All of the camera crews swarming the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial are heading home, the trending hashtags in support of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” actor are dying down and late night hosts have moved on to satirize the next big news story. What remains of the highly publicized defamation trial is the mental math everyday victims of gender-based violence are doing right now ― trying to figure out if it’s worth speaking up or better to stay silent.
After six weeks of livestreamed testimony, a Virginia jury found that a 2018 Washington Post opinion piece authored by Heard, identifying herself as a survivor of intimate partner violence, was defamatory against her ex-husband Depp. Heard will have to pay Depp $10.35 million in total damages ― a steep price for never actually naming her ex-husband in the piece. And, it’s worth noting, a cost that could leave Heard bankrupt.
The trial was a true media circus that continually dragged Heard’s character through the mud. A slew of social media users (and, possibly, a large number of bots) spent the better part of the past two months dissecting Heard’s allegations, often accusing her of being a fame-hungry liar. It was nothing new for any woman who has accused a famous man of violence. But the sheer volume of loyal Depp fans ― even in the context of celebrity culture ― is jarring.
And what’s worse is the number of people who are so quick to gloss over how our collective discussions about Heard will impact victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Every tweet calling Heard a “lying bitch”; the mob mentality of support for Depp; the knee-jerk reaction to sanitize Depp’s violent history because Heard was also sometimes violent. Survivors and victims are reading all of these things and noting who in their lives is safe to disclose to and who isn’t.
During the trial, Heard accused Depp of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, often triggered by his allegedly heavy drinking and drug use, over the course of their four-year relationship. Depp claimed Heard was the one who was physically violent in their relationship and denies all accusations of physical abuse on his part.
Heard reacted to the verdict Wednesday, calling it a “setback” for women, “to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated.”
“It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously,” she added.
Defamation suits are commonly used tools in perpetrators’ arsenal of weapons to silence their victims. Especially perpetrators who have more money or power. During the Me Too era ― which saw many famous men fail upward ― defamation suits were thrown around left and right. While pop culture sometimes desensitizes us to how those suits actually impacted accusers ― many of whom are famous white women who also had money ― celebrities aren’t the only people who face defamation suits.
More than 1 in 5 student survivors who report an assault to their school are threatened with a defamation suit, according to a 2021 report from anti-sexual violence organization Know Your IX. Nearly 20% are warned by their school beforehand that if they continue with their report they may be sued for defamation. And 10% of student survivors who report to their school have a retaliatory complaint filed against them by their perpetrator. Half of those who face a retaliatory complaint take a leave of absence from school or transfer.
“This case has created a road map for abusers to use against those they have abused,” said Emma Grasso Levine, manager of Know Your IX.
“The smear campaign organized against Amber Heard ― who is a survivor of intimate partner violence ― is not a silencing and discrediting tactic that only impacts celebrities,” Grasso Levine added. “Student survivors who report and speak out are often retaliated against through public attacks and defamation suits by their abusers and others in attempts to keep them quiet. This case is just one example of the ever-expanding, disturbing backlash against the survivor justice movement, and of abusers utilizing systems intended to support survivors in order to further harm them.”
“The way people are discussing this trial will, without a doubt, trickle down to victims across the country.”
And those statistics are just for survivors who report abuse. What about people who may simply identify as a victim ― like Heard did ― and still face retaliatory consequences?
Dr. Nicole Bedera, a sociologist focused on gender-based violence, laid out the consequences of a verdict in Depp’s favor in a conversation with HuffPost last month.
“The main thing that’s at stake here is whether women are allowed to identify publicly as survivors of gender-based violence,” she said. “In that op-ed, Amber Heard was coming out in support of other survivors during the height of the Me Too moment. That kind of political organizing wasn’t really all that controversial before, and now it’s becoming controversial.”
Whether you like Heard or not ― hell, whether you believe her or not ― is almost beside the point.
The way people are discussing this trial will, without a doubt, trickle down to victims across the country. Normal, everyday people: your sister, your best friend, your nephew. People who have to decide between dropping out of college or going to class with their abuser every day. People who need to decide if going to HR will actually stop the sexual harassment at work or make it worse. People who want to find community after an assault, but realize just identifying as a survivor could put them in court and maybe even bankrupt them.