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How the Depp-Heard trial will silence survivors of sexual assault and abuse

By June 15, 2022August 2nd, 2023Sex Abuse
Michelle Simpson Tuegel

The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial was one of the most highly publicized trials ever, amassing more online attention than some of the country’s most impactful news stories, including the Ukraine war and the leaked Supreme Court draft decision regarding Roe v. Wade. The media covered it extensively and scrutinized every detail, businesses weighed in, and it was the first major trial to go viral in the TikTok era.

Regardless of either side’s arguments and the eventual verdict, as an attorney and sexual abuse survivor advocate, the public’s reaction to this trial has been shocking and extremely discouraging. As I have seen repeatedly with my own clients, individuals who are not deemed the “perfect” victim often receive backlash and are denied justice because their behavior does not align with the stereotypical actions of someone who has been abused. But the truth is there is no such thing as the perfect victim.

After a majority of the public sided with Johnny Depp, survivors saw the horrific treatment Amber Heard received, including being made into memes and mocked endlessly on social media, receiving death threats, and likely having her career ruined. I have already had survivors contact me and share that they are scared that they may be the next target of ridicule, contempt, and hateful attacks simply because they are seeking justice against their abusers. They feel even less powerful because they lack the resources that Heard has at her disposal and are understandably afraid that something similar could happen to them. This trial and the commentary surrounding it has only confirmed their worst fears about telling their stories to the world.

Many adult survivors need years or decades to come to terms with their abuse and then may be afraid to come forward with their stories out of fear of retaliation by their abusers, the involved institutions or organizations, or their communities. This trial will only reinforce these fears. We as a society cannot determine the only “right” way for survivors to react to their abuse and discredit anyone who falls outside of that. Just because a person does or does not fight back, report their abuse, or respond emotionally when discussing their abuse does not discredit the fact that they are a survivor. Every person responds to trauma differently, and incorrect perceptions about the way survivors should look, act, or try to move forward from their abuse should not dictate whether or not a survivor gets justice.

Further, the power dynamics that were prominent in this case are often present in cases of sexual assault and abuse. It’s common that the power imbalance that allowed the abuse to happen in the first place leads to survivors having to go up against a person or organization that has the resources and power to try to silence them. In this case, an entire online fan base was creating, sharing, and commenting their support for Johnny Depp through content that was often hateful, toxic, and dismissive of survivors. This discourse, which is a perfect example of #MeToo backlash, sends a terrible message to survivors who are considering coming forward and trying to seek justice against powerful abusers.

This trial is also an example of a concerning trend in which those accused of abuse retaliate against those accusing them by claiming the accusations are defamation. In addition to this trial, we have seen it in other high-profile cases, such as those involving Marilyn Manson and Jeffrey Epstein. Survivors should have every option available to them, including coming forward anonymously or putting their name on a lawsuit, without fear of the repercussions. Tactics like defamation lawsuits are nothing more than a shameful attempt at discouraging survivors from using their voices to demand change.

Ultimately, this trial and verdict has felt more like a loss for all survivors than a loss for one. Throughout this trial, survivors were bombarded with toxic, hurtful jokes and hateful reactions to someone who experienced abuse and thought our justice system would reveal the truth. Because Amber Heard is a celebrity, it appears the general public deemed it acceptable to make light of what was clearly an abusive relationship. As someone who has seen the ways in which sexual assault, domestic abuse, and other types of violence can permanently and irreparably impact survivors, these are not subjects to be made light of or turned into a meme. Unfortunately, the fallout of this trial will extend far beyond these two celebrities and will silence survivors who otherwise may have come forward against their abusers.

Attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel has represented sexual abuse and assault survivors in high-profile cases such as the Larry Nassar litigation against The U.S. Olympic Committee, Michigan State University, and USA Gymnastics; sexual assault survivors at the University of Southern California; female students in Title IX lawsuits around the country; and clergy abuse survivors nationwide. Michelle recently obtained a record $44.6 million dollar verdict against Hilton Hotels for facilitating the sexual assault of a hotel guest. Michelle is licensed to practice in Texas and New York.