The sheer degree of media attention focused on the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, which included me being asked to do a number of interviews, really got me thinking. What is so wrong with today’s society that a case involving serious domestic abuse alleged by both parties could play out on social media and media outlets as entertainment?
The alleged victim of abuse found herself trolled on social media, received death threats and then had to try and justify herself to the whole world.
As I said publicly and repeatedly, the issues raised by this phenomenon go well beyond the identities of the victim and the perpetrator in this high profile case. The fact that proceedings were-live streamed onto YouTube; that alleged victims were given no confidentiality on or off the television screen; and that newspapers reported globally on the most intimate details of their relationship without regard to the risk or repercussions to either party must mean, surely, that hundreds of thousands of victims and survivors of domestic abuse, in any of its forms, would now be asking themselves the question ‘Did I ask for it’?
So, what do you think?
I was watching the BBC1 television series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ last week. The interesting, yet harrowing, genealogy of the actress Anna Maxwell Martin. From 1898 to 1906, her great grandfather was tried and convicted at least 4 times for assaulting his wife and sent to prison, once for 60 days. 1898 – 1906! On one of those occasions, he chose to represent himself legally and, as part of this, he cross-examined his wife and 14-year-old daughter in Court.
My immediate thought was that our criminal and civil justice system would appear to have hardly moved at all in the last century and a quarter.
Indeed, until almost the year 2000, a perpetrator was able to cross examine their alleged victim in a criminal Court, the practice only becoming illegal under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act (1999). Yet, in the Family Courts, this is still the norm, although, thankfully, as part of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, the practice is set to be abolished soon.
Those of us who work in the domestic abuse sector know all too well of cases where perpetrators walk free from court. We also know of many cases where perpetrators of domestic abuse have chosen to continue their abuse by defending themselves and cross examining their victims. From my experience as an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate (IDVA), this is one of the most traumatic and distressing things to witness in a family court.
We have all read about judges, the world over and also in the UK, who have victim blamed by suggesting that women have ‘asked for it’ in rape trials – by being drunk or wearing a skirt that is too short.
Researchers from the University of Surrey and Middlesex University, jointly conducted a study which was published in the British Journal of Psychology. They gave men and women interspersed quotes from British lad mags FHM, Loaded, Nuts and Zoo, as well as excerpts from interviews with convicted rapists.
The participants were unable to identify – with any consistency – which statements came from magazines and which came from convicted rapists. What’s more, they found the quotes from the magazines slightly more derogatory than those from the convicted rapists.
I regularly use this insight when facilitating Freedom Programmes as an example of how the society in which we live normalises the treatment of women as sexual objects, second class citizens, and possessions that should ‘do as they are told’….or face the consequences.
As recently as 2017, the judge at a criminal trial allowed a violent and controlling husband to walk free from Court with a suspended 18-month sentence because the judge did not consider the victim to be ‘vulnerable’. Why? Because, in this case, the judge determined that the victim was an intelligent woman, with a network of friends who had gone to university and got a 2.1 and a Masters. Her husband had already pleaded guilty to beating his wife with a cricket bat and forced her to drink bleach, strangled her in public and told her to kill herself!
Going back to the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, I witnessed at first hand the litany of misogynistic, abusive and degrading twitter conversations. The debates and conversations on social media reminded me of times gone by when people would gather in the village squares to watch people be hanged, drawn and quartered for entertainment.
I am a survivor of domestic abuse. So many times, I have had people say to me “You don’t look like a battered woman.”
So, I guess my question is this? How exactly should a ‘victim’ of domestic abuse look? How should they act? How should they be perceived? Are we supposed to conform to a stereotypical object of weakness – someone, say, who sits in the corner wearing oversized cardigans, crying all the time? There is a long-held myth about domestic abuse and violence; that it only happens to certain types of people.
Does the fact that most victims and survivors of domestic abuse are generally well-rounded, intelligent, human beings with a sense of humour, who live their lives to the full and go out and perhaps have a drink, wear short skirts – often single-handedly raising children on their own as well as working full time – mean that they have asked for the abuse they have encountered?
We, as a society, are surrounded, every day by stories such as I have mentioned, Court trials played out on social media and on our televisions. People are now determining – at a distance – other people’s honesty and integrity, people they don’t even know. How far have we, as a society come since 1906, when Anna Maxwell Martin’s great grandfather was convicted?
It seems to me we are going backwards to a point where victims and survivors of domestic abuse and violence will surely be too afraid to report the crimes perpetrated against them for fear of being ridiculed, disbelieved, trolled on social media.
As a Community Interest Company which supports thousands of victims and survivors of domestic abuse every year, NCDV will never be swayed by, nor tolerate, this deeply prejudiced treatment of human beings – which is why our mission remains to make domestic abuse socially unacceptable.
Sadly, we all have a long way to go.
Head Of Partnerships & Development Of Domestic Abuse Services