Domestic Abuse and the Johnny Depp V Amber Heard Trial
The recent trial of actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has turned public attention to the dynamics of domestic abuse. In this post we use our expertise to answer common questions raised by the trial about domestic abuse.
The highly publicised trial concerning events during the marriage of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has left social media awash with harmful myths and misconceptions about victims of abuse. In this post we will not be examining the trial or commenting on the innocence or guilt of either party instead we will be using our many years of experience in working with both male and female, victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse to answer some of the most commonly asked questions raised by the trial.
Can men be victims of domestic abuse?
Any person can be a victim of domestic abuse whether they are a man, woman or of another gender identity. While in the vast majority of cases domestic abuse is inflicted by men against a female partner domestic abuse can also be experienced by men. Men can experience domestic abuse from a partner or a former partner in heterosexual or same-sex relationships. Men can also be abused by family members and this can include ‘honour’-based abuse, such as forced marriage.
While domestic abuse is approached as a gendered crime by many organisations this approach does not exclude men but accepts the damaging effects that traditional gender roles have on both men and women. Traditional ideals of masculinity expect men to be dominant, unemotional and aggressive while identifying traits such as weakness, compassion and the ability to express emotions as 'feminine'. Men can feel that they need to suppress ‘feminine traits’ for fear of being ridiculed or not living up to expectations from family or friends. This means that male victims of domestic abuse are less likely to speak up about abuse they have suffered.
Data from the England and Wales crime survey (CSEW) on partner abuse for the year ending March 2018 shows that men were less likely to tell someone about the abuse that they suffered from their partner with only 50.8% of men telling someone compared to 81.3% of female victims. Male victims were also less likely to report abuse to the police (14.7% men, 18.4% of women), to Victim Support services (2.5% men, 10.8% women) or to a specialist support service (1.2% men, 7.3% women). For both male and female victims, the most common non-physical effect of the abuse was “mental or emotional problems” with 11% of male victims reporting that they considered taking their life due to partner abuse.
When considering whether men are just as likely to suffer from domestic abuse it should be noted that research has demonstrated that male violence towards women differs from female violence toward men. Women are much more likely to experience multiple incidents of abuse, different types of abuse including sexual violence and are at much greater risk of homicide. UK crime figures for 2021 showed that in 92% of domestic homicides the victim was female and the perpetrator male.
How would a 'real' victim behave?
The Depp/Heard trial has shown that many people still have the idea that survivors of abuse must meet certain standards and be the 'perfect' victim in order to be believed. Trauma can affect people in different ways and can lead to actions that other people may not understand as being 'normal'. A victim in an abusive relationship is not in a 'normal' position in that they are being hurt and abused by someone they have given their love and trust to.
The narrative most often associated with victims/survivors of domestic abuse is one of passivity. However, many female victims show resistance either by fighting back, managing the abuser's behaviour, recording or gathering evidence from incidents or seeking help. Victims may use violence or force in an effort to: stop the abuse that is being used against them, protect themselves and their children, or establish some form of equivalence within the relationship. Whatever their motives, as well as being at an increased risk of future abuse, those women that act aggressively toward an abusive partner are more likely to suffer injury themselves. An abusive male partner is far more likely to retaliate and inflict injury on a woman if she is the first in an incident to use or threaten violence or if she responds with violence herself.
Resisting the abuser aggressively can also lead to allegations of 'mutual violence' or 'couples violence' from services that victims turn to for help and support.
To find out more about the use of violent resistance visit our post violent resistance and domestic abuse.
What is mutual violence?
Firstly it is important to distinguish the difference between abuse within a relationship and disagreements. Different opinions between partners are completely normal within a healthy relationship. Abuse, however, is not the same as a disagreement, abuse is "the use of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological violence or threats in order to govern and control another person’s thinking, opinions, emotions and behaviour". (women's aid)
'Mutual violence' is a term given to the idea that both parties within a relationship are equally violent and abusive. However, this concept ignores our understanding of domestic abuse dynamics in that there is a primary perpetrator and a victim who is acting to defend themselves. When domestic abuse is a part of a relationship there can be no 'disagreement' or discussion between two equal partners.
The main objective of domestic abusers is to dominate and control their victims. Victims are more likely to be physically and psychologically injured and report feeling frightened, helpless, alone, and trapped. Primary perpetrators in an abusive relationship can often be identified by their efforts to maintain power and control within the relationship. Common behaviours may include:
Isolating the victim from their family, friends and any other structures of support
Using emotional abuse such as gas lighting, putting the victim down and diminishing their self-esteem
Creating fear in their victim using intimidation and threatening physical and/or sexual violence as well as threatening family members, children, personal belongings or pets
Dictating what the victim can wear, say and do.
Another important factor to consider is that a victim’s use of violence ends when the relationship ends or the abuser stops using abuse. However, the primary abuser will often continue to abuse their victim indefinitely and often more intensely as they feel a loss of control over their victim, either within the relationship or when it ends. The more control the abuser feels they are losing, the more abusive they may become.
Do women lie about domestic abuse and rape?
The myth that women routinely lie about domestic abuse and sexual violence is extremely damaging, the fear of not being believed can and does stop victims from reporting abuse. In 2013 The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) published a study on false allegations of domestic abuse and sexual violence. This indicated that false allegations are extremely rare. In the 17 month period that the study covered, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence. During the same period, there were 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape, 6 for making false allegations of domestic violence and 3 for making false allegations of both rape and domestic violence. The study also highlighted that a significant number of the cases where false allegations were used involved young, often vulnerable, people with nearly half involving people aged 21 years old and under.
The dynamics of domestic abuse mean that victims are doubted or not supported because:
they are judged as not acting in the way that victims are 'expected' to behave
they continued their relationship with the abuser
they have poor presentation such as being mentally unwell, chaotic or using substances whereas the abuser may present well and therefore appear more credible
they retracted statements in the past
there are no third-party witnesses to the abuse and violence because incidents took place behind closed doors.
It is essential that the dynamics of domestic abuse are understood by professionals and that victims of violence and abuse feel safe to come forward with their experiences and that they will be believed and supported.
How might the trial affect victims of abuse?
The issues discussed above are important for professionals to understand as they contain within them methods often used by abusers to discredit their victims and prevent them from coming forward. Perpetrators of domestic abuse may well present themselves as the real victim, claim abuse is mutual and/or that the victim is mentally ill or lying.
Many survivors have expressed the opinion that in a way the verdict of the trial doesn't matter, they have heard their colleagues, friends and family express views about who is and isn't a victim, seen them post memes that make fun of abuse and rape victims and are now aware that harmful myths about domestic abuse and sexual violence are now firmly back in the public consciousness. This can only make it harder for all victims of abuse to speak out about their experience without the fear of being ridiculed, disbelieved or not supported.
A note on child protection and allegations of mutual violence
DV-ACT believe that the safety of the children must always remain the primary concern and they should be protected from any violence or abuse within the home. When parents blame each other or disagree about who poses the main risk professionals involved in the family need to resolve this at an early stage, in particular, it must be clear which parent is the primary protector of the children when risks occur. It may be necessary to have an expert domestic abuse risk assessment completed that will set out the risks clearly, determine who the primary perpetrator is and make recommendations as to how to best manage the risks.
For those families living in a home where abuse and coercive controlling behaviours are being used, it is important that a safety plan is in place that will specifically address all the abusive behaviours being used. For our full guidance on safety planning with families please visit our post How to Complete Safety Planning with a Family and for coercive control risk management and safety planning please visit Coercive Control: Management and safety planning for social workers. We also have key insight from our experts to help support the work of professionals working with families here
References and resources
Women's Aid - Information and support - What is domestic abuse - https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/what-is-domestic-abuse/myths/
Enander, V. (2011). Violent women? The challenge of women's violence in intimate heterosexual relationships to feminist analyses of partner violence.
ONS, (2020). Partner abuse in detail, England and Wales: year ending March 2018 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/partnerabuseindetailenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2018#sources-of-support-sought-by-victims-of-partner-abuse
ONS, (2022). Homicide in England and Wales: year ending March 2021 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2021
The Guardian (2013) - False allegations of rape and domestic violence are few and far between https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/13/false-allegations-rape-domestic-violence-rare
Helplines are available in the UK as follows:
Call the UK police non-emergency number, 101, if you need support or advice from the police and it's not an emergency. Always call 999 in an emergency.
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
Respect phoneline for perpetrators of domestic abuse - 0808 8024040
Childline - 0800 1111 you can also go to https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/
NSPCC (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends) - 0808 800 5000 or Contact counsellors 24 hours a day by email or online reporting form email@example.com
Online community support - WithAbuse Talk you can join the discussion on domestic abuse through a weekly Twitter Chat every Wednesday 8-9pm GMT www.twitter.com/abusetalkonline there is also a forum https://jennifergilmour.com/community/ which is available 24/7 and even houses a solicitor who will answer questions and queries for no charge, and a podcast which delivers a series of interviews with those that work in the domestic abuse sector. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and more.
DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, programmes, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. To read more about us please visit our post - Who are DV-ACT?