Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent

Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent

Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent

Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent

Synopsis

Representing Rape is the first feminist analysis of the language of sexual assault trials from the perspective of linguistics. Ehrlich argues that language is central to all legal settings - specifically sexual harassment and aquaintance rape hearings where linguistic descriptions are often the only basis upon which juries and judges determine a verdict. In such contexts, language is not a neutral and transparent reflection of the world, but rather helps to construct the character of the people and events under investigation.The book is based around a case study of the trial of a male student accused of two instances of sexual assault in two different settings: a university tribunal and a criminal trial. This case is situated within international studies on rape trials and is relevant to the legal systems of the US, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Ehrlich shows how culturally-dominant notions about rape percolate through the talk of sexual assault cases in a variety of settings and ultimately shape their outcome. Ehrlich hopes that to understand rape trials in this way is to recognize their capacity for change. By highlighting the underlying preconceptions and prejudices in the language of courtrooms today, this important book paves the way towards a fairer judicial system for the future.

Excerpt

Contemporary feminist critiques of the law have often cited the rape trial as embodying all that is problematic about the legal system for women. From the revictimization of rape victims to the legitimization of normative views of female and male sexuality, the discriminatory qualities of rape trials have led some feminist legal theorists to conclude that ‘judicial rape’ can be more damaging than an actual rape, ‘masquerading’ as it does ‘under the name of justice’ (Lees 1996:36). For Smart (1989:161), the rape trial is illustrative of the law’s juridogenic potential: frequently the harms produced by the so-called remedy are as bad as the original abuse. Documenting the capacity of cross-examining lawyers to dominate and revictimize rape victims, or to perform ‘rape of the second kind’ (Matoesian 1995:676), work by Conley and O’Barr (1998) and Matoesian (1993) has convincingly demonstrated the pivotal role of ‘talk’ in achieving such effects. Yet, this book shows that perhaps more insidious—and thus resistant to challenge—in the sexual assault adjudication proceedings analysed here was not the power of ‘talk’ to revictimize victims but rather its role in defining and delimiting the meanings that came to be attached to the events and subjects under scrutiny. ‘Seeing’ the events and participants in question was not a transparent process, but one made opaque and partial by a range of culturally-and institutionally-authorized linguistic practices. Indeed, the overarching interpretive framework that I argue structured these proceedings was so seamless in its coverage that subaltern (i.e., victims’) understandings of the events were rendered unrecognizable or imperceptible. Thus, departing from previous linguistic scholarship on rape trials, this book ascribes a largely constitutive role to language. That is, in analysing the language of sexual assault adjudication processes, I attempt to give empirical substance to theoretical claims about the primacy of discourse in constructing and constituting social realities.

The ‘turn to language’ that has characterized much recent scholarship in the social sciences and humanities identifies ‘discourse’ as an important site in the construction and constitution of social relations. While this so-called linguistic’ turn owes much to the study of linguistics, discussions of discourse in these disciplines do not typically attend to the nitty-gritty linguistic details

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