Intersections of race and gender in sexual assault trials


  • Susan Ehrlich York University



rape, intersectionality, African American English, legal discourse, intertextuality


This essay traces the development of intersectionality theory within the field of language and gender in relation to research on the language of rape trials. In early work on the topic, I used Judith Butler’s notion of the ‘rigid regulatory frame’ to understand the cultural intelligibility of certain kinds of rape victims in the legal system and the unintelligibility of others. But the inequities that complainants often experience in rape trials are not merely the result of sexism; rather, it is sexism and racism which together interact to disadvantage complainants and protect white male perpetrators, who occupy a privileged position within these contexts vis-à-vis men of colour. In line with recent work in the field, I end with an analysis of a rape case that demonstrates the necessity of attending to nonhegemonic masculinities and intersectionality.

Author Biography

Susan Ehrlich, York University

Susan Ehrlich is Professor of Linguistics at York University, Toronto, Canada. She has worked 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. Her book publications include Representing Rape (Routledge, 2001) and The Handbook of Language, Gender, and Sexuality (Blackwell, 2014). She is currently coeditor of Language in Society with Tommaso Milani.


Agha, Asif (2005) Voice, footing and enregisterment. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 38–59. DOI:

Bucholtz, Mary (1999) You da man: narrating the racial other in the production of white masculinity. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3/4: 443–460. DOI:

Butler, Judith (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith (2004) Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge. DOI:

Cameron, Deborah (2008) Theoretical issues for the study of gender and spoken interaction. In Pia Pichler and Eva Eppler (eds) Gender and Spoken Interaction 1–17. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. DOI:

Chun, Elaine and Walters, Keith (2021) At the crossroads of language, race and sexuality. In Kira Hall and Rusty Barrett (eds) Oxford Handbook of Language and Sexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI:

Collins, Patricia Hill (2005) Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge.

Conley, John M. and O’Barr, William (2005) Just Words: Law, Language, and Power, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Connell, R.W. (1995) Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989) Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and anti-racist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989(1): 139–167.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1991) Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review 43(6): 1241–1299. DOI:

Ehrlich, Susan (2001) Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent. London: Routledge.

Ehrlich, Susan (2007) Legal discourse and the cultural intelligibility of gendered meanings. Journal of Sociolinguistics 11(4): 452–477. DOI:

Ehrlich, Susan (2016) Post-penetration rape: coercion or freely-given consent? In Susan Ehrlich, Diana Eades and Janet Ainsworth (eds) Discursive Constructions of Consent in the Legal Process 47–70. New York: Oxford University Press. DOI:

Ehrlich, Susan (2021) Raciolinguistic enregisterment, intersectionality and African American masculinity in the courtroom. Keynote Lecture, IGALA 11, Queen Mary, University of London.

Estrich, Susan (1987) Real Rape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hall, Kira (2021) Language in the middle: Class and sexuality on the Hinglish continuum. Journal of Sociolinguistics 25(3): 303–323. DOI:

Hildebrand-Edgar, Nicole and Ehrlich, Susan (2017) ‘She was quite capable of asserting herself’: powerful speech styles and assessments of credibility in a sexual assault trial. Language and Law/Linguagem e Direito 4(2): 89–107.

Inoue, Miyako (2006) Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in Japan. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Levon, Erez (2015) Integrating intersectionality in language, gender and sexuality research. Language and Linguistics Compass 9(7): 295–308. DOI:

Levon, Erez and Ye, Yang (2020) Language, indexicality and gender ideologies: contextual effects on the perceived credibility of women. Gender and Language 14(2): 123–141. DOI:

MacKinnon, Catharine (1987) Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. DOI:

Marcus, Sharon (1992) Fighting bodies, fighting words: a theory and politics of rape prevention. In Judith Butler and Joan Scott (eds) Feminists Theorize the Political 385–403. London: Routledge.

Morgan, Marcyliena H. (2021) Counterlanguage powermoves in African American women’s language practice. Gender and Language 15(2): 289–299. DOI:

Rickford, John and King, Sharese (2016) Language and linguistics on trial: hearing Rachel Jeantel (and other vernacular speakers) in the courtroom and beyond. Language 92(4): 948–988. DOI:

Rosa, Jonathan and Flores, Nelson (2017) Unsettling race and language: toward a raciolinguistic perspective. Language in Society 46(5): 621–647. DOI:

Shaw, Jessica and Lee, HaeNim (2019) Race and the criminal justice system response to sexual assault: A systematic review. American Journal of Community Psychology 64(1–2): 255–276. DOI:

Steinem, Gloria (1983) Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Washington, Adrienne Ronee (2020) ‘Reclaiming my time’: signifying, reclamation and the activist strategies of Black women’s language. Gender and Language 14(4): 358–385. DOI:

Zavala, Virginia (2018) Correcting whose errors? the principle of error correction from an ethnographic lens. Language in Society 47(3): 377–380. DOI:



How to Cite

Ehrlich, S. (2021). Intersections of race and gender in sexual assault trials. Gender and Language, 15(3), 430–438.



Theme Series

Similar Articles

You may also start an advanced similarity search for this article.