We Are Asking All the Wrong Questions in Cases of Domestic Violence
After a whirlwind romance that seemed made for Hollywood, iconic actor Johnny Depp married actress Amber Heard in 2015. But in a shocking plot twist right out of a made for TV movie, it seems the couple won’t be getting their happily ever after. Now Heard is not only filing for divorce, but alleging domestic abuse as well.
Ever since the relationship imploded, the news media has been plastered with images and information regarding the separation and headlines about Heard and Depp have dominated the media over the past several weeks. Among the most popular have been Heard’s allegations of ongoing physical and mental abuse against her now estranged husband, and the amount of victim blaming has been both alarming and excruciating to watch.
Throughout her relationship with Depp and its subsequent demise, Heard has been called a liar, homewrecker, gold digger, and attention whore. In addition to trotting out many of the same tired chronicles that domestic abuse survivors have encountered for decades, such as accusations that they’re looking for financial rewards, several media sources have identified Heard’s bisexuality as a potential cause of the divorce. Not the alleged abuse, which she had photographed evidence of and witnesses, but her sexuality.
In reports about the abuse allegations, the actress is often described as Depp’s “bisexual wife” without any explanation of why exactly that detail is needed. Some publications wrote that Heard is “openly” bisexual or “admits” to being bisexual, which insinuates to the reader that there is something shameful about bisexuality.
All in all, there have been many of the same old questions that always seemed to be asked in domestic violence cases: “Why did she marry him?” Why did she stay with him?” “Why didn’t she go to the police?” “Why didn’t she just leave?”
However, the fact that we are still even asking these questions speaks volumes about how little the public understands about not only domestic violence, but the legal and emotional difficulties faced by victims confronting their abusers. In sum, Amber Heard’s saga has been an example of the classic cycle of victim blaming and survivor shaming that seems to be inescapable in domestic violence cases.
Amber Heard did everything she was “supposed” to do as a victim of domestic abuse. As a young woman alleging domestic violence against one of the world’s most famous actors, Johnny Depp, she had no choice. After Depp allegedly threw a cellphone at her face, striking her in the eye, Heard immediately filed for a divorce. She went to court to request a temporary restraining order against Depp, which a judge granted. She submitted photographs of the bruises on her faces as evidence to bolster her claims. Her neighbor signed a declaration stating that the story was true, and that she witnessed Heard “crying, shaking and very afraid of Johnny.”
In statements made to the courts, Heard alleged that Depp was verbally and physically abusive to her for the entirety of their relationship, which began in 2012. She stated that there was a severe incident in December 2015 when she feared her life was in danger. Throughout the entire process, since the day she went public with her allegations, Heard has been steadfast and consistent in her claims. She has answered every question and provided every fact that has been demanded from her to the best of her ability. But despite Heard’s photographic evidence, her sworn statement, and her corroborating witness, the public’s reaction has been one of disbelief. While she is supposed to be the victim in this scenario, she has somehow become the one charged and placed on trial. Much of the media coverage around the case has focused on raising questions that purport to undercut Heard’s credibility.
Others have come to Depp’s defense in the past weeks. Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose came to her father’s defense in a series of posts on Instagram calling him the “sweetest most loving person” she knows. Depp’s ex, Vanessa Paradis also spoke out on Depp’s behalf in a letter obtained by TMZ: “In all the years I have known Johnny, he has never been physically abusive with me and this looks nothing like the man I lived with for 14 wonderful years,” she wrote.
The hashtag #imwithjohnny is also popping up everywhere, most likely as countermeasures to the #IStandWithAmber and #imwithamber hashtags used to support the actress. All of the foregoing imply that Depp can’t be capable of the abuse Heard is alleging and, consequently, imply that Amber Heard is a liar.
But herein lies one of the most difficult truths about abusers: violent and abusive behaviors can exist in one relationship and not another. Abusers can be loving and kind to some people in their lives while also being violent toward others. It’s not inconceivable that Depp has been a wonderful father to his children, and was also abusive towards Heard. Just because one woman said he wasn’t abusive to her doesn’t negate Heard’s claims, it only means that dynamic did not exist in their relationship. The man behind some of our favorite movies and most iconic characters like Captain Jack Sparrow and Edward Scissor Hands can also be capable of callous cruelty. Both these things can be true at the same time.
Domestic violence is a concern for women in all walks of life, even someone married to a multimillionaire like Depp. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States alone. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
The victim blaming and shaming that Amber Heard is experiencing for all the world to see is common, while likely on a larger scale, to that experienced by most domestic abuse survivors. However, unlike Heard, most abuse victims find themselves in family or divorce court, fearful for their lives, and with limited financial resources.
Even more commonly, domestic violence victims often won’t even report their abusers. The most recent National Violence Against Women Survey, conducted by the USDOJ, found that only about an estimated 25% of domestic violence situations in the United States are reported to police. Such figures lead to more of the “Why?” questions discussed above, and the potential reasons are endless. It’s not unusual for women in abusive relationships to stay with their partners, or not report them, for reasons that are entirely their own. A few examples on the seemingly never ending list: It is very common for victims of domestic violence to want to protect their abusers and not involve police. They may not want their abusers to lose their jobs, or their reputations. In some cases, victims may be scared of retaliation by their abusers. Abuse survivors may be embarrassed and not want to be defined and stigmatized as victims. Maybe they love their partner. Maybe they think it will get better. Maybe they think they can help fix them. Maybe they don’t want to give up on their dreams for the future. Maybe they are scared of what will happen if they leave. And in most, if not all cases, many are likely fearful of the backlash they will receive and blame that will be placed on their shoulders for alleging to be a victim.
One of the most difficult aspects of policing domestic abuse is that it is almost always hidden from view. Allegations of abuse, especially in the modern era of trial in the court of public opinion and jury by social media, can be extremely traumatizing and stigmatizing for both parties. All too often, the result is no more than a “he said, she said;” rarely, if ever, is there documentation or hard evidence of the alleged abuse.
The bottom line is that in domestic violence cases, we are asking the wrong questions. According to the statistics, one in four women has or will be a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime. Around three women a day are killed by intimate partners. And yet, as overwhelmingly proved by the media and the public’s reaction to Amber Heard’s claims of abuse, we are still so hesitant to believe a woman when she comes forward; and here is the question we should truly be asking ourselves: Why?
Why are we so quick to question, and eager to blame, victims of domestic violence? Why are we so inclined to side with and so prone to defending their abusers?
And most importantly, why do we continue to be at all surprised when the majority of domestic violence cases go unreported until it is too late?
If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing domestic abuse or domestic violence, please know that you do not have to go through it alone. The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s highly-trained advocates are available to talk confidentially with anyone experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship. The Hotline Number is 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) and is available 24/7, 365 days a year. Additionally, if you’re ready to seek help but don’t feel comfortable talking with an advocate on the phone, or if it’s not safe for you to call, now there’s another option. The Hotline offers live chat service (IM-style) as a safe, completely private way to connect with a Hotline advocate and it’s available every day from 7:00 AM – 2:00 AM CT. Additional information regarding the Hotline can be found on their website (http://www.thehotline.org/).
Mere, 20’s, recent graduate, almost lawyer, and pretend adult. She just finished Law School and took The Bar Exam so she hasn’t slept in about 3 and a half years, which basically explains her personality. She promises she is really nice, though… Once she’s had her coffee. Her hobbies include reading, being tired, car karaoke, and crying about fictional characters; she also did yoga once.