They had sex and she was a slave. Her choices were... limited.
You may find it offensive, but that doesn't keep it from being
It seems to me that our modern-day term "sex slave"
is an attempt to say that a relationship between X and Y is like
the relationship between... Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
I think that William Freehling got it right (writing long
before DNA testing) in his _Secessionists at Bay_, pp. 128-9:
"One episode at Monticello illustrates the master's [Jefferson's]
genius at evasion. Sally Hemings, Monticello's most celebrated
salve, put Jefferson to the test as few trustees have been tested.
No trustee more successfully evaded his examination. Most historians,
emulating Jefferson's contemporaries, have narrowed the Sally
Hemings issue to one question: Did Jefferson sire her five mulatto
"The circumstantial evidence does not serve Jefferson
well. Hemings, whitish daughter of Jefferson's father-in-law,
was long a household servant within the Big House. Jefferson
was always in residence nine months before she gave birth. Jefferson
manumitted some of her children and freed no black without a
"This evidence, to some, will always convict Jefferson.
Others will urge that these circumstances could point towards
other member(s) of Jefferson's white family as sire(s). Furthermore,
the fact (at last a fact!) that Jefferson's father-in-law sired
Sally Hemings perhaps explains why only Hemingses were manumitted.
"This futile debate over circumstances obscures the undebatable
point about dissimulation. Jefferson never faced or resolved
the moral mess in his mansion.... And morass miscegenation was,
as Jefferson defined morass, the most 'unnatural' morass infecting
the 'natural aristocracy'.
"As Jefferson knew, miscegenation, however common in
the Old South, was not commonly *that* luxuriant in southern
Big Houses. Multiplying mulattoes were also uncommonly 'obscence'
in so uncommon a mansion as Monticello. This was supposed to
be the utopian Big House, the model on the mountain for an adoring
South to emulate. A morally enlightened trustee would have had
to act, however unpleasant the action...
"Jefferson preferred to avoid the unpleasant.... Jefferson
chose to do nothing. Or, more accurately, he probably never allowed
himself to think about the choices.... Jefferson's love of balanced
surfaces and inclinations to forget unbalanced foundations explain
why he failed almost as much as manumitter as he failed as Sally
Hemings's trustee. That 'almost' is crucial. Jefferson freed
some 10% of his over 100 slaves. 10% per generation could water
down slavery. So, too, Jefferson's voluntary surrender of 10%
of his property shows some commitment. Latter-day intellectuals
who can see only commitment to slavery might ask themselves how
often *they* have sacrificed 10% for their ideas."