It was only after he grabbed my arm so hard it left bruises that I finally had the courage to end it.
Not after the years of abusive, controlling behavior, ferocious jealousy and bursts of anger. All of those things were “invisible” and, in my mind, not significant enough to risk antagonizing him by trying to leave the relationship.
Decades later, after the #MeToo movement sparked a global conversation about sexual assault, harassment, intimate partner violence and who we choose to believe, I wish I could say we have made the world safer for that younger version of me to stand up for herself. But the events of the past few weeks have shown that we have not.
It would be easy to dismiss the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial as just a celebrity spectacle, a popcorn side show with little social significance. The livestreamed, six-week trial certainly had all the hallmarks of a media circus, but the impact of Depp’s successful effort to show he was the victim of defamation will leave harmful reverberations for intimate partner violence survivors for years to come.
The trial was not a criminal case to determine either party’s guilt or innocence, and I am not in a position to adjudicate that. But the misogynistic nature of the attacks on Heard speaks volumes about the way women — especially women depicted as “unlikable” — who speak up about abuse are treated.
Just like the decision itself, the court of public opinion is decidedly pro-Depp. Memes, videos, comments siding with Depp have flooded social media the past two months. His ex-wife, Amber Heard, has been eviscerated in the public, fulfilling a promise he once made to a former agent: “She’s begging for total global humiliation. She’s gonna get it.”
In one measure of the lopsided level of support for Depp, last week USA Today reported that #JusticeForJohnnyDepp has 19.5 billion views on TikTok, where #JusticeForAmberHeard has 75 million.
“The ways that we talk about domestic violence really matter,” Elizabeth Montoya, communications coordinator for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence said after the verdict last week. “I think that in a case like this, we just see it so clearly what an impact the kind of public discourse around domestic violence can have on survivors and the advocates who are working with them.”
Montoya said legal advocates have reported that survivors have watched this unfold and are having second thoughts about pursuing their cases.
“Survivors don’t live in a vacuum. Survivors are seeing all the comments, and they’re seeing private, intimate details being shared publicly and used to justify and minimize abuse, realizing that their privacy and their past can be used against them if they come forward,” she said. “And they’re worried that they’re going to face the same kind of scrutiny and retaliation for speaking out.”
Montoya said survivors see the memes and “jokes” attacking Heard and it sends a message: “There are consequences for speaking out.” When survivors see their friends and family sharing those and joining in on social media or in public, it tells them it might not be safe to come forward with their abuse even to their loved ones.
Due to continuing societal shame and stigma, the majority of people experiencing intimate partner violence don’t report it, Montoya said. In addition, when survivors do find the courage to come forward, some find that nothing ever comes of it and there is no accountability for their abusers, she said, which can make it hard to want to put themselves through that again.
In relation to sexual assault, this reality was driven home further last week when reporting by my colleague Sydney Brownstone and KUOW’s Ashley Hiruko revealed the Seattle Police Department temporarily stopped investigating new sexual assault cases this year, after the number of detectives investigating sexual assaults was reduced.
Abuse is about power and control. When millions of people — primarily women — said #MeToo in 2017, they were trying to take some of their power back by using their voices to call for change. But the Depp-Heard verdict sends a chilling message that while you might be able to use your voice, you could be slapped with a potentially devastating defamation lawsuit for doing so.
And the amount of power you have to protect yourself depends on your resources, which we know are directly linked to race, gender, sexual orientation and wealth. If even a rich, white, cisgender celebrity woman couldn’t find safety or protection, what hope do the rest of us have?
But Montoya said we all have a role to play in ending abuse. It can happen to anyone and we can all learn how to better show up for survivors in our lives and change the culture that allows abuse to happen.
“If you come forward,” she said, “there’s support available, there’s people who will listen, there’s people who will believe you, there’s people who will get you the support that you deserve.”