Content Warning: This piece contains references to sexual assault and harassment.
After six weeks of back-and-forth court drama livestreamed for the world to see, countless gross memes and viral TikToks about Amber Heard and her testimony, and endless victim blaming and perpetuating of rape myths, a jury has supported Johnny Depp’s defamation suit against Heard. While much focus has been on the ruling, and the fact that Depp was awarded $15 million ($10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages) and Heard received $2 million in compensatory damages, there’s something else we should really be paying attention to.
Because if anything, the ruling — and the memeification of the trial — prove how little we care for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse and how much further we have to go when it comes to combatting stigma around violence of this kind. The memes, comments, and videos that call out Heard for seemingly laughing in court or acting on the stand, and worse, calling for or celebrating violence against her, send a message to survivors that, at least according to the internet, there is only one way to be a victim, and that sexual-assault survivors’ trauma in the public forum will at best be trivialized, and at worst mocked and discounted.
“Regardless of the legal outcome, the damage to the movement to end gendered violence is severe,” wrote gender justice advocate Farrah Khan and gender violence activist Mandi Gray in The Toronto Star ahead of yesterday’s verdict. “Survivors are watching, questioning if they can leave their toxic relationships without further harm. Children who witness domestic violence see it trivialized as a joke, while people who cause harm see themselves cast as victims. The public has made it loud and clear that women who report experiencing gendered violence are not to be trusted and are deserving of widespread public humiliation.”
We’ve seen this play out for years in sexual assault trials — from the idea of a “perfect victim” who should act a certain way on the stand (cry, not smile at all, be likable — whatever that means), or the ongoing rape myth that you can’t be sexually assaulted by a partner. The moment a survivor accuses someone of sexual assault, the survivor is on trial, too. Which is why so many of us have been afraid to go public because we won’t be believed or we will be forced to defend ourselves and our actions in the moment and after. “The most useful academic concept in understanding why this happens so predictably in every case involving a man and a woman in particular, is the concept of 'himpathy,'” says Nicole Bedera, a Michigan-based sociologist who studies sexual victimization. “That's the idea that we give expansive empathy to men when they don't deserve it. That they're getting more empathy than is reasonable, but also at the detriment of women in their lives.”
The consequences in light of what Heard has been put through these past six weeks will be disastrous, adds Amy E. Duffy (LCMHCS), a North Carolina-based therapist who works with survivors of sexual assault. “I definitely see [the trial] having an impact on people that consider reporting in the future or for anyone that is going to experience this [domestic abuse or sexual assault] post-trial; they're going to be more hesitant to report,” Duffy says. And for the record, this affects a lot of people. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime; transgender people are four times more likely to experience violence than cisgender people.
Within the realm of sexual assault (although Duffy estimates it's similar for domestic violence), the stats are already pretty bleak when it comes to reporting to police. Per Duffy, out of a thousand sexual assaults, only 230 are typically reported; of those 230, only five actually get convicted. “How this [trial] played out is really going to deter people from putting themselves through that stress and that trauma when the numbers were already so low,” she says.
The other question is why Heard was such a target. On the surface it’s about Heard herself and this sick idea that she’s somehow taking down an American hero of sorts. But at the root, it’s a perspective steeped in misogyny, and is marking what many are saying is the end of the MeToo era. “A lot of people want to think about this case as really exceptional or unusual following the #MeToo movement,” Bedera says, “But that response of ‘I believe survivors, but not this survivor,’ is not unusual in the slightest.”
Social media has changed these conversations too, as a new demo of users are now coming into their own conversations around sexual and domestic violence. While the terrible sentiments against Heard and others who come forward with claims of abuse sadly might not be unique, the medium through which its being spread, TikTok, is. And while, sure there are some genuine conversations being had on the app, most videos are either purposefully cruel or an attempt to belittle and demean Heard’s testimony in order to support Depp. And no doubt this vitriol will get worse now that Depp has “won.” Since the ruling, #AmberTurd began trending on Twitter.
As Bedera also points out, many of the people commenting online around the idea of the “perfect victim” and spreading misinformation are part of a generation that grew up in the aftermath of #MeToo. “We can't assume that everyone watching this also was paying attention or even capable of understanding what was happening during the #MeToo movement,” she says. For many users it’s the first time they’re getting this education. Which, Bedera adds, is a fundamental failing in society. “Most people can reach adulthood without ever getting any formal education on the realities of gender-based violence or what a healthy relationship looks like and what a dangerous relationship looks like,” she says, “and so that it makes it really easy for this kind of misinformation to proliferate.”
It’s easy to think that the damage is done when it comes to the effect this kind of commentary can have on survivors, but “what we do moving forward is just as important as what has already happened,” Bedera says. This case and the reactions around it have underscored, on one of the most popular social media platforms, just how essential structural reform is when it comes to supporting survivors of sexual and domestic assault and protecting them from their abusers after they’ve experienced violence. “It is horrifying that our legal system can be used as a way to bully survivors, and I don't think that there is any dispute that this case has led to harassment of Amber Heard.”
Or, that we’ve all watched the spectacle with glee.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).