‘Well, I saw the picture’

semiotic ideologies and the unsettling of normative conceptions of female sexuality in the Steubenville rape trial


  • Susan Ehrlich York University




sexual violence, rape trials, multimodality, normative heterosexuality, semiotic ideologies


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.

Author Biography

Susan Ehrlich, York University

Susan Ehrlich is professor of linguistics in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at York University in Toronto, Canada. She specialises in the areas of discourse analysis, language, gender and sexuality, and language and the law. Her books include Discursive Constructions of Consent in the Legal Process (co-edited with Diana Eades and Janet Ainsworth; Oxford University Press 2016), The Handbook of Language, Gender and Sexuality (co-edited with Miriam Meyerhoff and Janet Holmes; Wiley Blackwell, 2nd edition 2014) and Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent (Routledge, 2001).


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How to Cite

Ehrlich, S. (2019). ‘Well, I saw the picture’: semiotic ideologies and the unsettling of normative conceptions of female sexuality in the Steubenville rape trial. Gender and Language, 13(2), 251–269. https://doi.org/10.1558/genl.35019