On Dobbs: A Perspective from a Historian of Child Sexual Abuse

Grace Argo
Newspaper image of Louisa Picquet.

Louisa Picquet recalled her experiences of sexual abuse as an enslaved girl in Louisa Picquet: The Octoroon, or Inside Views of Southern Domestic Life, published in 1861. Courtesy of: Manuscripts, Archives & Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, eight states so far have banned abortions with no exceptions for rape, and nine states have banned abortions with no exceptions for incest.[1] Many anti-abortion advocates disbelieve sexual abuse is a widespread problem, dismissing the recent story about a ten-year-old rape victim forced to cross state lines for an abortion after the procedure was banned in her home state of Ohio as a “hoax.”[2] In fact, 66 percent of sexual crimes reported in the U.S. each year are perpetrated against children, and approximately one in four assaults reported annually involve child rape perpetrated by family members.[3] The reality is that children are the most frequent victims of rape and incest, and girls under the age of eighteen—who cannot vote—have the most to lose from these abortion bans.

My dissertation examines girls’ experiences of sexual abuse and societal responses to it from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century using survivor autobiographies, court reports, and juvenile detention records. Survivor autobiographies are the most intimate of these sources, but also the rarest. Louisa Picquet’s  Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon: or, Inside Views of Southern Domestic Life, stands among the earliest examples of the genre. Published in 1861 with the help of white abolitionist Hiram Mattison, Picquet’s autobiography describes her experiences of enslavement, including childhood sexual abuse at the hands of two masters.[4] Although it does not discuss abortion, Picquet’s story speaks to girls’ vulnerability to sexual abuse and to the ethical problems that arise when access to abortion is either prohibited or made contingent on children’s willingness to testify against their abusers.

Picquet’s autobiography is a complicated source for several reasons. First, the basis of the autobiography’s appeal to white readers was Picquet’s whiteness. Picquet described herself as having “every appearance” of a white woman, a self-assessment underscored by the inclusion of her portrait on the autobiography’s cover. Mary Niall Mitchell has explained that images and stories of “white slaves,” especially rosy-cheeked and fair-haired enslaved girls, captivated white audiences not only because they troubled racial categories but also because they depicted slavery as a looming threat to white girls’ sexual “virtue.”[5] White audiences’ morbid fascination with the sexual subjugation of “white slaves” shaped the kinds of stories that were permissible for women like Louisa Picquet to tell about their lives and their political consciousness.

Second, Picquet’s autobiography discusses her efforts to free her mother from bondage at great length, a struggle that had not yet concluded at the time of her autobiography’s writing. Picquet probably felt pressure to disclose experiences she would not otherwise disclose in order to make the autobiography’s sales profitable enough to purchase her mother’s freedom. Picquet understood that her experiences of childhood sexual abuse were important to the abolitionist cause, but her resistance to Mattison’s attempts to make her describe those experiences in intimate detail suggests she experienced white readers’ curiosity as pornographic. When recounting the abuse she endured between the ages of twelve and thirteen at the hands of a master named David Cook, Picquet focused on how much Mr. Cook’s threats of rape terrified her and described the elaborate schemes she devised to avoid him. To protect herself Picquet needed to keep her wits about her, living in a state of constant vigilance. Mr. Cook’s abuse was so humiliating that Picquet would not repeat aloud the sexual commands Mr. Cook gave her to Mattison, nor would she describe for Mattison how Mr. Cook whipped her for refusing his orders.

When Mattison asked if she had scars from the whippings, Picquet reluctantly admitted she did. She said the final whipping Mr. Cook gave her was so severe that “I made up my mind [resisting him] ʼtwas of no use, and I’d go [along with his orders], and not be whipped any more; and told him so.”[6] In what she felt at the time was a stroke of great luck, Mr. Cook was arrested the next day for debts he had not paid. A sheriff came to collect Picquet, her mother, and her brother “around noon” and they were all sold the next morning. “I tell you I was glad when I heard I was taken off to be sold, because of what I escape,” Picquet told Mattison, “but I jump out of the fryin’-pan into the fire.”[7] Her next master, Mr. Williams, was a divorced man from New Orleans who bought Picquet primarily to be his sexual companion. She bore four children by him, his threat to “beat [her] half to death” if she didn’t cooperate conjuring memories too fresh in her mind to put up a fight.[8]

Picquet was so disturbed by what she’d experienced as a young girl that she could scarcely verbalize it. Through words and actions Picquet felt were still unspeakable as an adult woman, Mr. Cook made her feel scared and ashamed. His threats of rape eroded her sense of dignity. Picquet’s pain stemmed from the way Mr. Cook attempted to strip her of her inner sense that her mind and body were meant to be sacred, and ought to be hers to share with whom she chose. Because of Mr. Cook’s whippings, Picquet dared not resist the sexual advances of her next enslaver, Mr. Williams, even though she estimated she was no older than fourteen when he purchased her. She protected herself the only way she felt she could: She prayed for him to die. After six years her prayers were answered, and she was “so glad [she] could hardly believe it.”[9] She moved with her two surviving children to Cincinnati. There she met her devoted husband, Henry Picquet, with whom she operated a safehouse for freedom seekers for several years. Henry knew better than anyone how much Louisa’s childhood abuse haunted her. He was “mortified” by his wife’s habit of praying aloud, from night until morning, asking forgiveness for the sins she believed she’d committed while enslaved to Mr. Williams.[10] Recounting her most shameful experiences for her autobiography was almost certainly painful.

While her enslaved status was an important factor in Picquet’s inability to refuse sexual contact or escape her abusers, the helplessness she felt echoes across subsequent generations of sexual abuse survivors whose experiences I write about in my dissertation. Contrary to popular belief, laws against rape and incest rarely protected girls from sexual abuse. In fact, after the passage of statutory rape laws beginning in the 1880s, such laws became increasingly ineffective as more and more girls attempted to use them to escape sexual violence. In many cases girls were disbelieved, tried alongside their abusers as accomplices, or sent to juvenile reformatories and asylums for “feebleminded” children—even or especially when they became pregnant by their abusers.[11] Greater access to legal recourse was not accompanied by stronger protection. Instead, the law became a weapon in the hands of its practitioners, targeting the very people it was meant to protect.

Abortion bans necessarily invite scrutiny of women’s and girls’ sexual choices. This scrutiny operates by the same logic that makes children feel guilty and ashamed for being abused. Bans that prohibit abortion altogether clearly devalue women’s sexual autonomy and further endanger abused girls by criminalizing their pursuit of sexual and reproductive freedom. Bans that make abortion access contingent on victims’ willingness to report abuse place responsibility for sexual abuse on victims rather than abusers, force victims to disclose deeply upsetting and undignified experiences to people they don’t know and may or may not trust, and set a deadline on disclosure that may be confusing or distressing to a child. Bans like the latter are therefore no less antagonistic or dehumanizing than the former.

If we want to bring closure to girls’ suffering in the past, we must fight for justice for all girls in the present. We need to remain as vigilant as Louisa Picquet, as vigilant as every abused girl fighting for dignity with every last scrap of her spirit.


Endnotes

[1] “Tracking the States Where Abortion is Now Banned,” New York Times (continually updated), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/us/abortion-laws-roe-v-wade.html.

[2] See, for example, Timothy Bella, “After Arrest in Rape of 10-year-old Girl, Fox News Hosts Shift Focus,” Washington Post, July 14, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/07/14/abortion-girl-rape-fox-carlson-watters-ohio/.

[3] David Finkelhor and Anne Shattuck, “Characteristics of Crimes Against Juveniles,” Crimes Against Children Research Center (Durham, NC, May 2012).

[4] Louisa Picquet and Hiram Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon: or Inside Views of Southern Domestic Life (New York, 1861). Manuscripts, Archives & Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/picquet/picquet.html.

[5] Mary Niall Mitchell, “ʻRosebloom and Pure White,’ or So It Seemed,” American Quarterly 54 (Sept. 2002) [pages?].

[6] Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, 15.

[7] Ibid. On the distorted representation of black speech by white writers, see Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York, 1977), xv–vi.

[8] Picquet and Mattison, Louisa Picquet, 22.

[9] Ibid, 23.

[10] Ibid, 28.

[11] For more on sexual abuse victims’ experiences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, please see my forthcoming article “Survived and Punished: Incest Victims’ Treatment in Progressive Era Illinois” in The Journal for the History of Childhood and Youth, Vol. 16, no. 1. You can also listen to my podcast episode “Surviving Patriarchal Violence at Home: Incest Victims in the Progressive Era,” Reverb Effect Season 2, Episode 6, at https://lsa.umich.edu/history/history-at-work/reverbeffect/season2episode6/season2episode6_transcript.html.

3 November 2022

About the Author

Grace Argo is a PhD candidate in history and Women’s and Gender studies at the University of Michigan.

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