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Why the Amber Heard/Johnny Depp Verdict Puts Domestic Violence Survivors at Risk

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Let’s start off with a recap.

Amber Heard wrote and published an op-ed in which she did not name Johnny Depp. Depp not only sued her for defamation, but the jury was specifically told to look at the title of the op-ed, which was not written by Heard. This is a relatively standard practice; in fact, this very article likely has a different title now than what I submitted it with. (Ed. note: Yes, it does!) Amidst all of this, not only was Heard found liable, but she was found liable for more than her net worth, which was $8 million prior to this trial.

Now, honestly, the specifics of the Depp v. Heard trial aren’t the point here. I’m not here to argue who was right and who was wrong. I’ve never been particularly interested in pop culture and this trial is no exception. The point I intend to make is about the impact of the trial on our society at large. This verdict sets a precedent, and a dangerous one at that. The precedent being set is that survivors of abuse who decide to speak out without naming their abuser can not only be sued for defamation, but that it can take everything they have.

Here’s why that’s concerning: abuse thrives off of power and control. Abusers will take any and every opportunity to keep their victims feeling powerless, dependent, and vulnerable. This prevents the victim from leaving and allows the cycle of abuse to continue. This trial was recorded and broadcast nationally. Countless abusers were suddenly clued into the fact that if their victim ever speaks out, they may have the power to financially devastate them. What makes it even worse is that liability related to defamation suits remains even when individuals declare bankruptcy, meaning they would have no way to get out of this. Liens can be placed on their homes; their wages can be garnished. It would force a victim into being legally indebted to their abuser, which is an incredibly dangerous situation.

I’ve been quite vocal about my survivorship of abuse for years now. I’ve written dozens of articles, countless tweets, in addition to other forms of media. I previously assumed I was safe from something like this because I write under a pen name and I don’t identify my abusers, but this trial has left me feeling far less certain.

So, what do I do now?

Do I reach out to the publications that have shared my work, pleading for them to take it down?

Do I wipe my social media accounts?

Do I disregard hundreds of comments and messages about how my story has helped others out of fear of what speaking out could become?

Do I go silent and pray that keeping my head down will make them forget about it all?

One of my abusers in particular has a career that is held in high regard within our society. For years, they played off of that in order to perpetuate the abuse — they were the esteemed professional, and I was the irrational child/teenager who was unhealthy and unstable. This is not at all dissimilar to how Depp’s status and power benefited him in this case. How am I to know they will not follow in his footsteps?

It’s a lingering threat that abuse survivors across the country felt in the pit of their stomachs when they learned of the verdict.

If I ever speak out, they can take everything I have.

Even years later, when a victim is finally back on their feet, they still have to watch what they say out of fear of their abuser. And that’s not OK.

As is so often the case within our country, we are seeing once again that the system is designed to protect and benefit those with the most power and privilege, while oppressing the less fortunate. Make no mistake, this is not a flaw in the system. It is operating precisely how it was designed.

But now: now that this reality has been broadcast to abusers across the country, now that survivors have confirmation of what so many of us knew in our guts to be true, now what do we do?

Getty image by 8CFC.

Originally published: June 13, 2022
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