The Amber Heard Verdict Could Silence a Generation of Women

A social media circus turned a defamation case into a popularity contest — and now survivors will pay the price.

The Amber Heard Verdict Could Silence a Generation of Women
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In 2018 Amber Heard wrote 11 words that would change the course of her life. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, she said, "Two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse." Similar declarations are made by survivors and victims every single day: words said in text messages to friends, police reports, and social media posts.And on June 1, 2022, those words led to Amber Heard being found guilty of defamation.When a survivor opens up about the abuse they have experienced, it can feel like they're taking back power and control. If that is what Heard was trying to do, this trial sends a loud and clear message to survivors like her, and me: That we don't have the right to tell our stories.

"I'm even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women," Heard, 36, wrote in a statement via Instagram that afternoon. "It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously."

I agree. What does this do to survivor stories? To our healing processes? To our ability to speak our truth? So often when survivors come forward to share stories, it's because we know we are not alone. We come forward for one another. Storytelling is an act of community care. I wish more people understood this.

The feeling in the pit of my stomach from the very beginning of this trial, one I still cannot shake, is that I don't believe people grasp the gravity of the situation. While survivors like myself furiously comb through our social media to see what tweet or Facebook post could be misconstrued as evidence against us, people in our lives say, 'it's no big deal; these are celebrities.' These celebrities, and the social media circus that surrounded their trial, will have tidal wave implications for free speech, effectively silencing women and other survivors who now know we can be punished for speaking our truth. Heard will have to pay $15 million in damages to her ex-husband, Johnny Depp, for those 11 words that did not include his name.

Even if I wasn't surprised by the outcome of the trial, the weight of this verdict is immense. As we say in the survivor community, "the body keeps score," which is the title a famous book on trauma and a school of thought on the physical effects that trauma survivors experience through their lifetimes. I have been raped three times. Sprinkled in between those violent attacks are other incidents of non-consensual sexual activity that fell into some kind of gray area. Like many of you reading this, my body has been riddled with violence and harm and those experiences changed the course of my life.

After Wednesday's verdict, it feels like the floor has fallen out from under us.

For the last 5 years, I have dedicated my life to survivor storytelling, not only telling my own stories of sexual violence but also supporting other survivors and victims as they decide to come forward.

When I'm working with a survivor who is preparing to tell their story in a public way, in almost every instance, the topic of a defamation case comes up. I tell these survivors that "the truth is not flexible" — and lawyers I've worked with agree. I used to feel deeply comforted by this stance. Now, after Wednesday's verdict, it feels like the floor has fallen out from under us. Amber Heard got on the stand, spoke her truth, and provided evidence of the personal details of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Johnny Depp — and she still was not heard. Or worse, she was simply ignored.

Depp's legal team strategically filed the case in the state of Virginia where the trial could be legally broadcast for public consumption. It felt like they were making a sport out of the abuse and trauma Heard reportedly experienced, as well as the bottle-throwing misbehavior she was in turn accused of. Our world often forgets that those impacted by sexual violence need to be met with care, compassion, and respect. However, this trial gave us all a front-row seat, and a stark reminder that the 'perfect victim' narrative is reinforced at every turn.

Supporters came out of the woodwork to tweet #JusticeServedForJohnnyDepp or deride and mock Amber Heard; even a makeup brand chose to get into the fray and call her testimony into question, while other celebrities took to their own TikToks to take sides. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee – the committee in charge of governing our constitutional rights – mocked survivors when they tweeted a celebratory GIF of Johnny Depp as the verdict was announced. Does no one see how this will trickle down? These posts send the message that women who come forward must be silenced, whether by the justice system, by public shaming, or a catastrophic combination of the two.

Amber Heard is a white, cis, able-bodied, thin, famous woman, and she was treated horrifically. It's vital to think about how whiteness, and the many other privileges she holds, played a role in this trial. How would this trial have looked different if Amber Heard were a woman of color? If she were trans, a person with disabilities, or a person experiencing homelessness? Survivors who live at these intersections will feel the impact of this verdict the most. Many of these survivors already are not believed in a legal system that was built on a foundation of white supremacy.

Though the verdict against Amber Heard is effectively a gag order against her, and sends a strong, silencing message to other survivors, it is more important than ever to use our voices in support of survivors. Listen to survivors and read our stories. Be mindful of how you talk about this verdict — and how you talk about survivors and victims as a whole. What they wore, how they acted, whether you ever were a friend or a fan or the accused: None of that matters and shouldn't enter the conversation. Sexual violence is one of the most underreported crimes, which means it's highly likely someone in your life has been impacted and you do not know. And the pandemic has worsened conditions at home for many in domestic violence situations, which may also not be shared.

Multiple things can be true at the same time. Survivors are not a problem to be fixed or solved, we are the people you love, and trauma takes time. But also, often in survivor-based work, folks want to move quickly, to polarize a situation, find a villain, and dig in. We as a society love to punish, but I'd rather see us move toward transforming harm rather than repeating it. We have to support storytelling. Survivors cannot be silenced in order for healing to prevail.

If you or someone you know is a survivor or victim of domestic violence and are looking for support, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. If you are looking to support survivors, Survived and Punished is a great place to start.

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