Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Johnny Depp v Amber Heard: What to understand about intimate partner abuse before choosing sides

The defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard brought a previously private matter – intimate partner abuse – to a very public stage. The harsh and judgmental response from large sections of online observers reveals how few people understand about domestic abuse and what goes on behind closed doors.

I do research on police responses to intimate partner abuse in the UK. Unlike most of the public, response officers undergo regular training to equip them to intervene in abusive situations and to unravel allegations.

Here are three things to consider before making claims about who is a liar in an abusive situation.

Forget who says what – look at the power dynamics

A common problem encountered by the police is the “he said / she said” puzzle (insert alternative pronouns as appropriate). It arises where the perpetrator and victim tell opposing stories about the alleged abuse. When each person accuses the other of abuse, who do you believe? Offenders rarely admit offenses, and the most manipulative will accuse their target of the behavior they are guilty of. Navigating it is difficult, but can be done by not only paying attention to what those involved are saying, but how they are acting.

Victims in forced or controlling relationships usually believe that their partner has problems that they can resolve with commitment. They defend their peers by blaming their abusive behavior on drugs and alcohol, or by giving them chances to make up for the pain they cause. Failure to initially report abuse or not seek medical help for injuries is common for victims who do not want to get their addict into trouble. Many also do not want to make a statement or will refuse to support a prosecution. It can also be a way to show loyalty.

When it looks like their abuse will be exposed, offenders will be especially hard hit as punishment and work to discredit their victim’s character. They will also use the same charm they used to win their victim to gain support from the outside world. When confronted with two people who claim to be the “real victim”, look for the one who insists on having the upper hand.

Question your beliefs about gender stereotypes

Recently, there has been more attention and support for male victims of intimate partner abuse. One of the main reasons why it has taken so long is the damaging effect of long-standing gender stereotypes: masculinity equals reliability, power and strength, and femininity equals dependence and emotional instability.

According to these stereotypes, it is almost impossible for a man to be a victim, especially for a female partner. Femininity is associated with submission, not power, and to admit to victimization means to acknowledge a lack of masculinity.

Red Carpet Photo Of Amber Heard And Johnny Depp From 2015.
A jury found in favor of Johnny Depp in the defamation case he filed against his ex-wife Amber Heard, which was about an opinion in which she spoke about the victim of domestic abuse without mentioning him.
Matteo Chinellato / Shutterstock

In interviews, male victims told me they had no problem being believed, but felt that the police viewed the risk of harm as lower where the offender is female. However, many female victims still felt that the word of a male offender was believed above theirs and that the police did not experience risk as high as themselves.

Intimate partner abuse is about much more than physical attacks (although there are many ways to hurt someone bigger and stronger than you). Men and women are both capable of intimate partner abuse. Most victims are female because existing social systems – such as the traditional family structure, which confines women to the home – place men as dominant.

Read more: Why victims of domestic abuse do not leave – four experts explain

While acknowledging that male victims are common, we must beware of the tendency to believe that the male voice is the most reliable.

It is also common for offenders, regardless of gender, to play the disempowered role with conviction. Some may use a public face that contrasts sharply with their private face, radiating sophistication and charm as a way to win over observers on their side and discredit their victim.

Recognize emotional and psychological abuse

Emotional and psychological abuse is often misunderstood, sometimes even by the police. In interviews, officials have often suggested that drug abuse or poor mental health is the reason why someone becomes a victim, rather than acknowledging that these problems are often the result of the abuse.

The dismantling of a victim’s mental abilities is a fundamental abuse strategy. Victims usually describe a slow decline in instability at the hands of a competent offender. Gaslighting is a tool of manipulation used to erode and deny the victim’s sense of reality, leaving them with a fragile sense of self and inability to function socially.

A Man Sits At The End Of The Bed With His Head In His Hands, The Woman Leans Back In Bed And Looks Upset.
Abuse of intimate partners is often about control and power and is not always physical – both male and female partners can be offenders.
VGstockstudio / Shutterstock

Despite these mental health effects and stereotypes about victims of domestic abuse, people who experience intimate partner abuse are typically resilient and resourceful. Victims often describe themselves as strong and independent. “I never thought anyone like me could be a victim of domestic abuse,” is a well-known refrain.

They will often resist their abuser, sometimes with physical retaliation, but this should not be confused with transgression.

If a survivor sounds insecure and self-conscious when telling their experiences, it’s probably because they are – their reality and experiences have been denied. If they reacted hastily or even violently, it is because their resilience has been tested to breaking point. And if they seem to have mental health issues, think about why that might be. It could be that they have been repeatedly and brutally assaulted emotionally and psychologically.

Nation World News Desk
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