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‘Well, I saw the picture’: Semiotic Ideologies and the Unsettling of Normative Conceptions of Female Sexuality in the Steubenville Rape Trial

Date: WEDNESDAY March 27, 2019 (PLEASE NOTE NOT THE USUAL DAY OF THE WEEK FOR OUR TALKS)

Time: 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm (PLEASE NOTE TIME)

Location: TSH B128 (PLEASE NOTE THE ROOM LOCATION)

Guest Speaker: Dr. Susan Ehrlich

Bio: Susan Ehrlich is a Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at York University, Toronto. She has written extensively on language, sexual violence and the law and is currently working on a project that investigates intertextual practices in the legal system, demonstrating how such an investigation can shed light on broader patterns of social inequalities.  Recent books include The Handbook of Language, Gender and Sexuality (2nd edition, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, co-edited with Miriam Meyerhoff and Janet Holmes) and Discursive Constructions of Consent in the Legal Process (Oxford University Press, 2016, co-edited with Diana Eades and Janet Ainsworth).

Abstract: Cultural norms surrounding heterosexuality have been shown to influence legal and popular understandings of rape.  In particular, Gavey (2005) 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 Keane (2003) and Thurlow (2017) 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 defense’s claim that passivity and silence on the part of the complainant was tantamount to consent.