeavored to deny victims' humanity, thwart their individual and collective aspirations, and shackle African Americans to a status that was strikingly reminiscent of bondage. Analogous to its deployment in more recent contexts, sexual violence systematically applied proved a remarkably efficient means of achieving its intended result: in this instance, the reenshrinement of white male supremacy. Much as the trauma of slavery affected those well beyond its immediate grasp, so too have the ramifications of Klan terror persisted, contributing in subtle yet significant ways to the perpetuation of racial and gender hierarchy.