Gender and Language, Vol 13, No 2 (2019)

‘Well, I saw the picture’: semiotic ideologies and the unsettling of normative conceptions of female sexuality in the Steubenville rape trial

Susan Ehrlich
Issued Date: 31 Jul 2019


Cultural norms surrounding heterosexuality have been shown to influence legal and popular understandings of rape. In particular, Nicola Gavey has proposed that normative ideas about men’s aggressive, hard-to-control sexuality and women’s passive, acquiescing sexuality operate as a ‘cultural scaffold’ for rape – they provide a sense-making framework that allows rape to be understood as ‘just sex’. This paper, a case study of the 2013 Steubenville (Ohio, USA) rape trial, attempts to show how the social media evidence in the trial, especially the photographic evidence, was able to unsettle some of these discourses surrounding heterosex. Following work by Webb Keane and Crispin Thurlow on semiotic ideologies, I argue that the special status assigned to the digital images by the trial participants, relative to the linguistic representations, had significant consequences for the outcome of the trial. Crucially, it brought into stark relief the problematic nature of the defence’s claim that passivity and silence on the part of the complainant was tantamount to consent.

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DOI: 10.1558/genl.35019


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