Unless otherwise indicated, all OI books are distributed by The University of North Carolina Press.

Rape and Sexual Power in Early America

Sharon Block

Paper: 978-0-8078-5761-8 ($23.00)

Copyright 2006
University of North Carolina Press

In a comprehensive examination of rape and its prosecution in British America between 1700 and 1820, Sharon Block exposes the dynamics of sexual power on which colonial and early republican Anglo-American society was based.

Block analyzes the legal, social, and cultural implications of more than nine hundred documented incidents of sexual coercion and hundreds more extralegal commentaries found in almanacs, newspapers, broadsides, and other print and manuscript sources. Highlighting the gap between reports of coerced sex and incidents that were publicly classified as rape, Block demonstrates that public definitions of rape were based less on what actually happened than on who was involved. She challenges conventional narratives that claim sexual relations between white women and black men became racially charged only in the late nineteenth century. Her analysis extends racial ties to rape back into the colonial period and beyond the boundaries of the southern slave-labor system. Early Americans' treatment of rape, Block argues, both enacted and helped to sustain the social, racial, gender, and political hierarchies of a New World and a new nation.

About the Author

Sharon Block is associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine.


A tour de force of historical research and cultural analysis. In this beautifully written and brilliantly argued work, Sharon Block shows us the culturally specific ways in which sexual violence was integral to both white mastery and gender hierarchy and, in so doing, illuminates as well the profoundly transhistoric role of rape in systems of power.

--Norma Basch

In this model integration of social, legal, and cultural history, Block astutely explores the political import of sexual violence. Her distinctions between legal rape and social coercion, her reading of the perilous journey from act to accusation, and her account of the racialization of rape expose the sexual dynamics of power in early America.

--Estelle Freedman

A comprehensive look into the issue of rape and sexual violence during early American history. . . . Modern readers will gain a vivid understanding of not only rape and sexual relations during this period, but also the connection between rape and racism.

--H-Net Reviews

A complex analysis of the legal, cultural, and social dimensions of rape in the US. . . . Block offers a sophisticated yet highly readable explanation of the construction of sexual crime during this period of US history. . . . Highly recommended.


Unravels the power dynamics of rape by merging microhistories of individual women with macrohistories of institutional and cultural views of sexual behavior.


Likely to generate excellent discussions in women's studies, women's history and early American history classrooms. . . . Block has demonstrated that rape does indeed have a history.

--Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

A convincing portrait of the broader social and political environments in which distinctions between coercion and consent, assault and rape, were and were not drawn.

--Early American Literature

This book's strength lies in the cultural and intellectual history of gender and race through the analysis of texts; the author parses a host of judicial cases and other recorded incidents of rape and sexual assault. In this respect, the book has no equal for the time and places it considers.

--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Block deftly navigates . . . complicated matters in her thoroughly researched monograph.

--Journal of African American History

Ambitious . . . Extensively researched. . . . [This] provocative and well-argued book will change the way scholars think about rape. . . . A nuanced analysis.

--The William and Mary Quarterly

Block has written the definitive study of sexual violence in early America. . . . Makes sense of the seemingly hypocritical colonial stance on sexual violence and enhances our understanding of early American power relations in the process.

--Journal of American History

"An impressive work of legal/social/cultural history that builds upon and enhances the recent scholarship on sexuality and rape. . . . This painstakingly researched study is an important and valuable book.

--American Historical Review