Reactions to Amber Heard’s domestic violence accusations reveal just how little we understand it.
When Amber Heard filed for a domestic violence restraining order against Johnny Depp earlier last week, it sparked the typical media furore that accompanies DV accusations made against famous and powerful men; Depp has been fiercely defended by people who know nothing of the man personally, but for the characters he embodies, whilst Heard has been branded a manipulative and gold-digging liar.
This is not about whether or not I believe Depp is guilty of domestic violence. This is about the profound lack of understanding of domestic violence that is rampant in the court of public opinion. Almost all of the comments made on social media accuse Heard of lying or being responsible for her alleged assaults because she doesn’t embody the ‘perfect victim’. These views reflect a society that widely dismisses women’s lived experiences and are completely ignorant of the complex cycle that occurs in most instances of DV.
With the enlisted help of Lesley Laing, Associate Professor in Social Work and Policy Studies at the University of Sydney, and Rob Ellis, General Manager of the Community Services Division at BaptistCare, I’ve deconstructed some of the most commonly held views and misconceptions surrounding DV our society holds.
1. “Domestic violence is caused by anger and poor anger management so he couldn’t help it.”
Laing explains it is a common misconception that DV is caused by uncontrollable anger, and rather this violence is caused by a sense of male entitlement “to have their needs met and serviced… in the social research on young teenager’s attitudes, there’s a lot of young people who support the idea that men should be in charge of a relationship.”
Ellis agrees, adding “the male is saying ‘in order to feel a sense of accomplishment, for me to increase, someone has to decrease’… so they go through this process of belittling and withdrawing choice and withdrawing resources in order that they can have a sense of accomplishment. The behaviour that fuels that is fundamentally about power and control, it’s not actually about anger.”
2. “She must have provoked him or he must have had a good reason.”
Ahhh classic victim blaming. There is NEVER a “valid” reason to hit a partner. The fact that it is still a choice, regardless of any motivation one might have, seems to be largely overlooked, enforcing the idea that a man is ‘forced’ to assault as a last resort.
In Heard’s case, it’s been speculated that everything from her bisexuality to the fact that her “Depp lookalike” ex-girlfriend might have “fueled” his “rage”.
Laing offers an explanation for the rampant victim blaming in DV cases: “We’ve had a long history of blaming women for men’s violence… it’s part of a society where men have more power and their views are more dominant.”
“Often the provocation is leaving the relationship… There is a lot of this in law with men getting off murder charges because the woman provoked them allegedly in some way... It’s another deeply embedded attitude that somehow it’s okay for the men to use violence if women don’t behave in the ‘correct’ way”.
Ellis agrees, saying “In some ways it’s convenient to blame the victim, because it gives people a way of avoiding looking at the deeper issues that underlie domestic family violence”.
3. “DV is unlikely if there’s been no accusations from previous partners.”
Many have defended Depp on the basis that none of his ex-partners have accused him of abuse. However, as Laing and Ellis explain, it is not uncommon for domestic abusers to be physically violent in some relationships, but not in others.
“They use a range of tactics to get power and control over people,” Laing says. “They usually calibrate their tactics of violence to the woman’s vulnerability... You may not have to hit a woman if you can abuse her by running down her mothering and taking two children off her, for example.”
Ellis responded similarly: “‘how carefully has that been considered? Have the women actually been free to speak?’… It’s possible that control was happening in previous relationships, but the way in which it was being expressed has changed.”
4. “Everyone who knows him says he’s not a violent person, and domestic violence is difficult to hide.”
It’s a tale as old as time. A man gets accused of violence against a woman, and suddenly anybody who has ever met him voices an opinion on whether or not they think he hit his partner despite, you know, not being in the relationship.
Boxer Mickey Rourke claimed “[Depp] doesn't seem like a very violent man to me… he's always been really low-key and a gentleman and not violent.” The same Mickey Rourke, that is, whose ex-wife has alleged that he threatened to kill himself with a sword if she turned down his marriage proposal. What exactly does he consider to be low-key? And why do we think that anybody, let alone this man, could possibly know what goes on in Depp and Heard’s relationship?
According to Ellis, this idea is as common as it is inaccurate. “It’s very difficult to tell from the outside… someone who is looking from the outside without significant training could actually jump to a quick and faulty conclusion.”
Laing says that most perpetrators of domestic violence make sure it occurs in private.
“Often women I’ve worked with or researched with tell you that everyone else thinks he’s a fantastic person, and so that’s a real barrier to them being believed, and I guess with celebrities that’s really heightened. ”
5. “Why did she take photos instead of calling the police and leaving?”
This form of victim-blaming is again focused on what the woman could have done, rather than the root of the problem, feeding into the problematic concept of ‘the perfect victim’.
“We expect [women] to run and get formal help the minute that something happens straight away, and if they don’t it’s looked at with suspicion. Even our courts always have to get evidence per those reports that someone was actually told or somehow it’s not true, whereas we know that with violence against women, often they don’t tell anybody; they feel a lot of shame because of those social attitudes,” says Laing.
Ellis explains that victims often find it difficult to leave because abusers still present many of the traits that attracted them initially.
“There’s actually a period of time in that cycle where parts of the relationship are functional, but of course, underlying it women often report that they spend their time walking on eggshells, they’re never quite sure what they should do, because the cycle isn’t completely predictable, it can very quickly escalate.
“For many women it’s actually a very risky thing to leave. All the stats show that the risk of serious assault or physical harm escalates hugely, so the woman is at her most vulnerable as she’s leaving.”
The lack of reporting is driven by the societal victim-blaming mentality and the disbelief many people have when victims do tell their stories, “add[ing] to the disempowerment that she’s already experienced in [the] relationship”
6. “Her story doesn’t add up, doesn’t make sense or has changed”
When a woman’s story of an alleged incident changes, it is often assumed that she’s lying. However, scientific research has proven that trauma can affect one’s memory of an assault. More importantly, it’s very common for women to not recognise their situation as domestic violence, personally or publicly, often for fear of the repercussions for their abuser.
“It takes months for women after they’ve escaped and are rebuilding to actually understand what was going on,” Ellis says.
“We find that when women come to us for counselling, they might come and their presenting issue is not domestic violence, it’s something like relationship difficulty or tension, or a sense of anxiety... digging beneath that, what’s actually driving it is their loss of choice and his assertion of control and the various forms of abuse that sit with it.”
7. “She seems strong and independent, she wouldn’t have put up with that.”
Ellis discredits this theory, saying that it is “based on placing ourselves in the situation… and it’s very unfair in the sense that we don’t know what her lived experience has actually been like, and we don’t know what the impact would be on a person when that level of coercion occurs over many years.”
“Domestic violence really spans across all walks of life, all sorts of socio-economic groups, there’s no ‘type’ in terms of perpetrator or women.”
“She’ll have lots of self-doubt about ‘am I really exaggerating this?’... Basically over years, oftentimes, there’s emotional abuse going on where she’s being told a script about herself that at first is unbelievable, but it just keeps being reinforced multiple times.”
8. The gold digger angle: “She’s just lying for the money and fame”
Actor Corey Feldman recently spoke of child abuse he says he endured at the hands of an unnamed famous Hollywood director. Whilst he has been unable to provide ‘solid evidence’ - such is the nature of sexual and intimate relationship crimes oftentimes - I have yet to read one comment accusing him of lying about his allegations.
Both Ellis and Laing were quick to point out the obvious sexism of suspecting women of ulterior motives. When listening to DV victims, Ellis says we should “certainly remain open to the possibility [that it’s a false accusation], but we don’t want to start there because if we start with that premise, the likelihood that we’ll actually take their story seriously is diminished.”
The suspicion of an ulterior motive is not dredged up to dismiss Feldman’s accusations – and rightly so. Whilst it is difficult for men to come forward regarding sexual crimes due to socialised gendered stigmas, when they do it is rarely presumed that they are lying or exaggerating.
Yet the women Bill Cosby assaulted were not given the same privilege, nor was Dylan Farrow, whose father Woody Allen has been almost unanimously defended by Hollywood. Nor were the women who claim to have been assaulted by Sean Penn, Bill Murray, Mel Gibson, Sean Connery, Eminem, Tupac, Roman Polanski, Michael Fassbender, Mike Tyson, Charlie Sheen, or Terrence Howard. The list goes on and on. The fact that Chris Brown alone continues to be marked by his history as an abuser, of all of the many male celebrities who have abused women, speaks of the ways in which racism affects our perceptions of perpetrators.
What do all these men have in common? They are rich, famous, and powerful. It is well known that these factors often result in their victims being silenced and ridiculed. Yet somehow, these qualities are illogically presumed to work against men, making them targets, rather than placing them in an obviously privileged and favoured position.
Ultimately, I am in no place to make judgement on Depp and Heard’s case. I cannot know firsthand what takes place in any relationship other than my own. However, cases such as these highlight a desperate need for a shift in our societal views and understanding of domestic violence. The excuses and justifications discussed make up the overwhelming amount of social commentary on this issue, and this ignorance is harming millions of women the world over.
If you or someone you know is impacted by domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.